Palm Sunday solemnly opens Easter, with the memory of the palms and Jesus’ passion. We celebrate the Lord’s solemn entry into Jerusalem, and we evoke His passion and His death on the cross in the liturgy of the word of the Gospel of Matthew.
Palm Sunday is symbolically the “gateway” in which Christians prepare to enter the Holy Week and, therefore, move towards Easter. Even today, as in Jesus’ time, the blessing of palms draws crowds.
Every year, the Gospel of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem gives complete meaning to the blessing of palms. In the moment of the blessing and the procession, we reviver the moment when the crowd welcomes Jesus in the city of David, “the symbol city of humanity” (John Paul II), as a king, as the Messiah awaited for several centuries.
Jesus is a King but a King of peace, humility and love. The Lord comes before the crowd on a donkey, a modest animal, abeast of burden. Zechariah had announced (9:9): “Behold, thy king comes unto you: righteous and victorious, humble andmounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
People spread their cloaks on the road, covered it with palms, as Matthew recounts in his Gospel: “People, very numerous, spread their robes along the way; others cut branches from trees and laid them down the way.” (Mt 21:8).
St Luke does not speak of olive branches or palms, but of people who carpeted the Lord’s path with their garments, as a King is received; people who shouted: “Blessed is he who comes as King in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” and “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Hosanna” (in Hebrew, literally means “Save, then!” or “Save, please”) has become an exclamation of triumph but also of joy and trust. Words with a strange evocation of those which announced the birth of the Lord in Bethlehem to the humblest.
The people of the city asked, “Who is this?” and they said, “It is the prophet Jesus of Nazareth of Galilee.” This was his triumphant entrance. The crowd that followed him was made up of men, women and children. Some of these people had been present in Jesus’ miracles and had heard his parables. This led them to praise him with palms when he entered Jerusalem.
Many followed Christ at this moment of triumph, but few accompanied him in His passion and death. While this was happening, Jewish priests were looking for pretexts to put him in prison, for they were afraid to see how people loved him more and more and how they had cheered him as He entered Jerusalem.
Since the 4th century, in the splendor of its liturgical life, Jerusalem celebrated this moment with an enormous procession. This pleased the pilgrims so much that the West reflected in the procession of palms, one of the most beautiful celebrations of Holy Week.
Even today, the blessing of palms attracts crowds, with a sometimes unusual audience seduced by these palms and olive branches (or boxwood, or laurel, depending on the countries) that can be preserved at home until the following year.
A symbol of life and resurrection, the palm or branches bear goodness, rather than good luck. They are placed in our homes or put next to the crucifix: the olive branches bring the Risen Christ into our homes.
These branches that are held in our hands to acclaim the cross of Christ are sometimes placed on tombs and then acquire a funeral meaning. This is not only to honor the memory of a loved one, but also to manifest one’s own hope of renewing our faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the resurrection of the dead.
Normally, parishes organize a procession after the blessing of the palms or branches, before Mass. In large cities, several thousand people can gather in the procession. The faithful then enter the church, behind the priest, which means that they accompany Christ the King to his Passion.
The exceptional celebration proposed by the Catholic Church on Palm Sunday refers to several texts of the Old and New Testaments that progressively bring believers into the celebration of the “Easter Mystery of Jesus Christ”.
During the Mass, the various readings and the Gospel of the Passion (on the sufferings and torments that preceded and accompanied the death of Christ) introduce believers into the Holy Week and into its various stages, in the light of Easter.
First the prophet Isaiah teaches that the Servant of God accepts his sufferings: “My face I did not hide from insults and spitting. The Lord God is my help; therefore, I am not disgraced; therefore, I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” (Is 50:6-7).
Then St Paul explains that Jesus, Christ and Lord, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the status of servant… for which God exalted him and gave him the Name, which is above all name.” (Phil 2:6-11).
Between these two readings, Psalm 22 is read, which the Lord prayed on the cross and which is a profound questioning of His abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer; they shake their heads at me. He relied on the Lord—let him deliver him; if he loves him, let him rescue him! (···)
But this desperate call doesn’t go unanswered because the psalm ends like this: “But you, Lord, do not stay far off; my strength, come quickly to help me… Then I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the assembly I will praise you: You who fear the Lord, give praise! … For he has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out. I will offer praise in the great assembly; my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.”
In addition, the narrative of the Passion is read by several people: the voice of the priest embodies the character of Jesus. Jesus knows that his triumph has provoked the envy and fury of the priests, who have decided to kill him.
During the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus instituted a new memorial sacrifice – the Eucharist: he makes an offering of his body and blood as “true” food and “true” drink that give eternal Life, thus anticipating through this gesture the profound meaning of his next sacrifice, his death on the cross: “Take it, this is my body… This is my blood of the Covenant, which is shed for many,” the Gospel of Mark narrates.
Then Jesus takes his disciples to the Mount of Olives and warns them of what he will endure. They promise Him their unconditional support.
But in the middle of the night, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is abandoned by these same disciples, who fall asleep. He had recommended, however, that they should remain there and keep watch while he prayed to his Father a little further away, having explained to them that his “soul is sorrowful even to death.”
Then Judas, one of the twelve apostles, arrives to betray him and hand him over to the Jewish authorities. Soon after, Peter, full of fear, denies knowing Jesus confirming what the Lord had announced to him before: “I assure you: this very night, before the rooster sings, you will have denied me three times”.
Judged quickly, Jesus is crucified by the Romans. On his way to his resurrection, he lowers himself to the lowest. After the songs of joy that have welcomed him, it is cries and insults that accompany him when, carrying his cross, he leaves Jerusalem.
The liturgy of the palms anticipates on this Sunday the triumph of the resurrection, while the reading of the Passion invites us to consciously enter the Holy Week of the glorious and loving Passion of Christ the Lord.
Prayer to place the blessed palms at home:
Lord, bless our home. May your Son Jesus and the Virgin Mary reign in it. Give us peace, love and respect, so that respecting and loving one another, we may honor them in our family life. Be, Lord, the King in our home. Amen.