On Sunday 14 April the Church celebrates Palm Sunday. This Sunday, also known as the Passion Sunday, ushers in the Holy Week.
Why is it called “Palm Sunday” or “Passion Sunday”? The appellation “Palm Sunday” derives from the event this particular Sunday celebrates, in other words Jesus’ triumphal entry in the City of Jerusalem. On that occasion, as the Gospel of John narrates, the people took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). Then, the name “Passion Sunday” comes from the fact that on this Sunday, the one which precedes Easter, in the liturgy the passion narrative is read. Hence, according to the document issued by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship concerning the Preparation And Celebration of the Easter Feasts, Paschalis Solemnitatis, of January 16 1988, we read: “Holy Week begins on ‘Passion (or Palm) Sunday’ which joins the foretelling of Christ’s regal triumph and the proclamation of the passion. The connection between both aspects of the Paschal Mystery should be shown and explained in the celebration and catechesis of this day” (no.28).
Liturgically speaking, one of the most noticeable aspects of this celebration is the procession which takes place precisely before the Eucharist starts. Paschal Solemnitatis explains why this procession occurs and how it is to be organized liturgically.
“The commemoration of the entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem has, according to ancient custom, been celebrated with a solemn procession, in which the faithful in song and gesture imitate the Hebrew children who went to meet the Lord singing ‘Hosanna.’ The procession may take place only once, before the Mass which has the largest attendance, even if this should be in the evening either of Saturday or Sunday. The congregation should assemble in a secondary church or chapel or in some other suitable place distinct from the church to which the procession will move… The palms or branches are blessed so that they can be carried in the procession. The palms should be taken home where they will serve as a reminder of the victory of Christ be given which they celebrated in the procession” (no. 29).
One needs to stress that every liturgical event is the milieu wherein catechesis is imparted to strengthen the faith of those who actively participate in the celebration involved. Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday is not an exception to this rule. Thus, another Vatican document, this time The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines, published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in December 2001, says that “the faithful, however, should be instructed as to the meaning of this celebration so that they might grasp its significance” (no. 139). Then, within the same paragraph, the Directory gives a short catechesis regarding the meaning of this celebration. It highlights that the faithful “should be opportunely reminded that the important thing is participation at the procession and not only the obtaining of palm or olive branches” (no. 139). Moreover, “palms or olive branches should not be kept as amulets, or for therapeutic or magical reasons to dispel evil spirits or to prevent the damage these cause in the fields or in the homes, all of which can assume a certain superstitious guise” (no. 139). Finally, and most importantly, “palms and olive branches are kept in the home as a witness to faith in Jesus Christ, the messianic king, and in his Paschal Victory” (no. 139).
Let us not forget that this Jesus, the much-awaited Messiah to whom Israel looked for, who is showered by a multitude of hosannas, is the same Jesus who is rejected, condemned and put to death. Even today, Jesus suffers due to the humiliations he receives in other human beings who are degraded and maltreated. In his homily on Palm Sunday, on April 9 2017, Pope Francis brought out this point so clearly when he said:
“This Jesus, who accepts the hosannas of the crowd, knows full well that they will soon be followed by the cry: ‘Crucify him!’ He does not ask us to contemplate him only in pictures and photographs, or in the videos that circulate on the internet. No. He is present in our many brothers and sisters who today endure sufferings like his own: they suffer from slave labour, from family tragedies, from diseases… They suffer from wars and terrorism, from interests that are armed and ready to strike. Women and men who are cheated, violated in their dignity, discarded… Jesus is in them, in each of them, and, with marred features and broken voice, he asks to be looked in the eye, to be acknowledged, to be loved. It is not some other Jesus, but the same Jesus who entered Jerusalem amid the waving of palm branches. It is the same Jesus who was nailed to the cross and died between two criminals. We have no other Lord but him: Jesus, the humble King of justice, mercy and peace”.
That is why one of the early Church Fathers, St. Andrew of Crete, comments on Palm Sunday: “Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish. Then we shall be able to receive the Word at his coming, and God, whom no limits can contain, will be within us… So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him”.
And this we can do by serving him in each other, especially in the suffering ones!