For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. Isaiah 53.2
In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry considers the palm as an example of mistaken judgments about beauty. Although she had once written the tree off as an object of beauty—going so far as to verbalize to herself, “Palms are not beautiful; possibly they are not even trees”—her mind was changed by her observations of how the palm recurs in the paintings of Matisse, as the tree itself and as a visual motif and source of a lovely “leaf-light.” Through Matisse, she comes to see that the palm is “everything I have always loved, fernlike, featherlike, fanlike, open—lustrously in love with air and light.”
I confess I remain philistine with regard to palms and the paintings of Matisse alike, though Scarry goes some ways towards convincing me. Were it my choice, I might prefer to celebrate this day in the style of another era, before the commercial spread of palm fronds far from their native climate, when northern churches processed with regionally appropriate foliage: pussy willows, spruce, or seasonal flowers. I don’t mean to criticize churches for adopting the plant actually attested by the Gospels, of course—simply to mark that I’m still growing acquainted with its particular beauty.
For Scarry, as for Plato, Aquinas, Plotinus, and many others beauty is “a ‘greeting.’” At the moment one comes into the presence of something beautiful, it greets you. It lifts away from the neutral background as though coming forward to welcome you—as though the object were designed to ‘fit’ your perception.” We may feel, encountering a beautiful object, that we have been permitted to be in its presence, that our perception, far from being necessary, is quite provisional. Beauty asserts its priority over us, as a leaf with the morning light shimmering through its serrations may halt us with joy even in the midst of the morning routine.
I spend a lot of time looking at leaves, like any gardener. The delicate, fringed leaves of an elderberry bush, tinged with purple; angular, red-green aronia leaves cutting through their buds; the almond curves of peach leaves arching away from the twig; leathery red oak leaves, still intact despite a year in my compost pile. My Nebraskan heart sings especially at the music of cottonwood leaves in a wind in midsummer.
Leaves, of course, serve several purposes in the permaculture garden besides heartening the soul. They are a free, yet invaluable source of organic matter, the most important soil amendment. In the canopy of a tree, they shade the ground, providing habitat for shade-loving organisms like mushrooms and reducing the need to water. Most important is the leaf’s role in photosynthesis: we can say without exaggeration that through harvesting sunlight, leaves provide the only free form of energy and the foundation of all animal life. Before it is anything else, the permaculture garden thus is a living means of gathering light from the sun, transforming that light into lovely leaves, spreading branches, and fruit to gladden the heart of man.
Though I’m agnostic on the palm, then, it does seem fitting to me that Christ should have ridden into Jerusalem on a carpet of leaves. The branches which had offered their own greeting in beauty to the people such a short time ago are now laid down to greet the one true Branch, with no beauty of his own. The photosynthetic foundations of life on earth become the ground over which the true Cornerstone passes.
Yet the Branch of Jesse does not precisely greet the people in Scarry’s sense, at least not as the passage above from Isaiah would have it. To say that the Branch of Jesse has no beauty is to say that he does not demand our attention. Humble, riding on a donkey, Christ does not make us provisional in our own senses, does not assert his priority over us. Though we behold him, we are not—at least at first—welcomed by him, but pass him by as if he were nothing more than another weed springing up from a crack in the sidewalk.
Our hearts are changeable, and so we readily pass by the humble beauty of the leaf. By the conclusion of the Palm Sunday liturgy, we will turn on the Branch and trample him under our feet like belligerent toddlers in the asparagus patch. We will shout, “Crucify him!,” the palms with which we proclaimed his lordship still clutched in our lowered hands.
No, there is no beauty that the Branch could offer us that would retain the attention of our restless hearts, no leaf-light that would halt the brutal daily round of getting and doing and having. If it was beauty that saved us, Palm Sunday would have to be quite a different holiday. As it is, we turn our attention today, as we look toward Holy Week, from the verdant palms to a tree bare of leaves, adorned rather with thorns. Thorns, and a single strange fruit. We wait, palms lowered, to see whether our greeting will be returned.