Holy Week commences with Palm Sunday, a commemoration of both Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his passion. It is a celebration that even Protestants typically unaccustomed to the liturgical practices of the Church still mark in some way.
It’s easy to see why all Christians would want to continue this tradition. With its palm procession and solemn singing or reading of the Passion narrative, Palm Sunday is one of the more dramatic liturgies of the Christian year. But it is also one of the most jarring. One minute we are hailing Christ with palms and shouts of “Hosanna” and the next we are demanding “crucify him!”
I confess there have been times when I wished we didn’t do both on the same Sunday. It would seem beneficial to sit with Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem for a week before turning to the tragedy of his betrayal and crucifixion the next Sunday. But having these two seemingly contradictory events juxtaposed is entirely appropriate to the nature of Christ’s kingship as well as representative of our own spiritual lives. After looking at the historical origins of the Palm Sunday service, we will see how Palm Sunday is a great reminder that in order to welcome Christ as king of our souls and societies, we must make his way straight by laying down our cloaks of sin for him to triumphantly trample and waving the palm branches of faith, hope, and charity with hearts singing joyful songs of praise.
The Historical Origins of Palm Sunday
As explained in a previous article, the Jewish custom of commemorating the significant events of salvation continued in the Church, with the focus placed upon Christ’s person and work. The Church’s reenactment of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” and the waving of palm leaves through a liturgical palm procession seems to have originated in Jerusalem during the fourth century. This early practice included reading of relevant Scripture passages, singing hymns, and visiting several holy sites in the city. As the custom spread throughout Europe, the ritualization of the blessing of the palms and the procession appears to have arisen in the eighth century during the reign of Charlemagne. It became a common practice throughout Europe by the eleventh century.
In some regions, where palms didn’t grow naturally, flowers or other plants were used instead. Some symbol of Christ, whether the bishop, the Blessed Sacrament, the Gospel Book, a crucifix, or an image of Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, would lead the procession. The singing of one of the most beautiful hymns of the Church—“All Glory, Laud, and Honor”—was gradually added after it was composed in the early ninth century by the Benedictine Bishop St. Theodulf (760-821).
How Do We Know Who Is King?
In the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 9 but gradually turns toward Jerusalem in fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah 9. Zechariah prophesied that one day God would judge Israel’s enemies and restore Israel through a great king who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. “Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!” urges the prophet, for “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass” (verse 9).
There is a backstory to this prophecy and Jesus’ fulfillment of it. It goes back to the time of King David’s kingdom. David had been promised that his son would reign from his throne forever (2 Samuel 7). But, of course, it wasn’t immediately clear which of David’s sons would be the son. A contest emerged.
During the final years of King David’s reign, David’s son Adonijah attempted a coup that is recorded in 1 Kings 1. Adonijah tried to wrest the kingdom from his brother Solomon through political, liturgical, and military strategery. When David was made aware of Adonijah’s plot, he paraded Solomon into Jerusalem on his own donkey and swiftly enthroned him as king to great shouts and songs of joy (1 Kings 1:28-40).
Jesus Is the Promised Son of David
Fast forward to the time of the exile, centuries after King Solomon. When the prophet Zechariah announced that Israel will be restored by a king who will enter Jerusalem on a donkey, he addressed one of the most important questions the Israelites would have had at his time and at the time of Jesus’ ministry. That question was: who is the son of David? The Israelites had been conquered and exiled. The lineage of David had been lost. The prophet Zechariah told the Israelites that they will be able to identify the promised son of David in the same way they knew that Solomon, not Adonijah, was the true son of David. The son of David will ride into Jerusalem on a donkey to shouts of joy like Solomon did centuries ago.
Thus, all four Gospels (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; and John 12:12-19) relay the moment Jesus entered Jerusalem as a fulfillment of Zechariah 9. They tell us that as he approached, people laid down their cloaks for him to trod over and exclaimed, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!”. It was, let us be clear, not merely a religious experience, but a profoundly political affair. For there was already a king of Israel and, of course, a Roman Caesar. When Christ entered Jerusalem as king, he called into question the political establishment as much as the religious leadership.
Christ the King of Societies as Well as Souls
This is true today no less than it was two thousand years ago. We must be mindful that Christ is king not just of souls, but of societies as well. We must recover what is commonly called the “social kingship of Christ,” the doctrine that says Christ’s kingship has as much to do with politics as it has to do with personal spirituality. It has been most recently and profoundly expounded by Pope Pius XI as a response to the First World War. His response was in the form of an encyclical called Quas Primas most known for its institution of the Solemnity of Christ the King.
Pius XI pointed out that Christ’s comprehensive kingship is a consequence of his divinity. Christ is Lord not just of his faithful followers, but of every creature because he is the creator. There is literally no dimension of reality that exists apart from Jesus Christ, thus all of creaturely life must be ordered and subjected to him.
Christ is the heavenly source of all earthly political and legal authority. “It would be a grave error,” Pius XI warns, “to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power” (Quas Primas, 17). “If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ” (Quas Primas, 18).
Christ’s Grotesque Cross Is His Glorious Throne!
It can feel awkward to move from cheering to condemning Christ in the Palm Sunday liturgy. Why do we pair these two seemingly opposite events? In the first place, there is the fact that Christ’s kingly display of power is, paradoxically, not found in a military conquest of his enemies but in his crucifixion at their hands. Christ’s grotesque cross is his glorious throne.
The cross as a form of execution seems to have originated during Roman conquests. Roman soldiers displayed their victory and power by parading the conquered leader crucified in a “triumphal procession” through the streets. So when the Romans affixed the titular atop Christ’s cross which declared Jesus of Nazareth as “King of the Jews,” it was entirely in jest.
Christians, however, know that the titular is true. The Scriptures depict Christ’s cross not as a defeat but a victory. In a fascinating instance of this counterintuitive teaching, St. Paul says that Christ “disarmed” the rulers of this world and the powers of evil by leading them in the triumphal procession of his cross (Colossians 2:15). While the powers of Rome thought Jesus’ crucifixion was yet another display of their victory and power, it was actually the way Christ exercised his eternal power and victory over all the earthly and evil rulers of this world. The reason we pair the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with his cross is because his cross is the expression and manner of his rule and power.
The second reason we connect Christ’s kingly entry into Jerusalem with his passion is because it captures the dynamic of the Christian life. One minute we are confidently praising Jesus, with great joy and fervor, and the next are sinning and murmuring against him. As quickly as we enthrone him in our hearts, we dethrone him by our sin. Palm Sunday keeps us honest about our duplicitous selves and the precariousness of the spiritual life.
The Meaning of Palm Sunday Today
What, then, should we be contemplating on Palm Sunday? Palm Sunday is about recognizing Christ as the king who claims and commands all things. It reminds us to welcome Christ not just as friend and loving Savior of our soul, but as the almighty and just king of the universe. It calls us to enthrone Christ in our hearts through prayer, penance, and praise. It instructs us to subject our domains—our homes, our places of work, our places of rest and vacation—to the dominion of Christ Jesus, saying with the way we conduct and order ourselves, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” It reminds us to shout, with every thought, act, donation, purchase, and vote, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Palm Sunday is a call to reconsider our allegiances. Who claims us? To whom do we listen and submit our judgment? What principles or priorities dominate our lives? In defiance of those who would claim our allegiance—whether celebrities, athletes, scientists, politicians, commentators, or journalists—we determine to yield only to Christ and his ministers. We refuse to be subjected to any order, any set of priorities or principles, whether economic, political, or social when it contradicts the agenda of Christ’s kingdom. It is a time to become as familiar with the Church’s social teaching as we are with her moral and spiritual teachings.
Palm Sunday reminds us of the nature of the Christian life as one of continually turning to the Cross for forgiveness and freedom from sin. It keeps us be humble. It prompts us to acknowledge that Christian spirituality is not obviously triumphant and easy, but a spirituality of asceticism and mortification. The power of Christ is the power of his cross, and we are animated by his power—we detect his reign in our lives—when we forsake the well-tread ways of the world and our disordered desire for physical satisfaction at the expense of spiritual reality. We are animate by Christ’s power when we let ourselves be filled with the love and justice that obtains eternally among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As St. Paul tells us in Galatians 5, the freedom Christ gives us is the freedom of the Cross, freedom to crucify the passions of the flesh which lead to “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like” in order to make way for the life of the Holy Spirit, the fruit of which “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Palm Sunday reminds us that the pattern of Christ’s reign is being crucified to this world and surrender to the Father in heaven.
Dr. James R. A. Merrick is a lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.