The hopeful crowd greeted Jesus as he came into Jerusalem riding on a colt. They waved palms and laid down their cloaks before him, welcoming their king. Full of anticipation and joy they cried out: "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come! Hosanna in the highest!" (Mark 11:8-10)
The Catholic Church remembers this event during the procession that begins every Mass. On Palm Sunday, the connection is made clear as the assembly joins the priest in a solemn procession into the church. Waving palms and singing praise, Catholics celebrate Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem for it was there that he accomplished the salvation of the world.
According to Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Encyclopedia, the prayer of blessing "reminds the assembly that we are to welcome Christ into our own lives and bear faithful witness to his Lordship over us."
Then a Gospel account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is proclaimed preferably by a deacon. This year Mark 11:1-10 or John 12:12-16 will be proclaimed and may be followed by a homily. Then altar servers lead the procession into the church as parishioners and clergy follow singing praise to Jesus, "king of glory." Many sing "All Glory Laud and Honor," but a variety of songs may be sung depending on the parish.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Jesus' entry into Jerusalem manifested the coming of the kingdom that the King-Messiah was going to accomplish by the Passover of his death and resurrection. It is with the celebration of that entry on Palm Sunday that the Church's liturgy solemnly opens Holy Week." (no. 560)
Palm Sunday, which is properly called Passion Sunday, is celebrated the Sunday before Easter. This year it falls on April 5.
The reason it is called Passion Sunday becomes evident as the tone of the Mass radically changes with the reading of Christ's passion and death as the Gospel for the day.
The stark contrast between the people first welcoming Jesus and then turning on him, calling for his crucifixion, stands out in the experience of this feast day.
Deacon Mike Cumnock of St. Mary Church in Batesville and St. Cecilia Church in Newport, said, "Jesus goes from the triumph of the king to humbling himself and dying on a cross."
"And interestingly enough, he's mocked as a king," Cumnock said. "They put up a sign calling him the king of the Jews. A couple minutes before, in the same service, he was being honored as that king."
Father Greg Luyet, pastor of St. Michael Church in West Memphis and Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Crawfordsville, said it is important to understand that what Jesus came to do was beyond comprehension at that time. The Jewish people's expectation of the promised messiah was nothing like Jesus. For them, the messiah, a descendent of King David, was to lead a rebellion to free them from their Roman occupation.
"But instead they got a suffering servant who brought about the salvation of their souls, not necessarily the salvation of their bodies," he said.
Uniting Jesus' entry into Jerusalem with his passion and death in the same Mass offers Christians a powerful teaching that is beyond understanding even in this day and time, Cumnock said.
"If Jesus had been the king they were expecting, he'd be written about in the history books but would have no impact on our life," Cumnock added. "The kind of king Jesus was, 2,000 years later, we're still struggling with the power of that kingdom."
Father Luyet said the contrasting Gospel accounts "shows the fickleness of humanity."
"We try our best to live a good, faithful life, but the reality is, all of us sin," he said. "At one time or another all of us stand in the place of all of those characters that we meet reading the passion."
Father Shaun Wesley, diocesan director of the Office of Divine Worship, said palms were used in Jewish tradition to celebrate triumph or victory. For Christians, the palm branch became a symbol of martyrdom.
Father Luyet said waving palms to celebrate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem holds both meanings.
"We see the martyrdom as the means to the victory because martyrdom isn't the end of the story," he said.
Even the words used to praise Jesus as he entered Jerusalem have deeper meaning. The catechism explains that the word "hosanna" means "save" or "give salvation." This term along with the acclamation, "blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord," is used during the Sanctus (Holy, Holy) of every Mass. It concludes the preface to the Eucharistic prayer "that introduces the memorial of the Lord's Passover. (no. 559)
"When we celebrate the Eucharist, we're not just becoming present to his resurrected body, or it's not just his body in heaven coming to us, but it's also his sacrificed body," Father Wesley explained. "It's really his life, his death and his resurrection; the crucifixion and the resurrection are both present to us in the Eucharist."
Father Wesley, who is also administrator of St. Elizabeth Church in Eureka Springs and St. Anne Church in Berryville, said what Catholics do on Palm Sunday and throughout Holy Week by taking part in the events of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection is "not us play acting these things out."
When Catholics wave palms in procession, become the characters in the passion or wash each others' feet, it is an act of anamnesis, which Father Wesley said, is "a remembering that makes present."
"We're remembering these things in a way that is making us present to when it happened 2,000 years ago, and it's making it present to us today through the work of the Holy Spirit, through the Tradition of the Church," he said.
For Marilyn Moix, sacristan at St. Joseph Church in Conway, personally entering into Christ's procession into Jerusalem and his passion, death and resurrection, brings home "how human we are, and how broken we are, in that we still sin against him even to this day."
"Humanly I look at it as the entrance of the Lord into our lives as a people and then to see how we were human and broken in that we chose to turn our backs on him," she said.
"I think if we are making that walk, and particularly I think if we make that walk as Catholics, there is such significance there if we will just be quiet and listen to the readings, respond at the appropriate times and really immerse ourselves in what Holy Week means to us as a faith."
"As sad and tragic as it is, for us as humans, when we sin against Jesus every day, even in this current time, there's a crucifixion moment that happens all over again," she said. "For me, personally, that Palm Sunday celebration and that Holy Week really bring that front and center to me and I hope in some way that every single year it brings me back to center. And it helps me understand why I follow my faith and why I need God so much in my life."
The blessed palm frond that everyone gets is a sacramental to take home "hopefully with the passion in mind," Cumnock said.
Father Wesley said a blessed palm is a devotional object like any other blessed object, such as a rosary, crucifix or medal.
Traditionally Catholics keep their palms near or behind a crucifix, on a prayer altar or with their Bible.
Keeping the palm not only helps Catholics remember Jesus' Passion but also helps "us taking up our crosses and not shy away from whatever crosses the Lord has given us," he added.
Catholics are then asked to bring their palms back a year later to be burned so the ashes can be used on Ash Wednesday to begin Lent anew.
Father Luyet said using ashes from the previous year's blessed palms shows "the connection between the suffering, death and resurrection and our own need for continuing conversion."
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