Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Over the next week we commemorate the holiest days of the liturgical year because we recall the last days of Jesus’ life on earth and the week ends with Jesus’ suffering, death and Resurrection. Palm Sunday recalls the day Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, an event described in all four Gospels.
Jesus had traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem and multitudes were following him (Mark 10:46). Those in this crowd saw him heal the blind man Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46) and raise Lazarus from the dead (John 12:17). Because of word spreading about this miracle, others including the Pharisees had joined these crowds following Jesus (John 12:18-19). Jesus obtains a donkey and a colt and rides into Jerusalem seated on them. Those who had been with him from Galilee were filled with excitement because they knew Jesus was a great prophet whom they hoped was also the Messiah, and, as Jesus entered Jerusalem, they laid down their garments and leafy branches shouting, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:8-9; Mark 11:8-10).
Fulfillment of Prophecies
It is significant to note that in Zechariah 9:9, a prophecy is given that Matthew repeats with this event, “Behold your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey and on a colt” (Matthew 21:5). Also in the Old Testament we see in 1 Kings 1:33-34 that King Solomon rode upon a donkey as he was entering a town in which he was to be anointed king of Israel. In 2 Kings 9:13 we see that Jehu was to be anointed king of Israel and as he processed into the city the people laid their garments on the ground as a sign of respect. Understanding the traditions of how a king was treated allows us to interpret these events related with Jesus entering Jerusalem. The people through their actions are acknowledging that Jesus is king, and, as Pope Benedict XVI describes in his book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, these actions are a sign of enthronement.
It is also significant that the people are shouting and quoting from Psalm 118:26. This Psalm begins by proclaiming the mercy of God but then is helpful to read in its entirety starting at verse 14:
The Lord is my strength and my praise: and he is become my salvation. The voice of rejoicing and of salvation is in the tabernacles of the just. The right hand of the Lord has wrought strength: the right hand of the Lord has exalted me: the right hand of the Lord has wrought strength. I shall not die, but live: and shall declare the works of the Lord. The Lord chastising has chastised me: but he has not delivered me over to death. Open to me the gates of justice: I will go in to them, and give praise to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord, the just shall enter into it. I will give glory to thee because thou has heard me: and have become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected; the same is become the head of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice in it. O Lord, save me: O Lord, give good success. Blessed be he that comes in the name of the Lord. We have blessed you out of the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has shone upon us. Appoint a solemn day, with shady branches, even to the horn of the altar. Thou art my God, and I will praise thee: thou art my God, and I will exalt thee. I will praise thee, because you have heard me, and have become my salvation. O praise you the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endures forever.
As Jesus enters Jerusalem, it is THIS Psalm that comes to the minds of the people and we hear this in their exclamations. We can imagine that this was a sight to see! Matthew even tells us as Jesus and the crowds entered the city, the people of the Jerusalem were stirred up and were asking “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10). Those in Jerusalem did not know Jesus but were shaken at how the crowds were treating this man – they witnessed a man being treated as a king and the words of a messianic psalm filled the air.
The Death of the King
The people did not know what was to come over the next week but Jesus knew exactly what would transpire and knowing that this was the point of no return, He willingly took His first step toward Calvary. Tensions had been high between Jesus and the Jewish leaders throughout the three years of His ministry and now they only escalated. After seeing the large crowds with Jesus, especially after the miracle with Lazarus, and then the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders met to decide what to do with Jesus. Their concerns only rose after Jesus cleansed the Temple, rebuked the leaders themselves and seemed to indicate the Temple would be destroyed. Something had to be done. The leaders, having recruited Judas to help, took action on Holy Thursday, and, having excited the crowds in Jerusalem to riot before Pilate, thought they had succeeded in finally being rid of Jesus after His crucifixion. However, it was Jesus who had the last word – rising from the dead on Sunday, Jesus showed once and for all He was God and He had conquered death and sin. Rather than being a moment of despair, the death and Resurrection of Jesus is a moment of victory for those who are united to Christ.
The Sorrows of Holy Week
On Palm Sunday we recall the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem while also reflecting on the sobering reality of what is to come over the next few days. Though we do have hope and a reason to rejoice because of the Resurrection, these last few days before Easter we meditate on Jesus’ suffering and the fact that it is our sins for which Jesus died. We recognize the depths to which we fall when we sin because we see the sacrifice that was required to redeem us – God becoming man, being humiliated, tortured and suffering the most excruciating form of death possible, death on a cross.
Palm Sunday: A Long Standing Tradition
Palm Sunday is a long standing tradition in the Church that we know goes back to at least the fourth century. We have various writings to indicate this including the descriptions of a woman named Egeria. She went to Jerusalem during Holy Week in the end of the fourth century and kept a diary with details providing a valuable witness for us today. Here is a portion of her entry from her experiences in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:
As the eleventh hour draws near … all the children who are [gathered at the top of the Mount of Olives], including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others, olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led. [In the gospel accounts, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.]… From the top of the mountain as far as the city and from there through the entire city … everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence.
It is an ancient tradition of the Church to celebrate this holy day and it continues to be celebrated across the world today. It is a beautiful and solemn celebration. May you all have a blessed Palm Sunday and a blessed Holy Week.