Processing with Palms: What’s it all about?

Processing with Palms: What’s it all about?
Although today is described as Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday) in the Sacramentary, Ordo and other liturgical books, most Catholics refer to it simply as “Palm Sunday”. This is despite the fact that palms appear only in the first part of today’s Mass, the Commemoration of the Lord’s Entrance into Jerusalem. The real feature of the liturgy of this day is the long proclamation of Christ’s passion, this year according to the gospel of Mark.

Why do we use palm branches on this day? Interestingly only John’s account of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem specifies that the people used “branches of palm”; Matthew refers to “branches” and Mark to “greenery”. Luke says only that people spread their cloaks on the road with no mention of branches or palms.

In medieval England, the difficulty of procuring palms for Palm Sunday ceremonies led to the substitution of boughs of yew, willow, or other native trees. The day was often designated by the names of these trees, for example “Yew Sunday”, or by the general term “Branch Sunday”. Is it permissible, then, as one correspondent enquired, for a parish to use olive branches or pieces of fir tree instead of palm for the celebration?

The rubrics in the Sacramentary refer to palms, but there are many parts of the world where it would simply not be possible to obtain palm branches. As I said in last week’s column about the Eucharist, the Church’s liturgy is not a chronological re-enactment of past events but a living encounter with the whole mystery of Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection to glory.

On Passion Sunday we do not re-enact Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Any attempt at replicating the events, setting and atmosphere of the day can only go so far in any case. That is not what it’s all about.

The proclamation of the story of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, waving branches and processing together as a pilgrim people are not the first scenes of a play that will be acted out during Holy Week. Rather these ritual actions help us call to mind a key event in our salvation history.

By our participation in Palm/Passion Sunday, we symbolise our commitment to complete the initial victory that Christ has won. We joyfully join ourselves to Christ, making his passion our own. We share in his suffering so that we may share in his glory.

Today we hear the word “Hosanna” in the gospel account of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and sing it during the Procession with Palms. Where does the word come from? What does it mean?

It is generally accepted that the word “hosanna” originated from Psalm 118 which was recited during the procession round the altar on every day of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. When the priest reached verse 25, the trumpet sounded and the people waved their branches of palms, shouting: "Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!" The Greek form of Hebrew petition “Save (us), we beseech you” is hosanna. Because the Feast of Tabernacles was a season of happy celebration, hosanna became associated with rejoicing.

On Palm Sunday, we cry “Hosanna!” to acclaim our Messiah, to crown our King.


Elizabeth Harrington