On Sunday we will join the rest of the world in the celebration of Palm Sunday, which originated in the Jerusalem Church, around the late fourth century.
Palm Sunday, the sixth Sunday in Lent begins Holy Week, the final week of Lent, which led to Jesus’ agonising death and His resurrection.
The disciples of Jesus’ day did not understand the significance of that day and many still fail to grasp its magnitude.
Initially, Palm Sunday celebrations consisted of prayers, hymns, and sermons recited by the clergy while the people walked to various holy sites throughout the city. At the final site, the place where Christ ascended into heaven, the clergy would read from the gospels concerning the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
In the early evening they would return to the city reciting: “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.” The children would carry palm and olive branches as the people returned through the city back to the church, where they would hold evening services.
Changes made in the sixth and seventh centuries resulted in two new Palm Sunday traditions: the ritual blessing of the palms, and a morning procession instead of an evening one. By the time it was adopted by the Western Church in the eighth century, the celebration received the name “Dominica in Palmis,” or “Palm Sunday”.
Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The four gospels record the arrival of Jesus riding into the city on a donkey, while the crowds spread their cloaks and palm branches on the street and shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” to honour him as their long-awaited Messiah and King.
We might ask how triumphant is Jesus riding a donkey, surely in war that stubborn creature may not respond favourably if it responds at all.
The significance of riding a donkey and having His way paved with palm branches is a fulfillment of a prophecy spoken by the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9). There was a Biblical custom where kings and nobles rode on the backs of a donkeys as a symbol of their peaceful intention. The laying of palm branches indicated that the king or dignitary was arriving in victory or triumph.
Modern Palm Sunday traditions are much the same as they have been since the tenth century. The ceremony begins with the blessing of the palms. The procession follows, then there is the celebration of the Mass.
But Palm Sunday is an important piece of the puzzle in understanding that Jesus came not to rule on earth as His disciples and others thought.
The people were on Jesus’ side. The authorities were afraid, trying time and again to trap Him before trumping up bogus charges against Him. But it is not about them.
Palm Sunday begins a period of Jesus giving in to the will of God despite the lure of popularity, power, fame and everything we hold on to as important. Jesus agonised because he knew what was to come; but he gives us an example that no matter how dire the circumstances may appear we must trust in and depend on God.
“And He humbled Himself and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”