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Celebrating Palm Sunday In Bethlehem02:07

Celebrating Palm Sunday In Bethlehem

Celebrating Palm Sunday in Bethlehem. According to the New Testament the holiday marks Jesus' final entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before he was crucified. 03/16/08

PalmSunday FelixLouisLeullier

'Entry into Jerusalem' by Felix Louis Leullier

Palm Sunday is a Christian moveable feast which always falls on the Sunday before Easter Sunday. The feast commemorates an event mentioned by all four Canonical Gospels Mark 11:1-11, Matthew 21:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, and John 12:12-19: the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in the days before his Passion. It is also called Passion Sunday or Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion.

In many Christian churches, Palm Sunday is marked by the distribution of palm leaves (often tied into crosses) to the assembled worshipers. 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 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.

According to the Gospels, before entering Jerusalem, Jesus was staying at Bethany and Bethphage, and the Gospel of John adds that he had dinner with Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha. While there, Jesus sent two disciples to the village over against them, in order to retrieve a donkey that had been tied up but never been ridden, and to say, if questioned, that the donkey was needed by the Lord but would be returned. Jesus then rode the donkey into Jerusalem, with the Synoptics adding that the disciples had first put their cloaks on it, so as to make it more comfortable. The Gospels go on to recount how Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and how the 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 - ...Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father, David. ... (Psalms 118:25-26). Where this entry is supposed to have taken place is unspecified; some scholars argue that the Golden Gate is the likely location, since that was where it was believed the Jewish messiah would enter Jerusalem; other scholars think that an entrance to the south, which had stairs leading directly to the Temple, would be more likely (Kilgallen 210).

Symbolism

Zirl Parrish Church-Jesus entering Jerusalem 1

The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, fresco in the Parish Church Zirl, Austria.

It is a common custom in many lands in the ancient Near East 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 more specifically mentions palm fronds. The palm branch was a symbol of triumph and of victory, in Jewish tradition, and is treated in other parts of the Bible as such (e.g. Leviticus 23:40 and Revelation 7:9). Because of this, the scene of the crowd greeting Jesus by waving palms and carpeting his path with them has given the Christian festival its name.

Prophetic interpretations

Christians often interpret a passage from Zechariah as a prophecy which was fulfilled by the Triumphal Entry:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Matthew quotes this passage from Zechariah when narrating the story of Jesus' entry to Jerusalem. His interpreting of the repetition in the Hebrew poetry as describing two different donkeys: gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey, is offered by some Biblical scholars as a reason for Matthew's unique description of Jesus riding both a donkey and its foal. However, there is an alternate explanation. The full text in Matthew regarding this issue is as follows:

"And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples, 2 Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me. 3 And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them. 4 All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5 Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass. 6 And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, 7 And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon." (Matthew 21:1-7 KJV)

The Septuagint, in Zechariah9:9 says: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion; proclaim it aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, the King is coming to thee, just, and a Saviour; he is meek and riding on an ass, and a young foal." (Brenton) The wording is slightly different from the Hebrew text but one can reasonably interpret from the text that the Messiah, Jesus, will be riding on one of the animals, presumably the ass, or donkey, and that its colt, or foal, will be following behind its mother. To imagine that Jesus would be riding on both simultaneously would indeed present a strange image to mind. Hilary of Poitiers, in one of his sermons on this chapter of Matthew, is of the view that two animals, the ass and its colt, were brought to Jesus and, presumably, those animals were not separated when he rode into Jerusalem: "Two disciples are sent to the village to loosen the ass tied up with its colt and to bring them to him. And should someone ask them why they are doing that, they are to respond that the Lord needs the animals, which must be released to him without delay. From the previous sermons we remember that the two sons of Zebedee symbolize the double vocation of Israel. Therefore, now it is fitting to interpret the two disciples sent to release the ass and the colt as the subsequent double vocation of the Gentiles. It applies first of all to the Samaritans, who abandoned the law after their dissent and lived in a state of dependence and servitude. Yet it also applies to the rebellious and ferocious Gentiles. Therefore the two disciples are sent to loosen those who were bound and arrested by the bonds of error and ignorance."

A widespread Jewish belief states that the Mount of Olives would see the coming of the Messiah (see Josephus, Flavius, Bellum Judaicum, 11,13,5 and Antiquitates Judaicae, XX,8,6). This belief is based upon Zechariah 14:3-4:

Then shall the Lord go forth and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle./ And his feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east [...]

Museum für Indische Kunst Dahlem Berlin Mai 2006 061

Possible depiction of Palm Sunday observances by Nestorian Christians in China, wall painting, Khocho, Nestorian Temple, 683–770 AD, Tang Dynasty (Museum für Indische Kunst, Berlin-Dahlem).

The triumphal entry and the palm branches, recall the celebration of Jewish liberation in 1 Maccabees 13:51:

On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews [led by Simon Maccabeus] entered it [the fortress of Jerusalem] with praise and palm branches and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.
The great enemy in Jesus days on earth was the Roman army; and one can imagine that many Jews saw the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem as the advent of a revengeful Messiah who will wipe out the Romans from Holy Land.

But, then, there is the problem of the donkey. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a question asked by the Persian king Shevor: Why doesn't your Messiah come riding on a horse? If he lacks one, I'll be glad to provide him with one of my best! (Sanhedrin 98a). Indeed, why should the Messiah come on a donkey? The answer stays in the symbolism of the donkey, which in some Eastern traditions seems to be seen as an animal of peace, versus the horse, which is the animal of war. Therefore, it was said that a king came riding upon a horse when he was bent on war and rode upon a donkey when he wanted to point out that he was coming in peace. Thus, the king riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey complies with the epithet gentle or lowly (Hebrew anî - poor, afflicted) and strongly implies the message of peace. This message of peace was always fundamental with Jesus, but it is not clear how well understood was it in those days. In fact, John declares: These things understood not His disciples at the first (12:16). It is highly probable that the public enthusiasm of the day saw the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem more like a declaration of war against Israel's enemies than a message of peace.

In the book Sanhedrin from the Babylonian Gemara it is written that the Messiah will appear as a poor man on a donkey only if the Jews are not found deserving of the salvation. Otherwise, the Messiah will ride on a horse. Since all humans are sinners, including Jews, it is obvious that the Messiah will always ride on a donkey. However, this is a Christian belief and not supported in Judaism (Jews, for example, do not believe in original sin).

Day of week

Dates for Palm Sunday, 2009-2020
Year Western Eastern
2009 April 5 April 12
2010 March 28
2011 April 17
2012 April 1 April 8
2013 March 24 April 28
2014 April 13
2015 March 29 April 5
2016 March 20 April 24
2017 April 9
2018 March 25 April 1
2019 April 14 April 21
2020 April 5 April 12

On the tenth of Nisan, according to the Mosaic Law, the lambs to be slaughtered at Passover were chosen. Because of the link of this to the Triumphal Entry, some new interpretations report that the event was not even on Sunday, because Nisan 10 would not be a Sunday if the Crucifixion occurred on Friday the fourteenth. This day in the year of the Passion saw Messiah presented as the sacrificial Lamb. It heralded his impending role as the Suffering Servant of Israel (Isaiah 53, Zechariah 12:10).

The first day of any Old Testament feast was always considered a Sabbath regardless of what day it fell on. The Feast of Unleavened Bread always begins on Nisan the 15th. Passover was celebrated the Evening before. If Nisan the 15th was a Saturday, then Preparation Day (Matthew 27:62) was Friday the 14th, or Good Friday. In any event, that would mean that the events of Palm Sunday actually occurred on Monday, being five days before (John 12:1-12).

If Nisan the 15th was a Friday, however, then Jesus was actually crucified on Thursday, Preparation Day, with Friday being a special Sabbath, a high holy day (John 19:31), and the events of Palm Sunday would be Nisan the 10th, late in the day, (Mark 11:11). Thus the days later that week would be Thursday, Preparation Day, Friday a special Sabbath followed by Saturday a regular Sabbath.

So if there is a relationship between the triumphal entry and the selection of the Pascal lamb on the tenth either Jesus was crucified on Thursday or the events of Palm Sunday happened on Monday. One final option is that Jesus was crucified on Friday the 15th of Nisan. See the article on the Chronology of Jesus for more details.

Observance in the liturgy

DSCF7564

The congregation in an Oriental Orthodox church 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.

Western Christianity

On Palm Sunday, in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as many Anglican churches, palm fronds (or in colder climates some kind of substitutes) are blessed with an aspergilium outside the church building (or in cold climates in the narthex when Easter falls early in the year) and a procession enters, singing, re-enacting the entry into Jerusalem. In most Lutheran churches and in many other Protestant churches, a similar practice is followed without the aspergilium.

The procession may include the normal liturgical procession of clergy and acolytes, the parish choir, the children of the parish or indeed the entire congregation as in the churches of the East. 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 processes through and outside the church. In some Lutheran churches, children are given palms, and then walk in procession around the inside of the church while the adults remain seated.

The palms are saved in many churches to be burned the following year as the source of ashes used in Ash Wednesday services. The Roman Catholic Church considers the 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 who welcomed him to fulfill- his Passion and Resurrection in Jerusalem.

DSCF7575

An Oriental Orthodox congregation in India processes outside its church with palm fronds on Palm Sunday in ancient Levantine Christian rites later continued in attenuated form in Eastern Orthodox, Western Catholic and Protestant rites.

In the Episcopal and many other Anglican churches, the day is nowadays officially called The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday; however, in practice it is usually termed "Palm Sunday" as in the historic Book of Common Prayer, by way of avoiding undue confusing 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.

Eastern and Oriental Christianity

In the Eastern Orthodox Church Palm Sunday is often called the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem, it 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 the resurrection of Lazarus 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—in the Slavic tradition this is often green.

Palm Sunday Tver 15th c

Russian Orthodox icon of the Entry into Jerusalem from Tver, 15th century.

The Troparion of the Feast indicates that 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 Death,
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is He that cometh
in the Name of the Lord.

In the Russian Orthodox Church, Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Ukrainian Catholic Church, and Ruthenian Catholic Church, 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", and 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 (blesing).

Wjatscheslaw Grigorjewitsch Schwarz 002

Palm Sunday Procession, Moscow, with Tsar Alexei Michaelovich (painting by Vyacheslav Gregorievich Schwarz, 1865).

In Russia donkey walk processions took place in different cities, but most important 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 in Kremlin and 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.

Customs

Palm Sunday in Poland

Palm Sunday in Lipnica Murowana in Poland

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.

Latvia

In Latvia, Palm Sunday is called "Pussy Willow Sunday," and pussy willows - symbolizing new life - and blessed and distributed to the faithful [1]. Children are often woken that morning with ritualistic swats of a willow branch. People also catch each other and spank each other with the branches [2].

India

Marigolds in the sanctuary

Flowers (in this instance marigolds) strewn about the sanctuary in an Oriental Orthodox church in Mumbai, India on Palm Sunday.

In the South Indian state of Kerala, (and in Indian Orthodox congregations elsewhere in India and throughout the West) flowers are strewn about into the sanctuary on Palm Sunday during the reading of the Gospel at the words uttered by the crowd welcoming Jesus, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who is come and is to come in the name of the Lord God." These words are read to the congregation thrice. The congregation then repeats, "Hosanna!" and the flowers are scattered. This echoes pre-Christian Hindu celebrations in which flowers are strewn on festive occasions; however this also echoes the honour shown to Jesus upon his entry into Jerusalem. Indian Orthodoxy traces its roots to the arrival in India of St. Thomas the Apostle in AD 52 (according to tradition) and his evangelism among both the Brahmans of the Malabar Coast and the ancient Jewish community there. Its rites and ceremonies are both Hindu and Jewish as well as Levantine Christian in origin.

Spain

In Elx, Spain, the location of the biggest palm grove in Europe, there is a tradition of tying and covering palm leaves to whiten them away from sunlight and then drying and braiding them in elaborate shapes.

A Spanish rhyming proverb states: Domingo de Ramos, quien no estrena algo, se le caen las manos ("On Palm Sunday, the hands drop off of those who fail to wear something new").

Malta

All the parishes of Malta and Gozo on Palm Sunday (in Maltese Ħadd il-Palm) bless the palm leaves and the olive leaves. Those parishes that have the statues of Good Friday bless the olive tree that they put on the statues of Jesus prays in the Olive Garden (Ġesù fl-Ort) and the Betrayal of Judas (il-Bewsa ta' Ġuda). Also many people take a small branch of olive to their home because say that the blessed olive branch keeps away disease and the evil eye (l-għajn ħażina or is-seħta).

Netherlands

In the Saxon regions of the Netherlands, crosses are decorated with candy and bread, made in the form of a rooster. In the diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden a great procession with oil lamps is held the night before Palm Sunday in honour of the Sorrowful Mother of Warfhuizen.

Poland

Many Polish towns and villages (the best known are Lipnica Murowana in Małopolska and Łyse in Podlasie) organize artificial palm competitions. The biggest of those reach above 30 meters in length; for example, the highest palm in 2008 had 33.39 meters.

Bulgaria

In Bulgaria Palm Sunday is known as Tsvetnitsa. People with flower-related names, (for example Tzviatko, Margarita, Lilia, Violeta, Yavor, Zdravko, Zjumbjul, Nevena, Temenuzhka, etc.) celebrate this day as their name day.

The Philippines

In the Philippines, there are some places where a re-enactment of Jesus' triumphal entry occurs. The priest rides a horse and is surrounded by the congregation, bearing palms. Sometimes women spread large cloths or aprons along the procession route. Palm branches, called palaspas, are taken home after the Mass and are hung beside, on or above doorways and windows.

After the blessing of the palm branches, the people are putting the palm branches in front of their house. Although the real objective of putting the branches in front of houses is to welcome Jesus Christ, some Filipinos say that the palm branches put away evil spirits.

Finland

In Finland kids dress up as Easter witches and go door to door in neighborhoods for coins and candy. It is an old Karelian custom called "Virpominen".

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