Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, where he would be crucified five days later. According to the four Gospels (cf. Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, John 12), the Lord Jesus rode into town on a donkey as exuberant crowds hailed him as the Messiah and spread out palm branches and cloaks in his path. It marks the beginning of Holy Week, an especially solemn and important week in the Christian calendar that focuses on the last days of Jesus’ life and anticipates Easter, the most significant holiday in Christianity. It is celebrated on Sunday (which can occur as early as March 15 or as late as April 18) before Easter, which is the the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon.
The significance of Jesus riding a donkey and having his way paved with palm branches is a fulfillment of a prophecy spoken by the prophet Zechariah (cf. Zechariah 9:9 — “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”). In biblical times, the regional custom called for kings and nobles arriving in procession to ride on the back of a donkey. The donkey was a symbol of peace; those who rode upon them proclaimed peaceful intentions. The laying of palm branches indicated that the king or dignitary was arriving in victory or triumph.
The celebration of Palm Sunday originated in the church of Jerusalem, as soon as the Church obtained her freedom in the fourth century, in which the faithful re-enacted the solemn entry of Christ into the city on the Sunday before Easter, holding a procession in which they carried branches and sang the “Hosanna” (Matthew 21, 1-11) as testified to by Egeria (381-384 AD), a Galician woman who wrote an account of her travel to the Holy Land in a letter known as the “Pilgrimage of Ætheria”. The early Palm Sunday ceremony 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.
By the fifth century, the Palm Sunday celebration had spread as far as Constantinople. 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.
The rite appeared for the first time, in the West, in the Liber Ordinum, a liturgical book of the Mozarabic Rite containing practices of the fifth to seventh centuries; in which both the blessing of palms at the altar and a subsequent procession with palms are mentioned. In fact, in the North Italian-Celtic Sacramentary of the Abbey of Bobbio (Abbazia di San Colombano) in the province of Piacenza, Emilia-Romagna, a prayer for “the Blessing of Palms and Olives on the altar” was provided but it said nothing about a procession afterwards. It was soon widely accepted in the church of Rome through the influence of the Romano-Germanic Pontifical compiled in St. Alban’s Abbey, Mainz (Germany) under the reign of William, Archbishop of Mainz, in the mid-tenth century, and incorporated into the liturgy. Three of the earliest Roman liturgical books, the Gelasian Sacramentary (7th century), and both the Paduan (7th century) and the Hadrian (8th century) editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary already called the Sunday before Easter Dominica in Palmis (Sunday for Palms) or Die dominico ad Palmas.
However, before it was known as Palm Sunday in Rome, the celebration was just simply called Passion Sunday, due to the fact that the Passion account from Matthew’s Gospel was read on that day. After the Gospel is read, the pope then usually gave a sermon on the first half of the account, postponing his explanation of the remainder to the following Wednesday.
In the next centuries, the liturgist Amalarius of Metz apparently described the custom in his native Gaul: “In memory of this [our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem] we are accustomed throughout our churches to carry branches and to cry Hosanna.” It was during this same period that Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans (ca. 750/60-821) composed the hymn Gloria, Laus et Honor.
Furthermore, the conduct of procession during Palm Sunday is clearly described in the tenth-century Regularis Concordia, a document produced in Winchester detailing the practices of English Benedictine monasteries: “…the gospel Turba multa [John 12:12-19] shall be read by the deacon as far as the words ‘Behold, the whole world is gone after him’ — the blessing of the palms shall follow. After the blessing the palms shall be sprinkled with holy water and incensed. While the children begin the antiphons Pueri Hebraeorum the palms shall be distributed. Then the greater antiphons shall be intoned and the procession shall go forth. As soon as the mother church is reached the procession shall wait while the children, who shall have gone on before, sing Gloria laus with its verses, to which all shall answer Gloria laus, as the custom is. When this is finished the cantor shall intone the respond Ingrediente Domino and the doors shall be opened.”
Despite its beautiful history and significance, the anti-Catholics twisted the scriptures by saying that the observance of Palm Sunday is another Catholic paganic invention. But is it true? Is the use of Palm unbiblical?
Carrying palm brances into procession goes back into the Old Testament, where it was not only approved but commanded by God Himself at the very foundation of His Kingdom in the Israelite nation. In the fall of the year, after the harvest, when people gathered for the Feast of the Tabernacles, God said in Leviticus 23:40: ” And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.”
Hence, in the deuterocanonical book of Maccabees, it also reads: “And they kept eight days with joy, after the manner of the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long before they had kept the feast of the tabernacles when they were in the mountains, and in dens like wild beasts. Therefore they now, carried boughs, and green branches, and palms for Him that had given them good success in cleansing his place. And they ordained by a common statute, and decree, that all the nation of the Jews should keep those days every year” (2 Maccabees 10:6-8).
In the book of Revelation, St. John saw in Heaven those who were sealed carrying palm branches: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb'” (Revelation 7:9-10).
NOW, WHO WOULD REFUSE TO CARRY A BRANCH OF PALM?
Thus, be informed that the palm branch was a symbol of triumph and victory in the Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire and later became a symbol of Christian martyrs and their spiritual victory or triumph over death.
“The palm is the symbol of victory in that war waged by the spirit against the flesh” (Origen, Commentary on John x.xviii. ca.250 AD).