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Catholic Activity: Traditions related to Palm Sunday

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Father Weiser gives a short lesson on the liturgy and history of traditions related to Palm or Passion Sunday.

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LITURGY — As soon as the Church obtained her freedom in the fourth century, the faithful in Jerusalem re-enacted the solemn entry of Christ into their city on the Sunday before Easter, holding a procession in which they carried branches and sang the "Hosanna" (Matthew 21, 1-11). In the early Latin Church, people attending Mass on this Sunday would hold aloft twigs of olives, which were not, however, blessed in those days.

The rite of the solemn blessing of "palms" seems to have originated in the Frankish kingdom. The earliest mention of these ceremonies is found in the Sacramentary of the Abbey of Bobbio in northern Italy (at the beginning of the eighth century). The rite was soon accepted in Rome and incorporated into the liturgy. A Mass was celebrated in some church outside the walls of Rome, and there the palms were blessed. Then a solemn procession moved into the city to the basilica of the Lateran or to St. Peter's, where the pope sang a second Mass. The first Mass, however, was soon discontinued, and in its place only the ceremony of blessing was performed.

Everywhere in medieval times, following the Roman custom, a procession composed of the clergy and laity carrying palms moved from a chapel or shrine outside the town, where the palms were blessed, to the cathedral or main church. Our Lord was represented in the procession, either by the Blessed Sacrament or by a crucifix, adorned with flowers, carried by the celebrant of the Mass. Later, in the Middle Ages, a quaint custom arose of drawing a wooden statue of Christ sitting on a donkey (the whole image on wheels) in the center of the procession. These statues (Palm Donkey; Palmesel) are still seen in museums of many European cities.

As the procession approached the city gate, a boys’ choir stationed high above the doorway of the church would greet the Lord with the Latin song Gloria, laus et honor. This hymn, which is still used today in the liturgy of Palm Sunday, was written by the Benedictine Theodulph, Bishop of Orléans (821):

Glory, praise and honor,O Christ, our Savior-King,To thee in glad HosannasInspired children sing.
After this song, there followed a dramatic salutation before the Blessed Sacrament or the image of Christ. Both clergy and laity knelt and bowed in prayer, arising to spread cloths and carpets on the ground, throwing flowers and branches in the path of the procession. The bells of the churches pealed, and the crowds sang the "Hosanna" as the colorful procession entered the cathedral for the solemn Mass.

In medieval times this dramatic celebration was restricted more and more to a procession around the church. The crucifix in the churchyard was festively decorated with flowers. There the procession came to a halt. While the clergy sang the hymns and antiphons, the congregation dispersed among the tombs, each family kneeling at the grave of relatives. The celebrant sprinkled holy water over the graveyard, the procession formed again and entered the church. In France and England the custom of decorating graves and visiting the cemeteries on Palm Sunday is still retained.

Today the blessing of palms and the procession are usually performed within the churches. The new liturgical arrangements made by Pope Pius XII have restored the original solemnity of the procession, and the members of the congregation now take active part again in the sacred ceremonies of Palm Sunday. The blessing of palms, however, is now very short and simple compared to the former elaborate ritual.

NAMES — The various names for the Sunday before Easter come from the plants used — palms (Palm Sunday) or branches in general (Branch Sunday, Domingo de Ramos, Dimanche des Rameaux). In most countries of Europe real palms are unobtainable, so in their place people use many other plants: olive branches (in Italy), box, yew, spruce, willows, and pussy willows. In fact, some plants have come to be called "palms" because of this usage, such as the yew in Ireland and the willow in England (palm willow) and in Germany (Palmkätzchen). From the use of willow branches Palm Sunday was called "Willow Sunday" in parts of England and Poland, and in Lithuania Verbu Sekmndienis (Willow Twig Sunday). The Greek Church uses the names "Sunday of the Palm-carrying" and "Hosanna Sunday."

Centuries ago it was customary to bless not only branches but also various flowers of the season (the flowers are still mentioned in the first antiphon of the procession). Hence the name "Flower Sunday," which the day bore in many countries — "Flowering Sunday" or "Blossom Sunday" in England, Blumensonntag in Germany, Pâsques Fleuris in France, Pascua Florida in Spain, Virágvasárnap in Hungary, Cvetna among the Slavic nations, Zaghkasart in Armenia.

The term Pascua Florida, which in Spain originally meant just Palm Sunday, was later also applied to the whole festive season of Easter Week. Thus the State of Florida received its name when, on March 27, 1513 (Easter Sunday), Ponce de Leon first sighted the land and named it in honor of the great feast.

THE PASSION — In the new liturgical order of Holy Week, Palm Sunday bears the official title "Second Sunday of the Passion, or Palm Sunday." Thus the Church enhances the significance of this Sunday as a memorial of Christ's sufferings, which are commemorated by the reading of the Passion. The word Passion in this connection means those passages of the Gospels which report the events of Christ's suffering and death. The Passions of all four Gospels are read or chanted in all Catholic churches during the liturgical services on certain days of Holy Week, and observed in varying degrees in many Protestant churches. On Palm Sunday, the Passion of Saint Matthew (26, 36 — 27, 54) is solemnly sung during Mass, in place of the usual Gospel.

The ancient liturgical rules prescribe that three clergymen of deacon's rank, vested in alb and stole, chant the sacred text. They are to alternate in contrasting voices. One (tenor) represents the Evangelist narrator; the second (high tenor) chants the voices of individuals and crowds; the third (bass) sings only the words of Christ.

The melodies prescribed for the liturgical chanting of the Passion are among the most impressive examples of Gregorian chant, and for many centuries remained the only Passion music, until the non-liturgical works on the Passion were written.

THE PALMS — In central Europe, large clusters of plants, interwoven with flowers and adorned with ribbons, are fastened to the top of a wooden stick. All sizes of such palm bouquets may be seen, from the small children's bush to rods of ten feet and more. The regular "palm," however, consists in most European countries of pussy willows bearing their catkin blossoms. In the Latin countries and in the United States, palm leaves are often shaped and woven into little crosses and other symbolic designs. This custom was originated by a suggestion in the ceremonial book for bishops that "little crosses of palm" be attached to the boughs wherever true palms are not available in sufficient quantity.

In the spirit of this blessing, the faithful reverently keep the palms in their homes throughout the year, usually attached to a crucifix or holy picture, or fastened on the wall. In South America they put the large palm bouquets behind the door. In Italy people offer blessed palms as a token of reconciliation and peace to those with whom they have quarreled or lived on unfriendly terms. The Ukrainians and Poles strike each other gently with the pussy-willow palms on Palm Sunday; this custom, called Boze Rany (God's Wounds) they interpret as an imitation of the scourging of our Lord.

In Austria, Bavaria, and in the Slavic countries, farmers, accompanied by their families, walk through their fields and buildings on the afternoon of Palm Sunday. Praying and singing their ancient hymns, they place a sprig of blessed palms in each lot of pasture or plowland, in every barn and stable, to avert the punishment of weather tragedies or diseases, and to draw God's blessing on the year's harvest and all their possessions.

Activity Source: Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1958

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