Our second reading from the Book of Revelation is one of the book’s most consoling passages for me. John is granted the vision of a multitude of souls that no one could count stretching as far as he could see “from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” When John asks who they are, he is told that they are the ones who have survived the time of great distress and are now being consoled by the Lamb himself, and now the Lamb himself is wiping away each tear. The iconic sign that these persons have suffered is the palm branch held in their hands. In Christian art and literature it is the palm branch that signifies the martyr for Christ. “Martyr” means one who has “given witness or testified” by their blood that they were a disciple of Christ. We first think of those who were put to death by the Roman Empire at the time of the book’s writing. Their faithfulness and perseverance through suffering revealed that their hearts were, in the end, with God.
To be a martyr in Christian understanding now goes beyond the shedding of blood. Saints, mystics and friends of God know well that martyrdom could be any suffering endured with an eye towards trust and love for God. We can all share in this martyrdom. How we persevere with God through trials is crucial. Suffering is a great sorrow in itself, but without God, it can become an avenue toward depression and even outright rejection of God. How do we turn our suffering back toward God, allowing him to draw some lasting good from it, either for ourselves or for others?
Suffering, decay and death are evils without God, and are a consequence of our fallen story. However, with God’s entry into the human story through Christ, these are transformed into a link with God if they are joined to the dying, death and resurrection of Christ. We do this by an act of our minds and souls willfully joining our hurts and sorrows to God each day. This is very difficult when we are hurting, and yet we do not have to be in a happy mood for this to be effective. “I unite my sorrows and sufferings to you O God for the good of ____,” is a simple act of entrustment to God. God then unites our cross to his and makes it a conduit of grace into our life and into the world.
What you and I offer to him can be likened to our “palm branch.” It is the area of our life that we have shown that we too are “with God” through it all. It could be the trial of faithfulness in marriage, sacrifice of self for others, purity of intent in relationships or the endurance of physical pain with appropriate medication. It could be the humility of confessing our sins with the consequences that it may bring, all for the cause of right. It may be our public witness to truths of the faith that may be unpopular at the moment. Paul and Barnabas gave witness to this type of martyrdom in our first reading. Christ calls us to unite ourselves to his suffering any time it enters our life. “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, they follow me” he says, and he says this to each of us. What will be your palm branch for eternity? What is the greatest testimony of love and trust in God in your life? Ask for the grace to know he is with you.
Opportunities for Holiness
1. Try entrusting something to God for the sake of others.
2. Name the palm branches in your life and of those around you.
Fr. Vander Steeg is pastor of St. Bernard Parish and St. Philip the Apostle Parish, Green Bay.