What Is Palm Sunday?
Why and how do Christians celebrate Palm Sunday?
On Palm Sunday, Christian worshipers celebrate the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, an event that took place the week before the Lord's death and resurrection. Palm Sunday is a moveable feast, meaning the date changes every year based on the liturgical calendar. Palm Sunday always falls one week before Easter Sunday.
Palm Sunday History
The date of the first observance of Palm Sunday is uncertain. A detailed description of a palm processional celebration was recorded as early as the 4th century in Jerusalem. The ceremony was not introduced into the West until much later in the 9th century.
Palm Sunday and the Triumphal Entry in the Bible
Jesus traveled to Jerusalem knowing that this journey would end in his sacrificial death on the cross for the sins of all mankind. Before he entered the city, he sent two disciples ahead to the village of Bethphage to look for an unbroken colt:
As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' say, 'The Lord needs it.'" (Luke 19:29-31, NIV)
The men brought the colt to Jesus and placed their cloaks on its back. As Jesus sat on the young donkey he slowly made his humble entrance into Jerusalem.
The people greeted Jesus enthusiastically, waving palm branches and covering his path with palm branches:
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, NIV)
The shouts of "Hosanna" meant "save now," and the palm branches symbolized goodness and victory. Interestingly, at the end of the Bible, people will wave palm branches once again to praise and honor Jesus Christ:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9, NIV)
On this inaugural Palm Sunday, the celebration quickly spread throughout the whole city. People even threw down their cloaks on the path where Jesus rode as an act of homage and submission.
The crowds praised Jesus enthusiastically because they believed he would overthrow Rome. They recognized him as the promised Messiah from Zechariah 9:9:
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. (NIV)
Although the people did not fully understand Christ's mission yet, their worship honored God:
"Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked him. "Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read, " 'From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise'?" (Matthew 21:16, NIV)
Immediately following this great time of celebration in the ministry of Jesus Christ, he began his journey to the cross.
How Is Palm Sunday Celebrated Today?
Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday as it is referred to in some Christian churches, is the sixth Sunday of Lent and the final Sunday before Easter. Worshipers commemorate Jesus Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Many churches, including Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Moravian and Reformed traditions, distribute palm branches to the congregation on Palm Sunday for the customary observances. These observances include a reading of the account of Christ's entry into Jerusalem, the carrying and waving of palm branches in processional, the blessing of palms, the singing of traditional hymns, and the making of small crosses with palm fronds.
In some traditions, worshippers take home and display their palm branches near a cross or crucifix, or press them into their Bible until the next year's season of Lent. Some churches will place collection baskets to gather the old palm leaves to be burned on Shrove Tuesday of the following year and used in the next day's Ash Wednesday services.
Palm Sunday also marks the beginning of Holy Week, a solemn week focusing on the final days of Jesus' life. Holy Week culminates on Easter Sunday, the most important holiday in Christianity.