Holy Week: Palm Sunday Traditions, Meaning, History
Sunday begins Holy Week in most Christian faiths throughout the world, and Palm Sunday is the beginning of that week. This is the week that leads to the celebration of the Passion of Jesus Christ, who died in 33 A.D. Many Christians are aware that Palm Sunday begins Holy Week, but not many are aware of the traditions, meaning, and history behind it.
Palm Sunday is a reference to the triumphant entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem to celebrate the feast day of Passover. The story is relayed to us in John 12:12-15, where we are told that as Jesus came toward Jerusalem, the people ran out and spread palm branches along the road for him, and proclaimed, “Hosanna,” that He is the King of Israel and God’s Ambassador. We are then told that Jesus rode a donkey into the city of Jerusalem, which fulfilled a prophecy that the King would enter the city riding a donkey.
The Bible portrays this entrance as the recognition of Jesus as King of all of mankind, and Savior to His people. The word “Hosanna” in Hebrew means “save,” and is a reference, by the people, to the belief that Jesus was coming to save His people, as well as all of mankind.
The placement of palm branches on the road He followed into Jerusalem, and the fact that he road in on a donkey all have symbolic meanings that are lost on many readers of the Bible today.
Entering on a Donkey
In the days of Jesus, there was a long-standing tradition of how conquering kings and generals would enter cities. If a king or general rode in on a horse, then he was telling the citizens of that city that he was coming to rule, often with an iron fist. On the other hand, if he entered riding on a donkey, it was symbolic to the people that he was coming in peace. This allowed persons living in the city to know that the leader was not going to be tyrannical in any way toward them, but was coming to restore the city, and provide peace and the chance at prosperity for the people who lived there.
One of the primary reasons why Jesus was rejected as the Messiah by the Jewish people was that He did not come as conqueror, but instead came as a bringer of peace. They were expecting Him to be the one to remove the “Gentile invaders” from Judea, and when He did not lead them in this way, He was quickly rejected. Jesus came as the King of Peace, and His riding on a donkey into the city was a testament to His true intentions.
In addition, this fulfilled the prophecy spoken about Him in Zechariah 9:9-10 which is the specific prophecy that was referenced in John 12. This talked about the Messiah, who was King and the Righteous One, coming into Jerusalem as Victor. That he wold be riding a donkey’s colt, so the people should not be alarmed, because He was bringing peace to all nations. The prophecy would be that the Messiah was to enter Jerusalem as a victor, but as a peaceful one.
Palm branches had great symbolic significance in the time of Jesus. In Mesopotamia, these branches were symbols of triumph, eternal life, and peace. When Jesus entered the city and the people laid palm branches at his feet, it was symbolic of their recognition of Him as King and the bringer of peace. While most understood the significance of declaring Him King, few probably understood that the palm branches were to be prophetic of his rising from the grave as well.
The two aspects of this account were to speak to Jews, throughout the Roman Empire, that Jesus was the true Messiah. He had come to fulfill His role as King of all, and while the people may not have truly recognized this or even believed it, their actions supported it completely.
The Spreading of Cloaks
Luke 19:36-37 adds one detail that is not recorded in the account of John’s. It adds the detail that the people put their cloaks on the road as Jesus approached them.
This is an idea that is hard to grasp in our modern culture, but it is much easier to understand for those who are in their 60s or older. There was a time when if a man was walking along and saw a huge puddle, he would take off his coat and place it over the puddle, so his wife or date could walk onto the puddle, and not get wet. It was a form of chivalry that is lost in society today.
In Jesus time, the idea was the same, but for a different reason. Laying out of garments was akin to laying out the red carpet. This was the ultimate “red carpet” runway experience. Keep in mind that in those days fiber was not easy to create in mass quantities, and so garments were laid at people’s feet as a sign of respect and acknowledgement of their position. When the people laid their garments before Jesus, they were, in essence, rolling out the red carpet to him.
History of Celebration
The Church did not always incorporate palms into the Passion Week celebration. This was first added by the Jerusalem church near the end of the fourth century A.D. It was determined by church leaders that since palms already symbolized victory, and that Jesus was considered victorious in defeating death, it was only natural to include palms in the celebration. The church in Jerusalem then began a procession each Palm Sunday. It would begin with members gathering outside the city, reciting prayers, and then following a path toward the church. Other members of the church would line the road and lay out palm branches prior to the procession reaching them. This would continue all the way until the church was reached. This practice became a symbol of the Believers victory over death, and in the resurrection to come.
As the practice took hold, it was included at several holy sites within the Catholic faith, including in Rome. There, the Pope would go to a local church, bless the palms, and then begin a slow procession heading toward the cathedral in Rome. As he traveled, Catholics along the way would lay palms in front of him and his group.
As years have passed, the church has included the practice of performing this ritual at all Catholic churches throughout the world, where it is possible to do. The priest or monsignor would begin a procession toward the church with palms being laid before him and his group. If the priest was unable to do this in this way, then he would simply begin a solemn entrance from the back of the church.
As a sign of victory, all members of the church are supposed to be given a palm branch to take with them from the church, as a sign to them that they have victory through Jesus. In addition, the Catholic Church has included specific prayers that have been said every Palm Sunday for over 1400 years.
Sunday hundreds of millions of Christians around the world will celebrate Palm Sunday, following the traditions of the church. Now maybe more will know the meaning and history of it as well.
Commentary by Robert Pannier