Willie R. Tubbs, FISM News
When believers visit the church of their choosing today, it’s almost certain they’ll see children waving palms through a sanctuary, receive crosses made of woven palms, shout “Hosanna” and “Alleluia,” sing joyous hymns, and take part in any number of other myriad traditions affiliated with the ceremonial first day of Holy, or Passion, Week in the Christian Church.
On its face, Palm Sunday is easy to grasp. It is the day we, commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. As written of in all four Gospels (Matthew 21:1–11, Mark 11:1–11, Luke 19:28–44, and John 12:12–19), when Christ descended from the Mount of Olives on a donkey, the crowds were so happy to receive him that they laid their clothes on the ground.
In his Gospel, the Apostle John mentions the existence of palm tree branches being broken off and laid before the path of Jesus, and these branches have come to symbolize the historic moment for believers across denominations.
Yet, to take Palm Sunday as little more than the one-week warning before Easter would be to miss a major milestone not just in the journey of Jesus, but in the spiritual walk Christians have with their Savior.
The most important fact surrounding Palm Sunday is that through the Triumphal Entry, Jesus put into motion the final phase of his first coming. He willingly set off the events that would lead to the Cross and followed that course to its conclusion.
For the Rev. Dwayne Rogers of Indian Mound Baptist Church, which is located in Greenwell Springs, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, the significance of Palm Sunday begins in Bethany, where the Savior raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:17-53) and later was anointed by Mary of Bethany (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8).
“All those folks in Bethany were excited about what they’d seen or heard,” Rogers said. “They were beginning to believe he was the Messiah. But because of what Jesus did in Bethany, the Pharisees decided to assemble the Sanhedrin. They thought, ‘If we don’t deal with him now, he will take our authority. People will follow him.’ He really forced the religious leaders of the day.”
The late pastor Dr. J. Vernon McGee, whose recorded sermons and bible teachings are still broadcast daily worldwide via Thru the Bible, once said the Triumphal Entry was not a moment of triumph for Jesus. To the worldly eye, the reverend said, Jesus coming on a donkey would have been merely a “parade of poverty” as people with little honored a man whose life they largely misunderstood.
“When He rode into Jerusalem, it actually marked a crisis in His life, a life that was filled with crises,” McGee wrote in a 1981 commentary. “It marked a change of tactics. Heretofore He had slipped into the city silently. He had entered unobtrusively. He had sought the shadows. There was no publicity … Now there is an about-face in His approach. It would seem to us that there is an inconsistency here if we did not recognize this as a crisis point. Now He comes out into the open. He enters publicly. He demands attention. He requires a decision.”
The misunderstanding of the people of Jesus’ day was in keeping with the teachings of the prophet Isaiah, who famously wrote they would be “ever seeing, but never perceiving” (Isaiah 6:9).
“He was who He said He was, but He wasn’t who the people expected,” Rogers said. “A worldly leader wouldn’t have ridden in on a donkey. A conqueror would have ridden in on a horse. Jesus picked a donkey to teach the lesson that He wasn’t the leader they expected. He picked a symbol of peace, not of war or political power. But, when Jesus came on the donkey, people of the day did recognize Him as a king. And one of the customs would have been to lay palms before the king. Not all recognized He was God’s son, but they all recognized He was someone of great importance.”
In a 2013 article for Baylor University, pastor Alan R. Rudnick wrote that, dating to the Ancient World, donkeys were used as symbols of peace, even as a means of enacting a treaty. He added that the symbolism of the donkey, which had been untied to work for the Lord, has a clear connection to the life of the believer.
“Palm Sunday is the day when we, like Jesus’ animal companion, are untied and set loose to be used for the work of God,” Rudnick wrote. “Palm Sunday frees us to experience Holy Week in a way that does not hold us from truly singing loud ‘Hosannas’ and ‘Alleluias’ on Easter morning.”
The traditions associated with Palm Sunday are quite diverse.
At many churches, members decorate their sanctuary with palms or have a procession of children carrying palms during the service. The Catholic church has a procession led by a priest. In years past, according to Catholic news site Aleteia, the procession can involve the priest stopping at the door of the church to knock, palm branch in hand, before entering.
The knock was the custom of Prosper Louis Pascal Guéranger, or Dom Guéranger, a 19th Century French priest and Benedictine monk.
“This ceremony is intended to represent the entry of Jesus into that Jerusalem, of which the earthly one was but the figure, the Jerusalem of heaven, which has been opened for us by our Savior,” Guéranger wrote in his multivolume work The Liturgical Year, an excerpt of which is included in the Aleteia article. “The sin of our first parents had shut it against us, but Jesus the King of glory opened its gates by his Cross, to which every resistance yields.”
Over the years, various regions of the world have developed Palm Sunday-themed cuisine and have put their unique twist on observing the day.
In Poland, for example, Christians create ornate artificial palms to make up for the fact that such trees do not grow in that part of Europe.
The Philippines, where palm grows in abundance, is home to quite the tradition. There, Christians weave giant palm leaves into complex shapes called palaspas.
Regardless of origin, the use of palms provides a symbolic link to the Old Testament as well as the New.
“In Leviticus 23:40, the Israelites were told to take the branches of majestic trees and rejoice before the Lord,” Rogers said. “Palm trees were listed as one of those majestic trees. They’ve been used to celebrate and honor the Lord as far back as that.”
Yet, in all the adoration, it is possible to forget a pair of tough truths.
First, the Lord Himself foretold of immense suffering to the city (Luke 19:41-44). Even at that moment, He knew just how far the city and its inhabitants would fall from the will of God, and just how destitute Jerusalem would be left without God’s protection.
Second, the rapturous elation expressed by the crowds during the Triumphal Entry would be equaled in intensity by the murderous, venomous baying for the Lord’s life in a matter of only days.
“It was much of the same crowd,” Rogers said. “The tradition was to come into town for the Passover celebration. It would have not only been customary but expected. I think you had those who were there the entire period of time. It is surprising, but telling, that the same people who cried out ‘Hosanna’ cried out ‘crucify Him’ days later.”
For that reason, Rogers said, it is critical to recall not just the Lord’s Triumphal Entry, but the immense suffering He allowed to be visited upon Himself in the quest to honor God’s divine will.
“When I preach on Palm Sunday, I like to use it to focus on what it was,” Rogers said. “It was setting in motion the events He’d been teaching about. That’s what I like to focus on. Not so much the excitement of the entry, but focus on His teachings and ultimately, what He endured.
“As we get to Easter Sunday, we are filled with joy as we celebrate the resurrection. But if we aren’t careful, we lose sight of the price Christ paid for us, especially during Passion Week. We sometime forget the reality of the pain and anguish He suffered in those last days.”