April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday in Orthodox Culture

By Dean Kalimniou

«΄Ηρθ'ο Λάζαρος, ήρθαν τα Βάγια, ήρθεν κι ο Χριστός από την Βηθανία...» ("Lazarus has come, the Palms have come, and Christ has come from Bethany...") goes the Epirot Palm Sunday carol. It is interesting that popular folklore preserves the association between the Feast of Palm Sunday, commemorating Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the Resurrection of Lazarus as these two feasts are inextricably and theologically linked.

In times ancient, they were celebrated together as the commencement of Passion Week. Later, this was considered incompatible with the triumphant and exalted character of these feasts and thus, they took on a nature of their own. By the fourth century, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem had developed its own elaborate festive observances, consisting of the Patriarch riding upon a donkey as Christ did before him, from the Mount of Olives, into Jerusalem. The populace walked before him, holding palm leaves in their hands.

While this custom gradually fell into disuse, it had its successor in the Imperial pageantry of Byzantium.

On Palm Sunday, the "walk of the Emperor" would take place, where amid much pomp and circumstance, the Emperor would emerge from his palace and in triumphant procession, walk to Saint Sophia, while his lambadarios would chant the kontakion of the feast: "Sitting on Thy throne in heaven, carried on a foal on earth, O Christ God! Accept the praise of angels and the songs of children, who sing: Blessed is He that comes to recall Adam!" Apparently, as the representative of God on earth, the excessively elaborate ceremonies of the Emperor, though far removed from the humility and simplicity of Christ's own triumphal entry into Jerusalem, is supposed to at least somehow, remind us of the majesty and vast importance of that historical event.

These days, all that has remained of these customs is the traditional adornment of churches in palm fronds, olive branches and inexplicably, bay leaf branches, significant in pagan Greek worship and symbolism and quite possibly a cultural remnant of that age. Interestingly enough, the feast is not known as Palm Sunday in Greek but as Bay-leaf Sunday. Traditionally, teams of village children, carrying a cross made of laurel wood, would scour the village to collect laurel branches and bring them to the church. They would do so, all the while singing: «Βάγια, βάγια του βαγιού, τρώε ψάρι και κολιό και την άλλη Κυριακή, τρώνε κόκκινο αυγό» ("Bays, bays of Palm Sunday, eat fish and mackerel, and next Sunday they eat a red egg"). Upon their arrival at the church, goodies in tow, the church bell would peal happily and the blessing of the bay leaves would be conducted. Popular belief held that bay leaves blessed on Palm Sunday and later burnt could restore health to those that had fallen sick due to the Evil Eye or safeguard the health of farm animals.

In Russia on the other hand, where palm fronds are not readily available, willow branches and pussy willows are substituted, and given how seriously the Russians have traditionally taken their festivals, this is not to be smirked at, try as we might.

Another custom, more enduring and in fitting with the triumphant nature of the festival in the midst of the penitential atmosphere of Lent is the eating of fish. Indeed, this is considered in the popular culture to be so integral to the observance of the feast, that it has given rise to the saying: «Αν δε φας ψάρι, πρέπει να γλείψεις ένα ψαροκόκκαλο» ("If you don't eat fish, then you must lick a fishbone").

Tradition and custom notwithstanding, Palm Sunday and the Resurrection of Lazarus are of inordinate importance to the Orthodox Church for a number of reasons. The Resurrection of Lazarus has profound Christological significance. It is celebrated by the Church, as St Cyril of Alexandria tell us, as an assurance of the general resurrection of the dead at the end of days.

Therefore, in the apolytikion in the feast, the faithful sing triumphantly: "Giving us before Thy Passion an assurance of the general resurrection, Thou has raised Lazarus from the dead, O Christ our God." Of course, there is a fundamental difference between the resurrection of Lazarus and the resurrection of mankind after the Second Coming of Christ. After his resurrection, Lazarus retained the body with which he had died, with all the characteristic features of corruptibility and mortality, whereas the Church teaches that in the general resurrection, when the bodies will be raised, they will be spiritual and not subject to corruption.

Nikos Kazantzakis in his book The Last Temptation of Christ, presents Lazarus after his resurrection as a re-animated corpse.

Though unsound theologically, it certainly is a powerful and interesting literary exploration of the feast.

Most importantly, in the Resurrection of Lazarus, we see the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, God and Man, clearly exemplified. St John the Evangelist records that Christ, as man, wept at the death of Lazarus, his good friend. In particular, he "groaned and was troubled."

Thus, his human nature suffered. St Cyril of Alexandria maintains that since Christ is not only God by nature but also man, his human nature must suffer. While Christ begins to be moved to that grief which brings tears, he somehow reprimands his flesh by the energy and power of the Holy Spirit. Given that Christ, as God-man, is omniscient, his questioning others as to the whereabouts of Lazarus' tomb can only be interpreted as a manifestation of his total self-emptying and humility. Of course, his raising of Lazarus four days after his death and total healing of his decomposing body is an example of the divine nature of Christ and this, so that, as St Andrew of Crete holds, his contemporaries had to believe that he who has the power to raise someone dead for four days, has the power to raise himself in three days. His divine command: "Loose him and let him go," is indicative of man's deliverance from the decay of sin at the general resurrection of the dead.

Palm Sunday, the Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, on the other hand, is celebrated as a triumphant fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy of Zachariah who wrote: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth." Indeed Christ did enter Jerusalem on a colt of a donkey, in absolute humility.

St Epiphanios of Cyprus tells us that Christs' humility is not an artificial outward virtue but an expression of his love and simplicity. Various Fathers of the Church interpret Christ's sitting on a donkey or colt of a donkey in various ways. Euthymios Zygabenos says that Christ sat on a colt, representing the Gentiles, while the donkey, representing the Jews, followed behind, symbolising the Gentiles' receptivity to Christ as compared with the Jews, who will come to Christ much later. St Gregory Palamas attributes it to the prophecy of Jacob, who said: "Binding his donkey to the vine and his donkey's colt to the choice vine." Christ is the vine, his disciples the choice vine and the colt, the Church. Later on in the Gospel narrative, Christ commands his disciples to release the colt, symbolic of a release of man's sins through Christ.

The joy of the populace at the entry of Christ into Jerusalem was unbounded and provoked by the miracle of the raising of Lazarus. They shouted: "Hosanna in the highest" pointing to the lofty nature of the Godhead and "Hosanna! (Save us) Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" pointing to his humanity. In particular, babes in arms and children sang his praises, indicating, as St Gregory Palamas and Cyril of Alexandria wrote, the childlike simplicity of soul that is necessary for each believer that would experience the uncreated energy of the divinity. It is for this reason that St Cyril exhorts Christians not only to hold palms in their hands but to possess the palms of their souls, in other words, divest themselves of pride and conceit and lay these at Christ's feet, and this is the symbolism of the waving and casting of palm branches at Christ's feet during his entry into Jerusalem.

My parish priest likes to point out that those same people that wildly acclaimed Christ during his entry into Jerusalem, were those who in a few days would demand his execution. There is much to be said for this. However, there is something special in seeing young children flock to church every year, some barely able to pronounce the word «Χριστούλης» ("Christ-child") but all clutching their palm leaf cross or bay leaf, their stomachs rumbling at the fish lunch that is to follow.

Blessed bay leaves still adorn the iconostasis of many Greek homes year around and there is nothing more touching than seeing teenagers reverently placing bay leaves at their grandparents' graves after church, or taking them to their ailing grandparents in their homes. While burning cannot offer us much protection, we safeguard our increasingly brittle bay leaves throughout the trials and tribulations of the year that will follow, knowing that while the raising of Lazarus and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem point to hope for the general resurrection and the entrance of Christ into the pure heart of man and are thus primarily internal festivals, the shadow of Hades still looms around the kontakia we can no longer understand and the tombstones of our departed ancestors, that we can no longer read. Καλή Aνάσταση (Good Resurrection).