April 1, 2018

The History of the Feast of Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

The triumphant entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem before His passion, was celebrated with particular solemnity since the first centuries of Christianity. In the Orthodox Church it is considered to this day one of the twelve Major Feasts of the liturgical year. It is always celebrated on the Sunday before Easter with the blessing of branches.

In liturgical books the feast is referred to as Palm Sunday for, on that Sunday, palm-branches were blessed and distributed to the faithful. Popularly it was also called Willow Sunday (Verbna Ned’ilja) because in Europe, pussy-willows were blessed instead of palms. It is also known as Flower Sunday (Cvitna Ned’ ilja) since in and near Constantinople they used to distribute early spring flowers, such as branches of lilac or elder, to the faithful. (cf. Constantine Porph. in P.G. 112, 412).

1. From ancient times, palm-branches were symbols of victory and triumph. The Romans used to reward their champions of the games with palm-branches.

Also military triumphs, i.e. the celebrations of victory, were observed with palms. It seems that the Jews followed the same custom (Lev. 23:40; I Macc. 13:37) of carrying palm-branches on their festive occasions. That is what happened during the solemn entry of Jesus into the Holy City before His last Passover (Jn. 12:13). In the New Testament, the palm-branches become a symbol of martyrdom (Apoc. 7:9), meaning victory over death. For this reason in Christian art martyrs were usually represented with palms in their hands. These branches were usually cut from date-palms (Gr. foinix) as witnessed by St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 387) in his tenth catechesis (P.G. 33, 688A). Referring to the scriptural text of Ps. 92 (91): 12-13: ”Palm-tree planted in the house of God,” according to the Septuagint translation, palm-trees also represented paradise. In ancient art Jesus often was portrayed in heaven amid palms.

The word “foinix” (date-palm) became also confused with the legendary bird known as the phoenix, believed to be able to revive from its ashes. Thus, since the end of the fourth century, the palm-branch also became a symbol of the Resurrection. (P.G. 33, 1025-1028).

2. Jesus Christ, after raising Lazarus (Jn. 11 :1-44), was finally recognized by the Jewish people as their Messiah. When He arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, they greeted Him with a triumphant welcome. The Evangelist, however, hastened to remark that it was done in fulfillment of a prophecy (Mt. 21:4-5).

When the Apostles saw the enthusiastic crowds, they brought a donkey colt, and made their Master ride upon it, while the people spread their cloaks and strewed “branches from the trees” (Mt. 21:8) on the road in front of Him. Others took ” branches of palms” (Jn. 12:13) in their hands and, cheering, cried out: ”Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mt. 21:9) As Jesus was entering the city, surrounded by the excited crowds, the Scribes and the Pharisees became alarmed and decided to stop Him at any cost. But the people kept acclaiming Him as their Messiah, saying: “This is the Prophet, Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee!” (Mt. 21:10)

From earliest times, the Christians in Jerusalem celebrated this event with great joy and solemnity, reenacting Christ’s triumphant entry into their city. This is described by the Spanish pilgrim, Nun Egeria, in her diary written toward the end of the fourth century, thus:

“As the eleventh hour (our 5:00 P.M .) draws near, that particular passage from the Scriptures is read in which the children, bearing palms and branches, came forth to meet the Lord, saying: ”Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mt. 21:9) The Bishop and the people rise immediately and walk down from the top of the Mount of Olives, responding continually: ‘Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!’ to the hymns and antiphons. All the children who are present bear branches, some carrying palms, others olive branches. And the Bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord was led (riding on a donkey). They move very slowly so that the people would not tire. By the time they arrive at the Anastasis (Basilica of Resurrection), it is already evening and Vespers is celebrated” (Egeria, Diary of a Pilgrimage, 31).

3. From Jerusalem this celebration of Palm Sunday spread to Egypt, then to Syria and Asia Minor. By the fifth century the feast was celebrated in Constantinople, where the Emperor and his household used to take part in a solemn procession on Palm Sunday. There, besides palms, the faithful were given olive and lilac branches. As they marched in procession through the streets of the city, they sang the beautiful stycheras composed by St. Andrew of Crete (d. ca. 720), St. John the Damascene (d. 749), St. Theodore the Studite (d. 826) and his brother St. Joseph the Studite (d. 833). The solemn canon at Matins is a masterpiece of St. Kosmas of Maiuma (d. 760).

There were many outstanding homilies delivered on this feast day by the Church Fathers, the oldest being that of St. Methodius of Olympus (d. ca. 311). The most eloquent homilies are those of St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), St. Proclus of Constantinople (d. 447) and St. Sophronius of Jerusalem (d. 638).

During the sixth and the seventh centuries the procession took place in the morning. It was at this time that the blessing of palms and other branches was introduced. The feast then spread to the West, where it received its present name Palm Sunday. The two prayers for the blessing of branches used in the Orthodox Church today seem to be the original prayers, since they are found in the oldest ritual book, the Euchologion of Barberini dated to the eighth century.

4. The blessing of branches takes place at Matins, immediately after the Gospel. While the congregation is reciting Psalm 51 (50), the priest incenses the branches from four sides, then intones: “Let us pray to the Lord,” and then chants the two prescribed prayers of blessing.

By the first prayer we are reminded that Jesus Christ, entering the Holy City on Palm Sunday, voluntarily accepted His passion and death for our salvation, and that the triumphant procession with palm branches heralded His glorious resurrection. And now we, continues the prayer, carrying blessed branches in our hands, wish to associate ourselves with Christ in order that we also may participate with Him in the joy and happiness of His resurrection.

The second prayer alludes to the olive branch brought to Noah by a dove at the end of the deluge as a token of divine protection and blessing (peace). Therefore, in prayer, the priest asks divine protection and blessing on every home where the blessed branches will be reverently preserved. After the prayers, the branches are sprinkled with holy water and distributed by the priest to the faithful as they approach for the veneration of the Holy Gospel placed on the tetrapod.

Today we miss this public veneration of the Holy Gospel, since in most of our churches in the United States the celebration of Matins is not well attended. For this reason the blessing of branches usually takes place before the Holy Liturgy or after. The blessed branches are then distributed to the faithful as they come for the anointing at the end of the Liturgy.

5. The two prayers of the blessing mention only branches in general and palm-branches in particular, just as these are mentioned in the Gospels (Mt. 11:8; Jn. 12:13). But early documents, from the end of the tenth century, testify that in Constantinople, besides palms other branches, such as those of the olive or myrtle tree, lilac blossoms, laurel fronds and some other “flowers of the season” (P.G. 112, 412A), were blessed and distributed. Therefore, from ancient times and in various countries, a variety of branches used to be blessed for this celebration. Because of the cold weather in the Carpathian region neither palm nor olive trees are able to thrive, and even other trees rarely blossom in time of the celebration of Palm Sunday. For this reason our ancestors introduced the custom of blessing willow-branches, which, at that time, are already budding (pussy-willows). Pussy-willows also express the liturgical symbolism of Palm Sunday in a proper manner. During the winter the willow tree seems to be dead and yet, with the coming of spring, it sprouts and gives a sign of life. Thus the willow-branches bring to our mind the wood of the Tree of the Cross, while the buds (a sign of new life) remind us of our own glorious resurrection. This symbolism is described and presented to us by the first Prayer of Blessing.

The blessed branches should be carried home as a sacred grace-filled object. They should be entwined as the crucifix or used to decorate an icon, and to serve as a ”sign of salvation,” and a ”pledge of protection and blessing” during the coming year as invoked by the second Prayer of Blessing. In some regions they place these branches into the hands of the deceased making them joyously ready to meet Jesus on the day of Resurrection.

Let us then “come with branches and praise Christ the Lord!” (From Matins of Palm Sunday). “Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mt. 21:9)