Millions of Christians around the world on this day (Palm Sunday) are quietly observing Palm Sunday amid the war against human lives by Coronavirus popularly known as COVID-19 which originated from the town of Wuhan in China.
This day commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, an event mentioned in each of the four canonical Gospels; its marks the first day of Holy Week, the last week of the Christian solemn season of Lent that precedes the arrival of Eastertide.
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.
Many churches of mainstream Christian denominations, including the Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Moravian and Reformed traditions, distribute palm branches to their congregations during their Palm Sunday liturgies. Christians take these palms, which are often blessed by clergy, to their homes where they hang them alongside Christian art (especially crosses and crucifixes) or keep them in their Bibles or devotionals.
In the period preceding the next year’s Lent, known as Shrovetide, churches often place a basket in their narthex to collect these palms, which are then ritually burned on Shrove Tuesday to make the ashes to be used on the following day, Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent.
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 on 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 symbolism of the donkey may refer to the Eastern tradition that it is an animal of peace, unlike the horse which is the animal of war. A king would have ridden a horse when he was bent on war and ridden a donkey to symbolize his arrival in peace. Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem would have thus symbolized his entry as the Prince of Peace, not as a war-waging king. Thus there have been two different meanings (or more levels of biblical hermeneutics): an historical meaning, truly happening according to the Gospels, and a secondary meaning in the symbolism.
In Luke 19:41 as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he looks at the city and weeps over it (an event known as Flevit super illam in Latin), foretelling his coming Passion and the suffering that awaits the city in the events of the destruction of the Second Temple.
In many lands in the ancient Near East, it was customary to cover in some way the path of someone thought worthy of the highest honour. The Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 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. In the synoptics the people are described as laying their garments and cut rushes on the street, whereas John specifies fronds of palm (Greek phoinix). In Jewish tradition, the palm is one of the Four Species carried for Sukkot, as prescribed for rejoicing at Leviticus 23:40.
In the Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire, which strongly influenced Christian tradition, the palm branch was a symbol of triumph and victory. It became the most common attribute of the goddess Nike or Victoria.
For contemporary Roman observers, the procession would have evoked the Roman triumph, when the triumphator laid down his arms and wore the toga, the civilian garment of peace that might be ornamented with emblems of the palm.
Although the Epistles of Paul refer to Jesus as “triumphing”, the entry into Jerusalem may not have been regularly pictured as a triumphal procession in this sense before the 13th century. In ancient Egyptian religion, the palm was carried in funeral processions and represented eternal life. The martyr’s palm was later used as a symbol of Christian martyrs and their spiritual victory or triumph over death. In Revelation 7:9, the white-clad multitude stands before the throne and Lamb holding palm branches.