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Palm Sunday

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Palm, J.H. Van Der, D.D.
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(Lat. Dominica Palmarum, or Dom. in Palmis) is the name usually given to the last Sunday of Lent, after the custom of blessing branches of the palm-tree, or of other trees substituted in those countries in which palm, cannot be procured, and of carrying the blessed branches in procession, in commemoration of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:12-16; Matthew 12:1-11; Mark 11:1-11). Palms and the branches of palms were used in this important historic entry because they were then regarded as an emblem of victory, and the carrying and waving of its branches was emblematic of success and in honor of royalty. At the time of this triumphal entry a psalm of rejoicing was chanted by the thousands who recognised the royalty of Christ. No sooner did he enter the city than he proceeded to the Temple, and wrought several miracles for the relief of both maimed and blind who came to him. These things were done on the day when the lamb was separated and devoted for the Paschal service, and other preparations were made for the Passover.

The date of the first observance of Palm-Sunday by the Church is uncertain. The name is as old as the time of Amalarius. I In the Greek Church Palm-Sunday was apparently observed as early as the 4th century. The writings of the Greek fathers contain allusions to the celebration of this day. In the Western Church there are no signs of the observance of it during the first six centuries. The first writer in the West who expressly refers to it is St. Ambrose; but according to Venerable Bede the usage certainly existed in the 7th century. A special service is found in the Roman missal, and also in the Greek euchologies, for the blessing of "branches of palms and olives;" but in many countries other trees, as in England the yew or the willow, and in Brittany the box, are blessed instead. A procession is formed, the members of which issue from the church carrying branches in their hands, and singing a hymn, suited to the occasion, of very ancient origin. In the Greek Church the book of the Gospels is borne in front. In some of the Catholic countries of the West, a priest, or occasionally a lay figure, was led at the head, mounted upon an ass, in commemoration of Christ's entry into the city a usage which still exists in some parts of Spain and Spanish America. Before the party returns to the church the doors have been closed, and certain strophes of the hymn are sung alternately by a choir within the church and by the procession without, when, on the subdeacon's knocking at the door, it is again thrown open, and the procession re-enters. During the singing of the Passion in the solemn mass which ensues, the congregation hold the palm branches in their hands, and at the conclusion of the service they are carried to their respective homes, where they are preserved during the year.

At Rome, the Procession of the Palms, in which the pope has his place, is among the most striking of the picturesque ceremonies:of the Holy Week. In the "Capelle Pontificie," the only authorized rubric of the mode in which these high ceremonies are to be conducted, is the following account of the ceremony of the palms: "Before describing the blessing of the palms, it is necessary to remember that the festival, the blessing and the procession of palms, was instituted for the solemn entrance of Jesus Christ into the city of Jerusalem, that by the faithful united it might not only be represented in spirit every year to the Christian multitude, but might also be renewed in some other mode. Besides this the Church wished to signify by this solemn ceremony the glorious entrance into heaven which the divine Redeemer will make with the elect after the general judgment." Seymour thus describes the ceremony: "The pope, as the vicar of Jesus Christ, and therefore his most suitable representative, is carried into St. Peter's, not indeed meek and lowly, riding upon an ass, but seated in his chair, and carried on the shoulders of eight men. He is arrayed in all possible magnificence, preceded by the long line of bishops and cardinals in their robes of splendor, accompanied by all the high officers of state, and surrounded by the naked swords of his guardsmen. After he descends from the litter, and takes his place upon the throne, and has received the homage of each cardinal, as usual on those state occasions, the ceremonies peculiar to the day commence. Three priests, each carrying aloft a palm, descend from the high-altar, and slowly approach the throne.

The pope receives them, reading over them a prescribed form of prayer, sprinkling them with holy water, and thus blessing them. Each cardinal, archbishop, bishop, prelate, ambassador, etc., then approaches the throne, and on his knees receives a palm from the pope, which he accepts with the usual forms of kissing the hand, or knee, or foot of the pope, according to his rank, and then retires to his place. When every person is thus supplied, the procession of palms is formed; the pope leaving his throne again, mounts his chair on the men's shoulders, and preceded by candles lighted, the choir singing, the incense burning the whole column in their magnificent and many colored robes moves down the aisle by one side of the high-altar, and returns by the other. Borne above all by the height of the litter, his holiness moves, the conspicuous representation of the meek and lowly One.' As the procession moves slowly along, the splendor of the costumes, their brilliant colors, and their gold and silver brocade-the long array of mitres, and many branches of palms moving among them-the strains of sacred music from the choir, mingling with the heavy tramp of the guardsmen the long and brilliant lines of military extending the whole length of the church, and the procession itself, with the pope lifted on high above all, and all this in the most magnificent temple in the world, presents to the eye a scene of pageantry most striking and beautiful, but wholly ineffective, because unsuitable as representing the entrance of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.

When the procession has ended, and the pope has returned to the throne, and the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, etc., have retired to their places, the high mass is celebrated, and an indulgence granted to all present, a special rubric being used on this occasion." Each member of the congregation carries home his branch, which is regarded as a charm against diseases. Some of these branches are reserved to burn to ashes for the next Ash-Wednesday. In England Palm-Sunday anciently was celebrated with much ceremony; but the blessing and procession of the palms was discontinued in the Church of England, together with the other ceremonies abolished in the reign of Edward VI. (For the different ceremonies anciently observed on Palm-Sunday in England, see Walcott, Sacred Archeology, p. 421-424; Brand, Popular Antiquities of Great Britain [see Index in vol. 3]. See also Collier, Eccles. Hist. 2:241; Wheatley, Commentary on Book of Common Prayer, p. 222.) At a recent observance of Palm-Sunday by Romish churches in the diocese of New York, palms supplied from Charleston, S.C., were used. See Riddle, Christian Antiquities; Wetzer u. Welte, Kirchen-Lex. s.v. Palmsonntag.

The ordinary reckoning of the events of Passion-week places this event, as its name imports, on Sunday; but a more careful examination of the Gospel narratives inclines us to locate it on Monday. The indications of date are most explicit in the Gospel of John, which states (John 12:1) that the final arrival of Jesus at Bethany was "six days before the Passover." That this term is inclusive of both extremes is clear not only from the usual method of reckoning such intervals among the Jews (comp. especially John 20:26; Matthew 26:1), but also from the fact that as Jericho was about one day's journey distant, Jesus would otherwise have been obliged to travel the entire Sabbath, instead of spending that sacred day, as he naturally would and actually seems to have done, at Zacchaeus's house (Luke 19:5). The Passover-day that year was Friday as all admit the 15th of Nisan (Numbers 33:3); the Paschal lamb was slain on the afternoon of the 14th (Exodus 12:6), and it was eaten in the evening immediately after (Leviticus 23:5), i.e. Thursday. (Andrews, in his Life of our Lord, p. 397, misstates this position, as "making the 14th fall on Friday," and yet "including both extremes" in the six days referred to; which would not "make the arrival on Sunday, the 10th," but on the 9th, which we compute to have been Saturday.) But it is most natural to regard the evening only when the Passover-meal was eaten in this case Thursday evening, or that beginning the 15th as the included terminus ad quem, or the sixth day, and the afternoon of the day when our Lord arrived at Bethany as the included terminus a quo, or the first day of the series. This leaves only four whole days in the interval (precisely as the "three days and three nights" of Christ's remaining in the tomb, Matthew 12:40, are known to have been but one whole day and fractions of the preceding and following days), and brings the arrival at Bethany on Sunday. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem certainly took place the very next morning (John 12:12), i.e. on Monday.

Those who place this last event on Sunday must not only reckon the Passover as having fallen that year on Thursday, but they must also exclude both extremes in the computation of the six days in question; or else they will bring as in fact they do the arrival at Bethany on either Saturday or Friday afternoon. Either of these days is extremely improbable; Saturday, as requiring the whole Sabbath to have been spent in travelling, and Friday as bringing. the feast narrated by John as occurring the same evening (12:2 sq.) with all its bustle and special preparation, on the beginning of the same sacred day (i.e. from sunset; for the δεῖπνον cannot have been any other than an evening "supper").

This view is confirmed almost to certainty by the order of subsequent events during Passion-week as narrated by each of the evangelists. They allow a space of five days only for all these transactions, beginning with the entry into Jerusalem, and ending with the crucifixion. As the latter is almost universally conceded to have taken place on Friday, the former must have occurred on Monday. Thus Matthew assigns the first day to the triumphal entry and the cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:1-17, ending with the lodging at Bethany); Mark has the same arrangement (Mark 11:1-11); Luke also, but not so explicitly (Luke 19:29-46); and John likewise, but still less definitely (John 12:12-19). The second day was occupied with cursing the barren fig-tree ("in the morning as he returned from Bethany," Matthew 21:18; Mark 11:12), and various teachings, closing again at Bethany (Mark 11:19), and the third with witnessing the withering of the tree ("in the morning" again, Mark 11:20), and still other teachings. Luke vaguely joins both these two days' proceedings together ("daily," Luke 19:47; "on one of those days," Luke 20:1); while John passes them over with but one intimation of time ("at the feast," John 12:20), although we know from all the evangelists that they embraced an extensive series of discourses to various classes, concluding with the remarkable prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, etc. That this closed Christ's public teachings is directly stated (Matthew 24:1; Mark 13:1; John 12:36). But there is not an intimation that more than three days were consumed up to this time. It was now two days prior to the Passover (Matthew 26:1-2; Mark 14:1). These "two days" at the utmost can only make five, when added to the preceding three. They are to be computed of course as before, i.e. inclusively of both extremes, namely, one day for that immediately following the previous discourses, or, on our reckoning, from Wednesday afternoon to Thursday afternoon, and the other from Thursday afternoon onward into the ensuing evening of the Paschal meal with which the Passover was introduced. In this way every note of time is consistently observed. The single intermediate or apparently vacant day (Thursday) was spent by our Lord in private preparation for the coming solemnities, and by Judas in bargaining for the betrayal of his Master. To take two entire days for these purposes is opposed to the requirements of the case, as well as the whole tenor of the Scripture narrative. It was in fact but Thursday morning that remained unoccupied, for in the afternoon the disciples were despatched to prepare the Passover meal (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7). The phrase "after two days," used by both evangelists here, can only mean, as we would say, day after to-morrow; for it obviously cannot be the same as simply "to-morrow," nor yet "the second day after to-morrow." And that it dates from Wednesday is certain from Matthew's expression, "When (ὅτε ) Jesus had finished all these sayings." That its terminus ad quem, "the feast of the Passover" (τὸ πάσχα γίνεται ), includes the proper Passover-day on Friday, seems clear from the added clause, "When the Son of Man is betrayed to be crucified." The betrayal itself must have occurred considerably past midnight or on Friday morning. It is only by neglecting or violating some element of the evangelical history that Palm-day can be brought on Sunday. Even the accurate Dr. Robinson acknowledges in his later edition of his Harmony that he was misled in the days of Passion-week by following too implicitly the authority of the learned Lightfoot.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Palm Sunday'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature.​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​p/palm-sunday.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.