palm sunday

Palm Sunday: The Celebration, Symbols, and Significance

Palm Sunday is one of the most important holidays in Christianity, regardless of denomination. It is a yearly feast celebrated by Christians to “commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem”. It is considered a moveable feast because the date changes every year based on the liturgical calendar. 

Palm Sunday, which occurs on a Sunday before Easter, transpired before the Lord’s death and resurrection. Many Christian churches mark Palm Sunday as the beginning of Holy Week which ends on Easter Sunday. It is an event celebrated by some churches by cutting branches of palm trees and attending mass. 

Palm Sunday Celebration

Palm Sunday celebration started as early as the 4th century in Jerusalem and the 9th century in the Western countries. Generally, Christian churches read passages from Matthew 21:1–11, Mark 11:1–11, Luke 19:28–44, and John 12:12–19 as part of preaching. These passages narrate how Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem would end in his sacrificial death for the sins of mankind. Palm Sunday is celebrated by most Christian churches all over the world including Roman Catholics and Protestants. However, Orthodox churches observe Palm Sunday at a later date following the Julian calendar. 

Customarily, Roman Catholics wave palm leaves during masses as a remembrance of how Jewish people welcome Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. In some countries, palm leaves that were blessed during mass are displayed on the door of their houses believing that it will also bring blessings to their household. Some churches traditionally gather the palm leaves to be burned and used during the Ash Wednesday services. 

palm sunday

Triumphal Entry in Jerusalem

The triumphal entry of Jesus in Jerusalem was celebrated to this day because of (1) its religious significance, and  (2) political symbol.

Religious Significance

The Old Testament in the Bible prophesied the coming of the Messiah. Some of these verses are as follows:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
   “when I will raise up for David[a] a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
   and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
   and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
   The Lord Our Righteous Savior.

Jeremiah 23: 5-6

When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood,
and I will establish his kingdom.
He is the one who will build a house for my Name,
and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

2 Samuel 7:12-13

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds, we are healed.

Isaiah 53:5

Because of these prophecies, Jews are anticipating the coming of their Saviour. This Messiah, they believe, will save them from their current state and will lead them to the promised kingdom by God in the Old Testament. 

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Zechariah 9:9

“Long live the King” was the meaning behind their joyful shouts because they knew that Jesus was intentionally fulfilling the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. To announce that he was indeed the Messiah, Jesus chose a time when all Israel would be gathered at Jerusalem, a place where huge crowds could see him, and a way of proclaiming his mission that was unmistakable. 

palm sunday

Moreover, the greater impact of this is explained by Brian Dembowczyk mentioned in his article Jesus’ Triumphal Entry. According to Dembowczyk, this is an announcement from Jesus that he is indeed the Messiah. This would, in turn, cause a disturbance in the political climate of Jerusalem during the New Testament.

Political Symbol

Jerusalem was a religious and political center even in the time of the Old Testament. During the time of King David, the royal palace was located in Jerusalem, making it the center of the monarchy in his time. During the time of King Solomon, King David’s son, God’s temple was built in Jerusalem. These are the reasons why Jerusalem was an important place for the Jews. The same goes for the New Testament. Jerusalem is still the center of worship and religious activities for the Jews. By the time Jesus entered Jerusalem in Matthew 21:1–11, Mark 11:1–11, Luke 19:28–44, and John 12:12–19, it was already headed by Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor assigned by Roman Emperor Tiberius to manage Judea, where Jerusalem is located. 

Jesus’ triumphal entry is viewed as political because being recognized as the Messiah, Jews would view him as a king, which would be in conflict with the ideology of the Roman Empire, which recognized the Roman Emperor as the only king.

It was also political because of the desire of the Jews for independence. Jewish people experienced captivity multiple times. They were held captive by Babylonians in 586 BCE, followed by Persian in 539 BCE.  Afterwhich, Greeks conquered Judea and Jerusalem in 332 BCE. Roman Empire captured Jerusalem in 63 BCE. Having experienced foreign invasion, it is natural for Jews to aspire to be free from conquerors. And Jesus’s coming is viewed as a way for them to be free from foreign rule.

The Symbolism Used in Triumphal Entry

One can identify several symbols or representations in the text, but for this article, we will discuss two symbolism, (1) Christ riding a donkey and (2) Jews use of palm leaves.

Donkey 

Jesus’ riding on a donkey was said to be the fulfillment of prophecy in Zechariah 9:9-10.

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
   Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
   righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
   and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
   and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River[b] to the ends of the earth.

Zechariah 9:9-10

For ancient Middle Eastern countries, a leader’s choice between a donkey and a horse reveals his intention in coming to another territory.  Horses are chosen if the leader wants to wage war, and donkeys are chosen if they come in peace. Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt affirmed his messianic royalty as well as his humility and intention to bring peace. 

Palm Leaves

The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 

Matthew 21:9

palm sunday

Palm leaves were used by Jews in welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem. The people lined the road, praising God, waving palm branches, and throwing their cloaks in front of the colt as it passed before them. In the Roman Empire, palm leaves were used as a symbol of victory. The palm leaves were symbolic of the final victory that Jesus would soon fulfill over death. In Jewish tradition, palm leaves were used in celebrations and festivities. 

The Importance of Palm Sunday to Christianity

What would be the relevance of Palm Sunday for Christians? Palm Sunday celebration is (1) Confirmation of Christ’s Lordship and  (2) Confirmation of God’s love.

Jesus was aware of what might happen when He entered Jerusalem. Jesus told his disciples several times about the events that will happen. Some of these are written in Matthew 16:21-28, Mark 9:30-32, and Luke 9:22-27. William Craig noted that this knowledge of what will happen in the future, even the responses and actions of his disciples, are proof that Jesus is the “ Lord over history”. Christians believe that they could fully place their trust and faith in Christ because He knows the future.

God's love

Jesus, despite knowing the suffering he would face, still gave His life so that those who believe in Him would have everlasting life. This act, according to Christians, is a confirmation of God’s love for the world. 

Given these confirmations, believers believe that Jesus Christ deserves our trust, faith, and devotion. And one way to show that is by remembering Palm Sunday.

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