Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

What Palm Sunday Means

–DD Emmons

There is both great joy and terrible sorrow associated with this day, the Sunday that begins Holy Week, the Sunday which immediately precedes the celebration of Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion of Our Lord.

It is a time of despair, confusion, and contradiction. The very people who applaud Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem that morning, shouting out “Hosanna” and words of adoration will, within a week, be crying, “Crucify Him.” They will go from acclaiming Him as the new King of Israel to urging His life be traded in favor of a convicted criminal; they will first praise Him and then mock Him. Even friends entering Jerusalem at His side will desert Jesus. All this discord will take place during one week beginning today, on what we call Palm Sunday.

Exuberant Crowds…

As we read in the Gospels, Jesus went to Jerusalem to join with throngs of other Jews to celebrate the Passover feast as had been prescribed in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. According to the Gospel of St. John, Jesus and many of his followers journeyed the short two miles from the village of Bethany on that Sunday, arriving outside Jerusalem. As was the custom, pilgrims that had already arrived in the city went out to greet newly arriving groups; some had never seen Jesus but had heard about the miracles attributed to Him and were caught up in the excitement.

Those arriving with and greeting Jesus were large in number as explained by John’s Gospel: “When the great crowd … heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out: ‘Hosanna! / Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, [even] the king of Israel’” (12:12-13).

This high praise was not lost on the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the people, who were present. They said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He said in reply, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out” (see Lk 19:39-40). The Pharisees reported the events back to the Jewish high council, the Sanhedrin, which regarded Jesus’ ever-growing popularity as a threat to their cozy relationship with the Romans. They were, in fact, planning to murder Him.

Previously, Our Lord had deliberately avoided popular acclaim, even fled, but this, upon entering Jerusalem, He accepts. Yet His actions are different than the people expected. He doesn’t present himself as a rival to Caesar; He is not the political messiah or the warrior king the multitude had clamored for. Instead of entering Jerusalem on a war horse or chariot, he enters on a donkey, a sign of peace; and not just any donkey, but one on which no one had ever sat, the prerogative of a king. Seeing Him on the donkey, the Jews surging around Him recalled the words of the Prophet Zechariah 500 years earlier:

“Exult greatly, O daughter Zion! / Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! / Behold: your king is coming to you; /a just savior is he, / Humble, and riding on a donkey, / on a colt, the foal of a donkey. / He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim / and the horse from Jerusalem” (Zec 9:9-10).

Riding on the borrowed donkey, Jesus made His humble entrance into the city while the crowds were scattering their garments before Him and waving their palm branches. This joyful scene belies the traitorous acts, sorrow and agony that will soon follow, belies that this triumphant hero will be crucified like a criminal.

Implication of the Palms…

Palms were symbols of life among the nomadic tribes, who, when crossing the desert, rejoiced at seeing the palm tree as it indicated an oasis with life-giving water was near. Palms have long been a sign of victory, success and glory. Victorious armies or leaders returning from the battlefield or a long military campaign were welcomed by the populace jubilantly waving palm branches. Despite Jesus’ peaceful manner, when the Jews waved the palms at Him and spread their clothing over which He rode, they were affording Him the honors of a conquering hero and simultaneously defying the Roman occupiers.

On Palm Sunday, we still go out to meet Him, carry the blessed palms, joyfully sing out our “HOSANNA!” and join in His triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. But soon our joy turns to somberness as, clutching our palm, we listen to the reading of Christ’s passion. We realize, once again, that His triumph, His true victory, will come through the cross. We know, as Jesus did, how Holy Week will end. We know that joy will turn to sorrow and then back to joy. We know that through the horror of His suffering, followed by the glory of His resurrection, good will trump over evil and life will triumph over death.

Reenacting Palm Sunday…

Soon after the Resurrection, Christians wanted to visit the sites of Christ’s passion and even reenact the incidents that had taken place, such as His entry into Jerusalem. But such activity would not be possible until the fourth century when Constantine became emperor of the Roman Empire and ended all religious persecution. Later in that century, a Spanish pilgrim named Eigera visited Jerusalem. In her diary, she recorded how Christians re-created the events of Holy Week. She wrote that they gathered outside the city on the Sunday before Easter and listened to one of the Gospels telling of Christ’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Then they marched together through the city gates while carrying olive or palm branches. Our Palm Sunday processions are akin to what Eigera witnessed 1,700 years ago.

By the ninth century, the procession with blessed palms had expanded beyond Jerusalem and during the Middle Ages became widespread throughout Europe. In the 17th century Christians were not only processing into church with palms but, during Mass, holding the palms while the Passion was being read.

Through the centuries, Palm Sunday and the procession of people holding palms would be celebrated in a variety of ways. Most typical was the blessing of the people and the palms at a place outside the church and then processing inside. The Church calls this day Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.