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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Palm Sunday

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As the first day of Holy Week, and its ceremonies usher in the series of services, culminating in those of Good Friday, which commemorate the Passion of the Lord.

The ceremonies on Palm Sunday as celebrated now in the Roman Catholic Church are divided in three distinct parts: (r) The solemn blessing of the palms, (2) the procession, (3) the mass.

Branches of palm, olive or sprouting willow (hence in England known as "palm") having been placed before the altar, or at the Epistle side, after Terce and the sprinkling of holy water, the priest, either in a purple cope or an alb without chasuble, proceeds to bless them. The ceremony begins with the singing by the choir of the anthem Hosanna Filio David; the collect follows; then the singing of a lesson from Exodus xv. by the subdeacon; then the Gradual, reciting antiphonally the conspiracy of the chief priests and Pharisees, and concluding with Christ's prayer on Mt Olivet; then the Gospel, sung by the deacon in the ordinary way, followed by a "continuation of the Holy Gospel" (Matt. xxi. and sqq.). After this the priest blesses the palms in a series of prayers, that those who receive them "may be protected in soul and body," and that "into whatever place they may be brought the inhabitants of that place may obtain Thy benediction: and all adversity being removed, &c." The priest then sprinkles the palms thrice with holy water, saying the prayer Aspergesme, &c., and also incenses them thrice. The principal of the clergy present then approaches and gives a palm to the celebrant, who then, in his turn, distributes the branches, first to the principal of the clergy, then to the deacon and subdeacon, and to the other clergy in order of rank, and lastly to the laity, all of whom receive the palms kneeling, and kiss the palm and the hand of the celebrant. During the distribution antiphons are sung.

The deacon now turns to the people and says Procedamus in pace, and the procession begins. It is headed by a thurifer carrying a smoking thurible; then comes the sub-deacon carrying the cross between two acolytes with lighted tapers; the clergy next in order, the celebrant corning last with the deacon on his left, all carrying branches and singing antiphonally, so long as the procession lasts, the account of the entry into Jerusalem, ending with " Benedictus qui vent in nomine Domini: Hosanna in excelsis." On returning to the church, two or four singers enter first and close the doors, then, turning towards the procession outside, sing the first two verses of the hymn " Gloria, laus et honor," those outside repeating them, and so on till the hymn is finished. This done, the subdeacon strikes the door with the staff of the cross, when it is immediately opened, and the procession enters singing. The mass that follows, characterized by all the outward signs of sorrow proper to Passion Week, is in striking contrast with the joyous triumph of the procession.

In the Orthodox Eastern Church Palm Sunday (Kvpcadi or EopTi) TWV J3a wv iopril Oaioc Epos, or 11 i a1046pos ) is not included in Holy Week, but is regarded as a joyous festival commemorating Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. There is no longer a procession; but the palms (in Russia willow twigs) are blessed, and are held by the worshippers during the service.

The earliest extant account of a liturgical celebration of Palm Sunday is that given in the Peregrinatio Silviae (Eleutheriae),' which dates from the 4th century and contains a detailed account of the Holy Week ceremonies at Jerusalem by a Spanish lady of rank The actual festival began at one o'clock with a service in the church on the Mount of Olives; at three o'clock clergy and people went in procession, singing hymns, to the scene of the Ascension; two hours of prayer, singing and reading of appropriate Scriptures followed, until, at five o'clock the reading of the passage from the Gospel telling how "the children with olive branches and palms go to meet the Lord, and cry: ` Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord '" gave the signal for the crowd to break up, and, carrying branches of olive and palm, to conduct the bishop, in eo typo quo tune Dominus deductus est, 2 with cries of "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!" to the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, where a further service was held.

This celebration would seem to have been long established at Jerusalem, and there is evidence that in the 4th and 5th centuries it had already been copied in other parts of the East. In the West, however, it was not introduced until much later. To Pope Leo I. (d. 461) the present Dominica palmarum was 1 The text is published among the appendices to Duchesne's Origines du culte Chretien (2nd ed., 1898), p. 486, "Procession du soir." 2 Drews takes this to mean "riding on an ass." known as Dominica passionis, Passion Sunday, and the Western Church treated it as a day, not of rejoicing, but of mourning. The earliest record in the West of the blessing of the palms and the subsequent procession is the liber ordinum of the West Gothic Church (published by Fhrotin, Paris, 1904, pp. 178 sqq.), which dates from the 6th century; this shows plainly that the ceremonial of the procession had been borrowed from Jerusalem. As to how far, and at what period, it became common there is very little evidence. For England, the earliest record is the mention by Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), in his De laudibus virginitatis (cap. 30, Migne Patrol. Lat. 89, p. 128), of a sacrosancta palmarum solemnitas, which probably means a procession, since he speaks of the Benedictus qui venit, &c., being sung antiphonally. As the middle ages advanced the procession became more and more popular and increasingly a dramatic representation of the triumphal progress of Christ, the bishop riding on an ass or horse, as in the East. 3 Flowers, too, were blessed, as well as palms and willow, and carried in the procession (hence the names pascha floridum, dominica florum et ramorum les pdques fleuries). The origin of the ceremony of blessing the palms is more obscure. It is not essential to the dramatic character of the celebration and for centuries seems to have formed no usual part of it. Herr Drews ( Realencyklop. XXI. p. 417, 40-60) ascribes to it an entirely separate and pagan origin. It is significant that olive and willow should have been chosen for benediction together with, or as substitutes for palm, and that an exorcizing power should have been ascribed to the consecrated branches: they were to heal disease, ward off devils, protect the houses where they were set up against lightning and fire, and the fields where they were planted against hail and storms. But healing power had been ascribed to the olive in pagan antiquity, and in the same way the willow had from time immemorial been credited by the Teutonic peoples with the possession of protective qualities. It was natural that olive and willow should have been chosen for the Palm Sunday ceremony, for they are the earliest trees to bud in the spring; their consecration, however, may be explained by the intention to Christianize a pagan belief, and it is easy to see how their mystic virtues came in this way to be ascribed to the palm also. When and where the custom first arose is unknown.

Of the reformed churches, the Church of England alone includes Palm Sunday in the Holy Week celebrations. The blessing of the palms and the procession were, however, abolished at the Reformation, and the name "Palm Sunday," though it survives in popular usage, is not mentioned in the Book of Common Prayer. The intention of the compilers cf the Prayer-book seems to have been to restore the "Sunday next before Easter," as it is styled, to its earlier Western character of Passion Sunday, the second lesson at matins (Matt. xxvi. 5) and the special collect, Epistle (Phil. ii. 5) and Gospel (Matt. xxvii. 1) at the celebration of Holy Communion all dwelling on the humiliation and passion of Christ, with no reference to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The modern revival, in certain churches of an "advanced" type, of the ceremonies of blessing the palms and carrying them in procession has no official warrant, and is therefore without any significance as illustrating the authoritative point of view of the Church of England.

Of the Lutheran churches only that of Brandenburg seems to have kept the Palm Sunday procession for a while. This was prescribed by the Church order (Kirchenordnung ) of 1540, but without the ceremony of blessing the palms; it was abolished by the revised Church order of 1572.

See the article "Palmsonntag" in Wetzer and Welte, Kirchenlexikon (2nd ed.), ix. 1319 sgq.: article " Woche, grosse," by Drews in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopadie (3rd ed., Leipzig, 3908), xxi. 415; Wiepen, Palmsonntagsprozessionen and Palmesel (Bonn, 1903); L. Duchesne, Origines du culte Chretien (2nd ed., Paris, 18 9 8), p. 237. For ceremonies anciently observed in England on Palm Sunday see M. E. C. Walcott, Sacred Archaeology (1868) and J. Brand, Popular antiquities (ed. 1870).

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Palm Sunday'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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