Palm Sunday: History, Mystery, Practice

[This was originally posted a year ago, but when I found myself reviewing it for my own sake, I realized that I should re-post it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.]

With the ceremonies of Palm Sunday, Holy Week begins. The Liturgy of the Hours uses a new antiphon for the Invitatory, and the chants or hymns for the various hours are different. The readings take on new themes.  In various ways, the Church encourages us to see the coming week is a distinct time with its own character.

The rubrics for Palm Sunday offer several options to to accommodate different circumstances, but they present one scenario as the ideal to keep in mind:

  1. The priest and the people begin in some other church besides the one where Mass will be celebrated, or in some other suitable place.
  2. After a blessing of the palms and a reading of the gospel about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the priest and the people process into the main Church holding palms, in imitation of what happened on that dusty road into Jerusalem so many years ago.
  3. Along the way they sing an ancient chant traditional for today, “The children of the Hebrews, carrying olive branches, went to meet the Lord, crying out and saying: Hosanna in the highest.” Alternatively, everyone sings the song “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” which has also been sung on this day since antiquity.
  4. Mass then proceeds as usual, except that the gospel consists of the entire passion story taken from one of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke).

History

The liturgical books refer to this Sunday as “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord,” and we usually just refer to it as “Palm Sunday.” But it has had other names in the past. Here are just a few:

  • Hosanna Sunday, in allusion to the acclamation with which the people greeted Jesus at his entry into Jerusalem.
  • Pascha Floridum or “Easter of Flowers,” because the feast of the Pasch or Easter, which is only eight days away, can almost be seen in bud today, and the faithful could begin from this Sunday to fulfil the Church’s command that everyone has to receive communion at least at Easter. When the Spanish discovered the peninsula on the Gulf of Mexico on Palm Sunday of 1513, they called it Florida in honor of the day.
  • Capililavium or “Hair-washing day,” because when it was customary to wait on baptizing infants until Holy Saturday then parents took the occasion of this day to wash the baby’s head out of respect for the holy chrism that would be used to anoint him.

The procession with palms originated in Jerusalem at the time of the Church’s “unboxing”. St. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem at the time, took advantage of the sacred places around him to commemorate the events that happened there, and pilgrims to Jerusalem took the practice back to their homes all over the world.

In the following century, we find this ceremony established, not only in the churches of the east, but also in the monasteries of Egypt and Syria. At the beginning of Lent, many of the monks obtained permission from their abbots to retire into the desert in order to spend the sacred season in strict seclusion, but they were obliged to return to their monasteries for Palm Sunday.

In the west, the introduction of this ceremony was more gradual; we first find evidence of it at the end of the sixth or the beginning of the seventh century. When missionaries took faith north in the 600s, it was not possible to have palms or olive branches, so the people used branches from other trees. When I lived in Austria, people used willow branches on Palm Sunday, and other branches have become traditional in other parts of Europe.

Mystery

Like most of the Church’s liturgies, the ceremonies of Palm Sunday refer to the past, to the present, and to the future.

Past.  Most obviously, the procession looks back to what happened that day long ago outside of Jerusalem. The synoptic gospels set the scene carefully: even though we know from John’s Gospel that Jesus visited Jerusalem several times during his ministry, the synoptic gospels are silent about any visit to Jerusalem before this one. It is the entry of the Messiah into his city.

The moment is not lost on the people. As they throw garments and palm branches in front of Jesus, they sing from Psalm 118, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed be the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” (Mark 11:9-10) Ancient Jewish interpretations of Psalm 118 saw it as describing the coming of the Messiah to his city to redeem and save it. The Midrash even describes a scene in which the people of Jerusalem are standing on the spires of the city to see the king coming, and as the king’s procession reaches the city the people all sing Psalm 118 as an antiphonal choir.  Not by coincidence, this is the first psalm in Morning Prayer for today.

Matthew emphasizes the point by quoting Zechariah 9:9, which is the short reading for Morning Prayer today.  In context, this prophecy describes the salvation of Israel from all his enemies on the last day and the eternal peace of the Messiah’s reign.

Jerusalem, and most especially the Temple, was seen as symbolic of the world. Each of the synoptics has a scene in between the triumphant entry and the passion in which Jesus speaks about the end of the world by talking about the destruction of the Temple. So the Messiah coming to Jerusalem and entering the Temple signified the redeemer come to save all creation. It was a moment not only of triumph for Jesus but of joy for the world.

At this point, the gospel story slows down to focus on the drama of the following week. Mark’s Gospel only has sixteen chapters in all: chapters one through ten tell all of Jesus’ ministry up to this point, while chapters eleven through sixteen focus on just this one week. During this all-important week, the leaders and their people falter and fail at the coming of the savior; they had waited so long for the Messiah, but when he finally came they were not ready. Luke captures the point (19:41-44):

When he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast a bank about you and surround you . . . and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

By the end of the week, the leaders and the people have decided to kill their savior.

Present. It is all too easy to read the foregoing history with a sense of complacency: Stupid people, who didn’t know the time of their visitation! But the reality is that Jesus is coming to renew our baptismal grace at Easter, he is coming to his Church to bring a renewed salvation in just one week, and we have to ask whether we are ready. We have waited a long time, all through Lent, preparing for this time, and today he enters to begin his action in our hearts. All of Holy Week, he is present in a special way and working within us to renew his death and resurrection in his Mystical Body. Will we recognize the time of our visitation? Has our Lent been a success—or do we need to make rapid progress in the few days remaining before the Easter Vigil?

Future. Like the Jews, who understood the original Palm Sunday as the coming of the Messiah at the end, we too look forward to the day when Jesus will enter the world in triumph to take his Mystical Body with him through the gates of heaven. That day should be a day of joy for every believer, but at this part of the gospel story Jesus tells parables about the need for readiness. When the final day comes, will we be ready for our visitation? Will the master find us waiting with lamps lit, or will he find us all sleeping and taking our ease? When the bridegroom comes, will we have oil in our lamps? Ready or not, he will come, and when he does then he will make the triumph of Holy Week visible and definitive for all his Mystical Body.

Practice

During the procession today, the key-word to hold in mind is joy. Enter into the joy of the disciples as their master entered his city in triumph. Believe that Jesus enters his Church today in grace, and greet him with joy: in past ages, the Eucharist or the Gospel was sometimes carried in this procession to emphasize that Jesus really comes now. Our hearts should rise to greet him, and the song should be sincerely our own: “All glory, laud and honor, to thee redeemer king!” Think of how joyous it will be on that last day, when Jesus comes to end all sorrow and take us to be with him forever.

But as Mass begins, the focus turns to our Lord’s passion. Now the key-word is scrutiny. The most solemn commemoration of our Lord’s passion will take place next Friday, but today the lengthy passion story is an opportunity for self-examination: now that Jesus has come, which character will I be in the passion story? When I kiss the cross on Good Friday, I pray that I will never play the role of Judas, who consciously betrayed Jesus with a pretence of affection! But it would be easy for me to be like Peter, who was so cock-sure of his own strength and readiness that he failed at the moment of grace. Or to be like the other disciples, who simply fled for fear of suffering.

It would easiest of all to be like the crowds in Jerusalem who follow the enthusiasm of whatever is going on around them:  when everyone cheers, they cheer, but when everyone says “Crucify him,” they go along with that, too. During the gospel we should put ourselves in the role of the crowds and speak along with them as an examination of conscience. Is this really me? What should I do this coming week to be truly ready for what Jesus wants to do in me?

This movement from joy to sober reflection is the distinctive flow of Palm Sunday.  The joy lifts us out of Lent and the transition toward self-examination brings us into the Holy Week.  It is like a gate through which we exit one sacred season and enter a still more sacred time.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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2 Comments on "Palm Sunday: History, Mystery, Practice"

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Peter Kwasniewski
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The sad thing is that so few Catholics ever do processions of any kind, even on Palm Sunday, when it is called for in a special way. (Indeed, the old rubrics called for a “long” procession.) At the noon Mass in the usus antiquior, we did the procession, sang the Gloria Laus, and many other things mentioned in your article. But mostly only students attended. It was good for them to see, but would it not be even better for small children to see it and be formed by it, too? Ah, the difficulties of our situation. Perhaps someday parishes,… Read more »
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