Our Lord entered Jerusalem in triumph, on the Sunday before He suffered, attended by a glad multitude shouting Hosanna to the Son of David and strewing His way with branches of palm and olive. It is this solemn entry of our Saviour into the Holy City that the Church commemorates on the Sunday of Holy Week. She blesses green branches of palm, cedar, or box-wood, and distributes them to the clergy and faithful. Then a white-robed procession of her ministers, bearing the blessed boughs and chanting a hymn of praise and triumph, winds slowly through the aisles of God’s holy house. Thus does the wise Mother indelibly impress one of the greatest events of Christ’s life upon the memory of her children. She knows that they are not pure intelligences, like the angels, but spirits united to mortal bodies, spirits who hold communion with the outward world through the windows of the senses, and who represent to themselves even invisible and intangible truths under material forms. Therefore her worship is dramatic and life-like. She speaks to the soul through the eye, and thus prepares the mind for grasping and remembering the various articles of her holy teaching.
The Jewish multitude received our Lord on Palm-Sunday with the same manifestations of joy as were usual during the Feast of the Tabernacles. This solemnity was celebrated in the month of September, for the space of eight days, in memory of the time when the Jews dwelt in tents, or tabernacles, on their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. During the continuance of the festival, the people walked daily in procession around the altar, carrying in their hands branches of palm, olive and willow, and singing Hosanna. [Hosanna means “Save, I beseech you.” In the East, Palm-Sunday is still called “Hosannna Sunday.”]
The Feast of the Tabernacles served another purpose besides that of keeping the Jews in mind of God’s mercy to them in guiding them through the desert: it was one of the many means which kept alive in their breasts the hope of the Messiah who was to give them the mansions of eternal bliss in exchange for the tabernacles of their earthly pilgrimage. In their minds it was always connected with Him, and they gave expression to this conviction in one of the ceremonies of the festival. They drew water from the fountain of Siloe, and, going in solemn procession to the altar of holocausts, poured it upon it, singing the while, in a subdued voice, portions from the Sacred Scriptures, among others, according to some writers, a passage from the 12th chapter of Isaias: You shall draw waters with joy out of the Saviour’s fountains. From our Lord’s own words, in the 7th chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, we may plainly infer that this rite was typical of Him : On the last great day of the festivity (of the tabernacles) Jesus stood and cried out, saying; If any man thirst let him come to Me and drink. He that believeth in Me, as the Scripture saith, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.
The Jews, then, by their hosannas and palm branches, acknowledged Jesus to be the Son of David, the Messiah promised to their fathers, the Saviour of Israel. Yet on the next Friday they crucified Him! Their faith of Sunday had not taken root in the soil of charity, and before the end of the week it had withered and died! May the like not happen to us!
An old Roman calendar, or catalogue of feasts and fasts, and the Sacramentary of Pope Gelasius prove that the rite of blessing palms on the Sunday before Easter is as old as the fifth century. The solemn procession can claim an antiquity of at least twelve hundred years, for it is mentioned by St. Isidore of Seville, who lived in the seventh century.
All the solitaries of the desert and the cenobites [Religious living together in communities were called “cenobites.”] used to meet together on Palm Sunday to take part in the procession, and then they returned again to their cells to prepare in silence and prayer for the great festival of Easter. In many places the benediction and distribution of the palms took place outside the city at one of the wayside crosses; thence the procession started towards the city gates, thus representing more vividly our Saviour’s entry into Jerusalem from the country. Bouquets of flowers, attached to boughs of trees, were sometimes carried in the procession, and hence the name of the Easter of Flowers given to Palm Sunday. It was called Easter because on that day the time within which the Easter Communion was to be made began. [The Paschal time, properly so called, within which the faithful are bound to receive the Blessed Sacrament according to the law of the Church, extends only from Palm Sunday to Low Sunday; in this country, however, by privilege, it extends from the first Sunday of Lent to Trinity Sunday.] In some churches the Book of the Gospels, as representing Jesus Christ, was carried with the greatest pomp in the procession of Palm Sunday. It was elevated on a richly decorated altar, surrounded by palm branches and lights, the wreathing of incense and the waving of banners. Sometimes the Blessed Sacrament Itself was carried as is now done in the procession of Corpus Christi.
When the procession re-enters the church or the sanctuary the cross-bearer knocks with the foot of the cross at the door. This ceremony represents our Lord knocking at the golden gates of heaven on the day of His triumphal ascension, and bidding the wondering angels open for Him and the bright army of happy souls released from Limbo, the first fruits of His Passion, the first human shares of His glory. Lift up your gates, O ye princes! and be ye lifted up, O eternal gates! and the king of glory shall enter in. (Ps. xxxiii. 7.)
Like all the other Sacramentals the palm-branch has its holy symbolism. The tree from which it is taken is one of the most useful of trees. The wide spreading leaves that crown its top afford a delightful shade from the scorching rays of the summer sun. So the Holy Ghost overshadows us with His grace and screens us from the darts of Satan, and the Eternal Father “overshadows us with His shoulders and under His wings we may trust,” and may we not go whenever we please to the sanctuary and repose under the shadow of our Beloved in the Blessed Sacrament? The palm supplies us with the date, a most delicious fruit, and from its pierced bark it pours a species of wine. Jesus in the most Holy Eucharist gives His Body for our food and His Blood for our wine.
The Palm has been in all times and places the emblem of victory and its reward. The conqueror in the olympic games, in the races of the circus, at the tribune or the bar received it as the token of his triumph. Palm trees were wrought in the walls of the temple of Jerusalem to signify the reward which awaited the victors in life’s contest in the Heavenly Jerusalem. To St. John it was given to behold in mystic vision that blessed city and he saw “a great multitude which no man could number of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes and palms in their hands.”
When we receive the blessed palm let us look upon it as a pledge given to us by our Lord of the palm that awaits us in Heaven, and let us keep it with reverence as a holy thing, placing it over our beds, or wreathing it round the crucifix. But let us not forget that it is the distinctive mark of triumph by suffering and blood, and therefore it is sculptured on the tombs of the martyrs in the catacombs. To reign with Christ we must suffer with Him, for the only way to heavenly triumph is the royal road of the cross.