The private school I attended under academic scholarship for a few years had its own knock-off version of the Scouts for older kids. Every Tuesday you’d front up to classes in your army surplus gear and then, after school, there’d be lessons on bushcraft or marching drills or whatever.
Somewhat improbably, I joined. Having at least one extra-curricular activity was mandatory. It was either that or basketball and I hate basketball. (Ended up switching my faux-scouts for the choir like a true rebel the next year. The lengths I will go to avoid team sporting activities know no bounds.)
Anyway, in my second year at the school; Year 8 for non-New South Welshmen; the faux scouts combined their (also mandatory) Easter camping trip with the (mandatory!) annual camp experience for all of Year 8 in Wallaroo National Park. Fun, right? If you’re forced to go camping it may as well be with your 70 closest friends. And it was fun. We got to watch the school principal ladle out what he insisted was goulash from the (brand new) garbage cans they had been cooked in. One of the girls my friends and I had a crush on also insisted it was goulash and kept going back for extra bowls… which impressed and terrified us. Because it was garbage onions with mystery meat, dammit. I drank so much instant coffee I got the shakes and had to crawl into my sleeping bag and lie there with my teeth chattering uncontrollably. We spent the first couple of days bushwalking, being led by teachers who -thinking back on it- really, really were not trained correctly. Saw loads of snakes. Learned how to clean a pocket knife in the bush. Unsuccessfully tried to impress another girl I had a crush on by making some shit up about UFOs one night. (Begin as you mean to continue, eh?)
It probably would have got pretty old by the end of the week but we were mercifully flash-flooded out -the 12 person army tent my idiot friends and I erected was completely washed away- and we were evacuated to a nearby township community hall… where we were picked up the next morning by concerned parents. I still retain the visual memory of this string of late-model cars lining up down the main road of a not-that-wealthy rural town.
The night before the flooding, we were told there would be a Palm Sunday service. Everyone rolled their eyes like the cool thirteen-year-olds we were. Having had an entirely Godless childhood up until attending this Anglican school, I still hadn’t quite got used to the weekly church services, monthly Eucharists in the cathedral and so on. (Though I’m appreciative of it now. I even got to play Pontius Pilate in the cathedral when we did the Passion Play. Born to the role, obviously.)
Watching the scary cathedral deacon -whom we all called Quasimodo in a surprisingly creative act of schoolyard teasing (though never to his face)- setting up in a clearing beside the campsite, thirteen-year-old Gordon was dismayed. Even being in the middle of the bush couldn’t save us from ninety minutes of churchy jibber jabber.
Eventually the cathedral clergy showed up and the school campers gathered in the clearing and sat down, toward the end of sunset and as the stars started to appear overhead. And I’m talking lots of stars. A cloudless, early-Autumn night in an area completely devoid of light pollution. Being Palm Sunday, we were all handed little woven palm crosses -equilateral ones that looked like throwing stars. My memory of the event is that the priests really brought their A-Game. It was a full Eucharist; robes, incense, (travel?) Chalice, etc. They probably quite enjoyed it.
I kept turning the palm cross over in my hand, and looking up at the canopy of stars behind the raised dais/altar area at the front, listening to the wind in the gum trees and smelling the eucalyptus woodsmoke from the fire mixing with the church incense. This was probably the first time it occurred to me that There Is Something To All This… rituals and objects and place and myth. And it was that winter that I started having what I assume were a string of un-remembered dreams that dropped me onto the magical path that led me to… well, wherever ‘here’ is.
Clearly, the setting played a big role in my experience of the Palm Sunday service. But the myth itself -with the benefit of hindsight- may have had some influence on it.
- The Logos on a donkey/ass is a fairly transparent allusion to the indwelling of spirit in flesh.
- The palm itself is interesting. Either it is a typological echo of the Sacred Tree/Ancestor/Resurrection motif we find in Osiris and all the way back to Gondwana stories or it is a remnant of Near Eastern kingship rituals where the king’s feet do not touch the earth, now having found its way, four thousand years later, to an Australian national park filled with thirteen year olds and garbage onions.
- Or both. A triumphal entry into Jerusalem -ever the stand-in for the whole world- is both a ritual of the descent of spirit into flesh and how we overcome it and return to the source as well as the ‘royal claiming’ of the entire physical realm.
I think it probably has more to do with the Tree/Resurrection/Overcoming Death/Osirian-style mytheme than the kingship one, as it has been bundled into the wider Resurrection story. Here’s a translated 10th Century Anglo-Saxon sermon from A Clerk of Oxford:
‘It is the custom in God’s church, established by its teachers, that everywhere in God’s congregation the priest should bless palm-branches on this day, and distribute them, thus blessed, to the people; and God’s servants should then sing the hymn which the Jewish people sang before Christ when he was coming to his Passion. We imitate the faithful ones of that people with this deed, for they carried palm-branches with hymns before the Saviour. Now we shall hold our palms until the singer begins the offering-song, and then we shall offer the palm to God because of what it signifies: a palm betokens victory.
Christ was victorious when he overcame the mighty devil and rescued us, and we also shall be victorious through God’s power, so that we conquer our evil habits, and all sins, and the devil, and adorn ourselves with good works; and at the end of our life we shall deliver the palm to God, that is, our victory, and thank him fervently, that we through his help have conquered the devil, so that he could not deceive us.’
That last, faintly confusing component about the Devil suggests the Tree is associated with what perishes and What Remains… ie securing immortality. The Devil’s ‘deception’ in this case becomes a gnostic, Demiurgic one… confusing the physical for the non-physical and assuming only the former exists.
And, of course, Palm Sunday is a ‘moveable feast’ (as was the service itself). It’s the Sunday before Easter Sunday which is the first one after the full moon after the Spring Equinox. So it already marches to a very Mesopotamian beat.
Obviously absolutely none of this occurred to thirteen-year-old Gordon, or probably anyone else there (though I have my suspicions about one of the priests who I think now was a full-blown esotericist). And also I’m not sure if there are any connections between this ritual event and my subsequent embarkation along magical roads. But the sequence is suggestive.
So this is my Palm Sunday consideration. I turn from memory lane to wondering what currents run down old wires and just where it is that the fusebox may be located.