You might not realize it, but if you attended Ash Wednesday services then you started the season of Lent with palm branches. The ashes come from the burned palm fronds waved on Palm Sunday. Lent begins and ends with palm branches.
John is the only gospel to mention palm branches specifically. Palm branches were associated with victory. King Solomon had palm branches carved into the doors of the temple (1 Kings 6:29). This was an appropriate greeting for Jesus entering Jerusalem, but the victory people thought they were celebrating clearly turned out to be something different as the week went along. The crowds would not be celebrating come Friday.
Even today church attendance picks up on Palm Sunday and packs out on Easter, but not so much for the services in between. Sandwiched between the celebrations are the somber reflections of Holy Thursday commemorating Jesus' Last Supper and the night he was betrayed and Good Friday recalling Jesus' crucifixion. They feel much sadder and heavier, as they should. Many people like to go from victory to victory. Keep the mood festive and light. This spirit can reflect the search people bring to church. Worship becomes a motivational fix so we can get on with the rest of our lives. Spirituality gets reduced to going from one fix to another.
But the reality of Holy Week is that some victories can be misunderstood (Palm Sunday) and other victories can ignore the path that got there (Easter). Between the two is a cross. The cross teaches us that spiritual victory doesn't avoid pain but transforms it. Spiritual victory is not about God's power to steer us clear from suffering, but, rather, it is about God's power to enable us to face suffering and embrace it as an opportunity for God to do things that would not happen any other way.
There is a wonderful statement in the book of Revelation: "After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands."(7:9) This is a picture of heaven. People will be waving palm branches again. God's victory prevails in spite of all the crosses raised in this life. The palm branch we hold Sunday is a defiant act of faith in the face of all this world's ugliness. One day we believe it will all be transformed. One day everything will be put right. One day we will be greeted with palm branches because even with a cross looming, Christ kept going. Nothing stops God!