Christian: Palm Sunday (& Sunday of Orthodoxy)

Palm fronds woven into crucifixes. Photo courtesy of FlickrSUNDAY, MARCH 24: Holy Week kicks off for Western Christians with waving palm fronds reminding modern churchgoers of Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Described in all four Gospels, Jesus’ ride was a popular event. Those who had gathered to greet him lay down their cloaks and small branches in his path, in imitation of a custom used only for those of highest honor.

WHAT’S IN A PALM? Although today bears the theme of palm fronds, only one Gospel—John’s—specifically identifies palms in the procession. In the ancient world, palms were symbols of high esteem and victory; they sometimes appeared on coins; ancient Egyptians carried palms in funeral processions as a symbol of eternal life. Even Solomon had palm branches carved into the walls and doors of the temple, and to this day, palms are one of the Four Species for the Jewish festival of Sukkot. (Wikipedia has details.)

In Christian churches today, the faithful will receive blessed palm leaves (or a substitution that can be found locally), and many will carry them home to display. In Mexico and Italy, especially, many will weave the palms into elaborate patterns and shapes and hang them above holy pictures, behind a crucifix or on the wall. (Learn to weave palms with help from this site.) In Elche, Spain—the site of the largest palm grove in Europe—palm leaves whitened and dried, after which skilled craftsmen braid them into extravagant shapes and figures.


The BBC issued a widespread plea for a new donkey this year—for a Palm Sunday service in Wiltshire. Reenactments are common around the world. In one community in Belgium, 12 actors imitate the apostles and carry a wooden statue of Christ through the streets; Filippinos tote their own statue of Christ through villages on a donkey, before which elderly women spread heirloom aprons in its path. Italians offer blessed palms to one another as gifts of reconciliation, while in Ukraine and Poland, pussy willow branches are playfully struck on others. (Get more customs and information from FishEaters, a Catholic site.)


Each Sunday of Lent represents a theme in Eastern Orthodoxy, and this—the first Sunday of Lent—recalls the historic victory of icons.

While most themes are spiritual, this one is historical, as the Triumph of Orthodoxy occurred at this time in 843 CE. Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. More than a millennia ago, an iconoclastic controversy had been raging for decades. What began in 726 CE had forced a rift among Christians, with Iconoclasts believing the miracles and worship attributed to icons was a dangerous form of idolatry; Iconophiles, or Iconodules, argued that boundaries needed to be set but that icons remained an important part of man’s expression of the divine. The Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 deemed icons objects worthy of veneration, but not worship. In 843, icons were restored and their place reestablished. (Read more at Orthodox Wiki.) The spiritual theme of this Sunday is the victory of True Faith, and the texts sung on the Sunday of Orthodoxy reflect those official teachings about icons.

Eastern Christians will observe Palm Sunday on April 28 this year.

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