Palm Sunday is a Christian moveable feast that falls on the Sunday before Easter. The feast commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, an event mentioned in all fourcanonical Gospels.In many Christian churches, Palm Sunday is marked by the distribution of palm leaves (often tied into crosses) to the assembled worshippers.
The difficulty of procuring palms for that day’s ceremonies in unfavorable climates for palms led to the substitution of boughs of box, yew, willow, olive, or other native trees. The Sunday was often designated by the names of these trees, as Yew Sunday, or by the general term Branch Sunday.
Biblical basis and symbolism
In the accounts of the four canonical Gospels, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem takes place about a week before his Resurrection.
The symbolism is captured in Zechariah 9:9 “The Coming of Zion’s King – See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. It was perceived that Jesus was declaring he was the King of Israel to the anger of the Sanhedrin.
According to the Gospels, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, and the celebrating people there lay down their cloaks in front of him, and also lay down small branches of trees. The people sang part of Psalm 118: 25–26 – … Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord ….
The symbolism of the donkey may refer to the Eastern tradition that it is an animal of peace, versus the horse, which is the animal of war. A king came riding upon a horse when he was bent on war and rode upon a donkey when he wanted to point out he was coming in peace. Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem would thus symbolize his entry as the Prince of Peace, not as a war-waging king.
In many lands in the ancient Near East, it was customary to cover in some way the path of someone thought worthy of the highest honour. The Hebrew Bible (2Kings 9:13) reports that Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat, was treated this way. Both the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John report that people gave Jesus this form of honour. However, in the synoptics they are only reported as laying their garments and cut rushes on the street, whereas John specifies fronds of palm (Greek phoinix). In Jewish tradition, the palm is one of the Four Species carried for Sukkot, as prescribed for rejoicing at Leviticus 23:40.
The palm branch was a symbol of triumph and victory in the Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire, and became the most common attribute of the goddess Nike or Victory.For contemporary Roman observers, the procession would have evoked the Roman triumph, when the triumphator lay down his arms and wore the toga, the civilian garment of peace that might be ornamented with emblems of the palm. Although the Epistles of Paul refer to Jesus as “triumphing”, the entry into Jerusalem may not have been regularly pictured as a triumphal procession in this sense before the 13th century. In ancient Egyptian religion, the palm was carried in funeral processions and represented eternal life. The palm branch later became a symbol of Christian martyrs and their spiritual victory or triumph over death. In Revelation 7:9, the white-clad multitude stand before the throne and Lamb holding palm branches.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Palm Sunday was marked by the burning of Jack-‘o’-Lent figures. This was a straw effigy which would be stoned and abused. Its burning on Palm Sunday was often supposed to be a kind of revenge onJudas Iscariot, who had betrayed Christ. It could also have represented the hated figure of Winter whose destruction prepares the way for Spring.
Observance in the liturgy
The congregation in an Oriental Orthodoxchurch in India collects palm fronds for the Palm Sunday procession (the men of the congregation on the left of the sanctuary in the photo; the women of the congregation are collecting their fronds on the right of the sanctuary, outside the photo.
Dates for Palm Sunday
In Gregorian dates
Eastern and Oriental Christianity
In some of the Orthodox Church, Palm Sunday is often called the “Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem”, is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the liturgical year, and is the beginning of Holy Week. The day before is known as Lazarus Saturday, and commemorates Lazarus being raised from the dead. Unlike the West, Palm Sunday is not considered to be a part of Lent, the Eastern Orthodox Great Fast ends on the Friday before. Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday and Holy Week are considered to be a separate fasting period. On Lazarus Saturday, believers often prepare palm fronds by knotting them into crosses in preparation for the procession on Sunday. The hangings and vestments in the church are changed to a festive color – gold in the Greek tradition and green in the Slavic tradition.
The Troparion of the Feast indicates the resurrection of Lazarus is a prefiguration of Jesus’ own Resurrection:
- O Christ our God
- When Thou didst raise Lazarus from the dead before Thy Passion,
- Thou didst confirm the resurrection of the universe.
- Wherefore, we like children,
- carry the banner of triumph and victory,
- and we cry to Thee, O Conqueror of love,
- Hosanna in the highest!
- Blessed is He that cometh
- in the Name of the Lord.
Palm Sunday procession, Moscow, with Tsar Alexei Michaelovich (painting by Vyacheslav Gregorievich Schwarz, 1865)
Palm Sunday in Moscow, 1654.
Caption on the illustration: Abrieß der Muscowitischen Prozession am Palmsontag
In the Russian Orthodox Church, Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Ukrainian Catholic Church, Ruthenian Catholic Church, Polish, Bavarian and Austrian Roman Catholics, and various other Eastern European peoples, the custom developed of using pussy willow instead of palm fronds because the latter are not readily available that far north. There is no canonical requirement as to what kind of branches must be used, so some Orthodox believers use olive branches. Whatever the kind, these branches are blessed and distributed together with candles either during the All-Night Vigil on the Eve of the Feast (Saturday night), or before the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. The Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy commemorates the “Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem”, so the meaningfulness of this moment is punctuated on Palm Sunday as everyone stands, holding their branches and lit candles. The faithful take these branches and candles home with them after the service, and keep them in their icon corner as an evloghia (blessing).
In Russia, donkey walk processions took place in different cities, but most importantly in Novgorod and, since 1558 until 1693, in Moscow. It was prominently featured in testimonies by foreign witnesses and mentioned in contemporary Western maps of the city. The Patriarch of Moscow, representing Christ, rode on a “donkey” (actually a horse draped in white cloth); the Tsar of Russia humbly led the procession on foot. Originally, Moscow processions began inside the Kremlinand terminated at Trinity Church, now known as Saint Basil’s Cathedral, but in 1658 Patriarch Nikon reversed the order of procession. Peter I, as a part of his nationalisation of the church, terminated the custom; it has been occasionally recreated in the 21st century.
In Oriental Orthodox churches, palm fronds are distributed at the front of the church at the sanctuary steps, in India the sanctuary itself having been strewn with marigolds, and the congregation proceeds through and outside the church.
In ancient times, palm branches symbolized goodness and victory. They were often depicted on coins and important buildings. Solomon had palm branches carved into the walls and doors of the temple (1 Kings 6:29). Again at the end of the Bible, people from every nation raise palm branches to honor Jesus (Revelation 7:9).
Palm Sunday commemorates the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-9), when palm branches were placed in his path, before his arrest on Holy Thursday and his crucifixion on Good Friday. It thus marks the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Lent.
In the Roman Catholic Church, as well as among many Anglican and Lutheran congregations, palm fronds (or in colder climates some kind of substitutes) are blessed with an aspergillumoutside the church building (or in cold climates in the narthex when Easter falls early in the year). A solemn procession also takes place. It may include the normal liturgical procession of clergy and acolytes, the parish choir, or the entire congregation.
In the Catholic Church, this feast now coincides with that of Passion Sunday, which is the focus of the Mass which follows the service of the blessing of palms.
The palms are saved in many churches to be burned the following year as the source of ashes used in Ash Wednesday services. The Catholic Church considers the blessed palms to be sacramentals. The vestments for the day are deep scarlet red, the color of blood, indicating the supreme redemptive sacrifice Christ was entering the city to fulfill: his Passion and Resurrection in Jerusalem.
In the Episcopal and many other Anglican churches and in Lutheran churches, as well, the day is nowadays officially called “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday”; in practice, though, it is usually termed “Palm Sunday” as in the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer and in earlier Lutheran liturgies and calendars, to avoid undue confusion with the penultimate Sunday of Lent in the traditional calendar, which was “Passion Sunday”.
In the Church of Pakistan (a member of the Anglican Communion) on Palm Sunday, the faithful carry palm branches into the church, as they sing Psalm 24.
In many Protestant churches, children are given palms, and then walk in procession around the inside of the church while the adults remain seated.
It is customary in many churches for the worshippers to receive fresh palm leaves on Palm Sunday. In parts of the world where this has historically been impractical, substitute traditions have arisen.
For the Kurt Vonnegut book, see Palm Sunday (book).