April 9, 2017

History of the Procession of Palms in Jerusalem and Constantinople

Palm Sunday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

By John Sanidopoulos

The theme for Palm Sunday is the Lord's triumphant entry into Jerusalem as described in the Gospels. In subsequent centuries, Christians of the Holy Land, led by the Archbishop of Jerusalem, continued to celebrate this triumphant entry of the Lord in dramatic and festive fashion.

The Procession of Palms originated in Jerusalem, and is described for the first time in the fourth-century pilgrimage diary of the nun Egeria. She writes:

Accordingly at the seventh hour all the people go up to the Mount of Olives, that is, to Eleona, and the bishop with them, to the church, where hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said, and lessons in like manner. And when the ninth hour approaches they go up with hymns to the Imbomon, that is, to the place whence the Lord ascended into heaven, and there they sit down, for all the people are always bidden to sit when the bishop is present; the deacons alone always stand. Hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said, interspersed with lections and prayers.

And as the eleventh hour approaches, the passage from the Gospel is read, where the children, carrying branches and palms, met the Lord, saying: "Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord," and the bishop immediately rises, and all the people with him, and they all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people going before him with hymns and antiphons, answering one to another: "Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord."

And all the children in the neighborhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives, and thus the bishop is escorted in the same manner as the Lord was of old.

For all, even those of rank, both matrons and men, accompany the bishop all the way on foot in this manner, making these responses, from the top of the mount to the city, and thence through the whole city to the Anastasis, going very slowly lest the people should be wearied; and thus they arrive at the Anastasis at a late hour. And on arriving, although it is late, vespers takes place, with prayer at the Cross; after which the people are dismissed.

In the Georgian Lectionary (also known as the Ierusalimskij Kanonar - fifth to eighth centuries) we encounter for the first time the blessing for the palms prior to their distribution to the faithful. We also encounter in it the earliest evidence of the Jerusalem procession taking on a stational format, with two stops along the route from the place believed to be the site of the Ascension (the Imbomon) on the Mount of Olives to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the Anastasis). Along this route there were three or four stops made with a selection of Gospel readings at each dealing with the Lord's entry into Jerusalem.

The Procession of Palms in Jerusalem reached its fullest stage of development in the tenth century, as found in the Typikon of the Anastasis, a document detailing the rites of Holy Week and Bright Week prior to the takeover of the city and the destruction of its shrines by Caliph Hakim of Egypt in 1009. The ceremony began in Bethany with the blessing of the Palms by the Patriarch; all then proceeded to the Imbomon at the Mount of Olives, where the first Gospel passage (Mark 11:1-11) was read, after which the Patriarch said a prayer. The procession then moved to the next station at Gethsemane, where the Gospel (Luke 19:29-38) was read there than a prayer. They continued along the route until they reached the vicinity of the Probatica (the Sheep Gate, near the Pool of Bethsaida), where there was another Gospel reading (John 12:12-18) and prayer. Finally the procession arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the fourth and last Gospel was read (Matthew 21:1-17) at the site of Golgotha.

At Constantinople, the procession of palms was introduced in the ninth or tenth century, as indicated in the liturgical document known as the Typikon of the Great Church. At daybreak the faithful gathered at the Church of the Forty Martyrs; the Patriarch then distributed palms to the clergy and laity. Thereupon all went in procession to the Great Church of Hagia Sophia, along with the Emperor and Patriarch, and there the Patriarch served the Divine Liturgy. All along the route of the procession, from the Palace to Hagia Sophia, flowers were strewn and columns wreathed with palm branches, myrtle and laurel. When the Emperor entered Hagia Sophia he was preceded by a torch bearer and followed by a retinue of officials; the Gospel book was borne by the Archdeacon, and the Patriarch followed together with several Bishops and Clergy. In a book of ceremonies from the fourteenth century, we read the preparations for this procession began several days prior to Palm Sunday and were completed in the evening of Lazarus Saturday. It was on this evening, according to the tenth century Book of Ceremonies of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, that the imperial ceremony began at the Church of the Pharos, at which time the emperor distributed small crosses to officials of the court.