Palm Sunday according to Christian tradition is the Sunday before Easter. On this day it is remembered the entry into Jerusalem of Jesus, celebrated by the crowds waving palm branches (Gospel according to John Cap. 12, 12-15). The multitude assembled from the rumors of the Messiah’s arrival, to honor him, laid capes and palm leaves on the ground as he passed by, while others joyfully waved the branches cut from the trees around them. A true recognition of the election of Christ by the people who angered the leaders of the religious institutions of the time, including many of the sacerdotal caste and the scribes.
In most liturgical churches Palm Sunday is celebrated by the blessing and distribution of palm branches or the branches of other native trees representing the palm branches the crowd scattered in front of Christ as he rode into Jerusalem. The difficulty of procuring palms in unfavorable climates led to their substitution with branches of native trees, including box, olive, willow, and yew. The Sunday was often named after these substitute trees, as in Yew Sunday, or by the general term Branch Sunday.
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Biblical basis and symbolism
In the accounts of the four canonical Gospels, Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem takes place a week before his resurrection. Only the Gospel of John shows a timeline of the event, dated six days before the Passover (John 12, 1).
Before this, Jesus talked to two of his disciples, taking to himself the ancient Greek word of Lord (Κύριος, trasl. Kýrios), written with a capital letter in the original text, as a proper noun.
The raising of Lazarus is mentioned only by the Gospel of John, in the previous chapter. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches which follows the Byzantine Rite, commemorate it on Lazarus Saturday, following the text of the Gospel. In fact, the Jewish calendar dates begin at sundown of the night beforehand, and conclude at nightfall.
Christian theologians believe that the symbolism is captured prophetically in the Old Testament: 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”, which is quoted in the Gospels. It suggests that Jesus was declaring he was the King of Israel, to the anger of the Sanhedrin.
According to the Gospels, Jesus Christ rode a donkey into Jerusalem, and the celebrating people there laid down their cloaks and small branches of trees in front of him, singing 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 palm branches
According to the Gospels, Jesus the Christ came to Jerusalem on a donkey, while many of the celebrating multitudes spread their capes and palm branches on the road as he passed by, singing the verses:
Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! 10 Blessed is the kingdom that comes, the kingdom of David, our father! Hosanna in the highest places!
(Gospel according to Mark 11, 9)
Jesus sends two disciples to borrow the animal, telling them to answer:
“The Lord needs it, but He will send it back right away”.
(Mk 11, 3-4 ; Lc 19, 31-34 ; Mt 21, 3)
The Catholic liturgy celebrates the event by singing the hymn Hosanna to the Son of David at the beginning of the celebration.
Jesus’ entry into the Temple takes place one week before his resurrection from death on the cross, and this event is described in: Matthew 21, 1-11 ; Mark 11, 1-11 ; Luke 19, 28-44 ; John 12, 12-18.
Palm Sunday is one of the few cases where the Gospel according to John is “more historical” than the synoptics, and the one that provides elements of dating (Gospel according to John Cap. 12, 1 & 12-13):
1 Jesus went to Bethany six days before Easter, where Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead, dwelt.
12 The next day, a great multitude who had come to the feast, hearing that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13 took some palm branches and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!”.
So, six days before the Jewish Passover, the crowd of Jews who were preparing and gathering for the pilgrimage of the feast of Sukkot, came to Bethany where Jesus and Lazarus were located. Therefore, since the celebration of the Jewish Passover begins on the day of Shabbat (Saturday), and in Jewish custom the days are counted from the evening of the day before to the sunset of the next, the day indicated by the Evangelist John as the entrance to Jerusalem falls on Sunday.
The palm trees on the ground celebrated the regality of Jesus, since in many lands in the ancient Near East, it was customary to cover the land crossed by someone deemed worthy of the highest honor (2Kings 9, 13). And also in Jewish tradition, the palm is one of the majestic species of trees, carried in procession for the feast of Sukkot, a week of joy and thanksgiving prescribed by GOD according to Leviticus 23, 40 after the spring harvest. In areas where there is scarcity or absence of native palm trees, these branches are replaced by olive trees, or intertwined flowers and leaves, as in northern Europe.
The donkey preferred to the horse
The Gospels report that the Messiah came riding a donkey, so that the Scriptures were fulfilled, as it is written in the Book of the Prophet Zechariah in Chapter 9, 9-10:
9 Exult greatly, O daughter of Zion, send forth cries of joy, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, thy king cometh unto thee; he is righteous, and bringeth salvation, humble, and mounted upon an donkey, upon an donkey’s foal.
10 I will make the chariots from Ephraim disappear, and the horses from Jerusalem; the bows of war will be destroyed. He shall speak peace to the nations; his dominion shall extend from sea to sea, and from the river to the end of the earth.
A donkey and not a horse as a burden animal. If the donkey is identified as a peaceful and humble animal, the horse is considered to be an animal of war, as reported by the Prophet Jeremiah in chapters 4 and 6. So Jesus enters Jerusalem as the prophesied King of Israel, but as a humble and peaceful ruler, the Prince of Peace:
“I came not to judge the world, but to save it.”
(John 12, 47)
Usually believers bring home the blessed olive and palm branches, to keep them as a symbol of peace, exchanging part of them with relatives and friends.
Over time this important anniversary seems to have changed, but originally it was not simply a day in honor of peace, but a day to remember how much courage and faith in GOD the Messiah had shown when he entered Jerusalem and went against his capture. For a long time Jesus avoided being found in public because he was hunted down by the authorities, even though he was falsely accused. But for the occasion of Pesach (the Jewish Passover) he did not back down before his duty as a believer, observing the law prescribed in the Bible about going to the Temple (Book Exodus chapters 23 v. 17 ; Chap. 34 v. 23 and Deuteronomy chapter 16 v. 16):
“Three times a year, every male of yours shall appear in the presence of the LORD.”
Historical references of the tradition
We have information about the blessing of the palm trees starting from the 7th century in conjunction with the growing importance given to the procession. This has been witnessed in Jerusalem since the end of the 4th century and was almost immediately introduced into the liturgy in Syria and Egypt.
In the West, on the other hand, this Sunday was reserved for pre-baptismal ceremonies, initially this sacrament was administered at Easter (as reported in the Code of Canon Law Chap.1 Can. 856), at the solemn beginning of Holy Week, then, blessing and procession of the palm trees came into use much later, first in Gaul (7th-8th century) and then in Rome from the end of the 11th century.
This Christian tradition has lost much of its meaning over time, surely everyone has the right to maintain the traditions they want and celebrate in the best way they think they should, but the teaching on this important day should also have remembered the historical event. We can learn at least five fundamental events in the history related to Palm Sunday and we will try to list them below:
1 The Liturgical Revolution
12 And Jesus entered the Temple of GOD and drove out all who sold and bought in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of robbers.” 14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the Temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant; 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise’?”
(Matthew Cap. 21)
The expulsion from the Temple of Sinners represents the change of doctrinal course, the revolution (from “revolution” in Latin revolutio -onis “to return”), that is, the return to pure Faith, the one that was lost then, and the one that is increasingly is loosing today.
2 The death of sinners
18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside he went to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20 When the disciples saw it they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and never doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
(Matthew Cap. 21)
The fig curse is, at first sight, a difficult action to understand. Since it was not the right season, the lack of fruits was not the fault of the fig tree, however it is a symbolic action typical of the prophets, with which Jesus wants to give a spiritual teaching: to condemn an old, outdated and only exterior religiosity, symbolized only by the leaves, but without the fruits (the ceremonies and sermons, but without the works and fruits).
3 The victory of the Righteous
41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the LORD’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of GOD will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”
(Matthew Cap. 21)
The Temple will be given to those who will bear fruit, this is a Divine promise, and all the Promises will be fulfilled. The Messiah is aware of this, and he does not bother to risk his life to prove it to the people.
4 The Truth endures forever
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet.
(Matthew Cap. 21)
The decision was made to kill Jesus because his thought and knowledge was too uncomfortable for the institutions. A man who claimed to be the Son of GOD quoting Psalm 82 in verse 6, but who also gave this privilege to all other “righteous in heart”. Jesus taught how to pray by saying “Our FATHER“, therefore he did not simply call his “FATHER” but the FATHER of all, otherwise he would have started the prayer by saying: “My FATHER”. A man who was willing to die for the Truth, but unfortunately yesterday like today, this Truth seemed to be an obstacle to the governors’ plans, a threat to those who believe he had to rule over the weak. Instead of educating the masses, the rulers have always preferred to keep them in ignorance, telling them fairy tales instead of history, worried that one day they would lose their privileged positions. But the wicked do not take GOD into account, man does not have the power to change what the Plan of GOD provides, and so if Jesus’ body turned out to be mortal, his Soul, his thought and his work will remain so that those who believe they will be guided to the Messianic Era. Jesus, the great master of faith is alive and present today more than ever, but not by the waving of an olive branch, but by sharing and spreading his teachings.
5 Passing on the teachings
No one should simply celebrate a feast because it is a tradition, and without even knowing what it means. Our children and future generations can prosper only in the presence of Knowledge:
6 My people perish from lack of knowledge. For thou hast scorned the knowledge, I will also despair to have thee for a priest: for thou hast forgotten the Law of thy GOD, I will also forget thy children.
(Hosea 4, 6)
The Bible commands precisely this in the Law, just after the list of the 10 Commandments, reminds one of how important it is to remember and teach one’s children:
1 “Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD your GOD commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it; 2 that you may fear the LORD your GOD, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life; and that your days may be prolonged. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them; that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the LORD, the GOD of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.
4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our GOD is one LORD;5 and you shall love the LORD your GOD with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
10 “And when the LORD your GOD brings you into the land which he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you, with great and goodly cities, which you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which you did not hew, and vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant, and when you eat and are full, 12 then take heed lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 13 You shall fear the LORD your GOD; you shall serve him, and swear by His Name.
- Frood, J. D.; Graves, M. A. R. (1992). Seasons and Ceremonies: Tudor-Stuart England. Elizabethan Promotions.
- Вход Господень в Иерусалим. Богослужебные указания для священнослужителей. (Составитель протоиерей Виталий Грищук) – СПб.: Санкт-Петербургская православная духовная академия, 2013г. (в формате iBooks).
- (EN) Julian Morgenstern, 3. Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, su Some Significant Antecedents of Christianity, google.it /libri, p. 16.
- Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary (David C. Cook, 2007), p. 272.
- Vioque, Martial, Book VII: A Commentary, p. 61.
- Reidar Hvalvik, “Christ Proclaiming His Law to the Apostles: The Traditio Legis-Motif in Early Christian Art and Literature,” in The New Testament and Early Christian Literature in Greco-Roman Context: Studies in Honor of David E. Aune (Brill, 2006), p. 432; Guillermo Galán Vioque, Martial, Book VII: A Commentary, translated by J.J. Zoltowski (Brill 2002), pp. 61, 206, 411; Anna Clark, Divine Qualities: Cult and Community in Republican Rome (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 162.
- John Pairman Brown, Israel and Hellas (De Gruyter, 2000), vol. 2, p. 254ff.
- Bart D. Ehrman, Gesù è davvero esistito? Un’inchiesta storica, Mondadori, 2013, pp. 205-206, ISBN 978-88-04-63232-0.
- Corrado Augias e Mauro Pesce, Inchiesta su Gesù, Mondadori, 2011, pp. 140-145, ISBN 978-88-04-57132-2.