Palm Sunday 2016, the final Sunday before Easter 2016, marks the beginning of Holy Week 2016. Christian churches distribute palms (and sometimes olive branches) on Palm Sunday to commemorate Christ’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, when palm branches were placed in His path, before His arrest and Crucifixion on Good Friday.

I have never attended Palm Sunday, but living in Israel and being able to experience many religious events satisfies my curiosity and my wish to understand the beliefs and cultures of many who surround me. I must admit that I enjoyed learning and taking part of the procession which takes place from Mount Olives into the Old City of Jerusalem. I wish it would have been a bit warmer and less windy, but I should not complain as it made this long walk a pleasant one.

I estimate the number of parishioners was well above 2,000 arriving from all over, I heard Dutch, German, Russian, Polish, Italian, French, Filipino, Spanish and English.  I know there were some other languages I did not recognize. Oh yes, and some Africans from Kenya and Zambia.

Worshipers gather at the Franciscan Church of Bethphage, meaning “house of the early figs”, located on Mount of Olives. It contains a stone traditionally identified as the one which Jesus used to mount the donkey at the start of his procession into Jerusalem. This is the site of the celebration of the beginning of Jesus’ messianic entrance into the Holy City while the disciples and the crowd enthusiastically sang “Hosanna”.

The procession set out from the church, led by leaders of the Catholic Patriarchate, the Latin Patriarch and the Greek Archbishop in black robes. Pilgrim groups started out ahead and lined the route, greeting the procession with songs and blessings.

 The assembled crowd hailing from many countries accompanied the procession bearings flag, placards and of course palms branches with cries of “Hozana, Hozana” meaning “Hoshana, Hoshana”, playing and singing. There was a jovial atmosphere as the procession made its way along the main street of the Mount of Olives.

Next to the Mount of Olives cemetery, the procession started the steep descent towards Gethsemane in the Kidron valley. From here the procession ascended towards the Lions Gate and entered the Old City walking through the proximal segment of the Via Delarosa and finally gathering at the Church of Saint Ann. Immediately after the prayer led by the Latin Patriarch ended, the crowd began leaving the site, accompanied by local Christian Scouts’ bands. Altogether, a real treat and a happy event.

The celebration of Palm Sunday originated in the Jerusalem Church, around the late fourth century. The early Palm Sunday ceremony consisted of prayers, hymns, and sermons recited by the clergy while the people walked to various holy sites throughout the city. At the final site, the place where Christ ascended into heaven, the clergy would read from the gospels concerning the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. In the early evening they would return to the city reciting: “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.” The children would carry palm and olive branches as the people returned through the city back to the church, where they would hold evening services.

By the fifth century, the Palm Sunday celebration had spread as far as Constantinople. Changes made in the sixth and seventh centuries resulted in two new Palm Sunday traditions – the ritual blessing of the palms, and a morning procession instead of an evening one. Adopted by the Western Church in the eighth century, the celebration received the name “Dominica in Palmis,” or “Palm Sunday”.

Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The gospels record the arrival of Jesus riding into the city on a donkey, while the crowds spread their cloaks and palm branches on the street and shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” to honor him as their long-awaited Messiah and King.

Customary Palm Sunday observances include the waving of palm branches in processional, the blessing of palms, and the making of small crosses with palm fronds. The palms are blessed and many people will fashion them into small crosses or other items of personal devotion. These may be returned to the church, or kept for the year.

Because the palms are blessed, they may not be discarded as trash. Instead, they are appropriately gathered at the church and incinerated to create the ashes that will be used in the follow year’s Ash Wednesday observance. 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.

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