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The true meaning of Palm Sunday

Published: 
Sunday, April 17, 2011
A boy sits among cut palm fronds which are sold to those who make them into different designs for celebrations of Palm Sunday in Manila, Philippines, yesterday. Roman Catholics around the country observe Palm Sunday to signify the entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem and to usher the start of Holy Week. AP photo

Tomorrow followers of the Christian faith around the world will observe Palm Sunday. It is one of the most important days in the Christian calendar and marks the beginning of Holy Week, immediately preceding the week of events leading up to Jesus' death and resurrection.Palm Sunday derives its name from the palm branches that were waved by the crowds of people and strewn in the path of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem for the Passover riding on a donkey. They shouted: ‘Hosanna!’ (Liberate us) believing that Jesus was the Messiah coming to free them from Roman oppression. As a symbol of their faith and devotion, many Christians keep the palm crosses which are distributed during Palm Sunday service and hang them in their houses through the year.

According to Leela Ramdeen, chair of the Catholic Commission for Social Justice, the Jewish people most likely picked up the practice of using and waving palms in celebrations and coronations from the Romans. Ramdeen explained: “The waving of palms was significant in those days in Jerusalem because the Romans used to give palms to those who were victorious in their games, example chariot races, gladiatorial games, military conquests and the crowning of Caesars.” Palm Sunday is also known as Passion Sunday because it commemorates the beginning of Holy Week and Jesus’ final agonising journey to the cross. The English word ‘passion’ comes from Latin, ‘pati’ to suffer. Palm Sunday is now called Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.

Ramdeen said the lowly donkey played a significant role in the event. “It is interesting historically and significant that you see the donkey playing a major role because people who would have received palms, the victors, would have ridden in on their horses or chariots, not on a donkey, which was used by simple country people. “You wouldn’t find rich people riding donkeys,” Ramdeen said. “In fact that symbolise not only the humility of Jesus, but peace. He did not come for war like warriors who waved palms. “It really is ironical that Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem during his last week on this earth on a donkey, which became the throne for our King, the Son of God.” Ashes made by burning palm fronds kept from Palm Sunday are used on Ash Wednesday and are blessed by a priest. Ramdeen revealed that some Palm Sunday traditions are no longer being followed. “Some churches do not tie the palms into little crosses but just give you a piece of palm instead,” she said.

“I remember in times past when the priest would press the palm against your lips, then you kissed his hand. There would also be a procession through the church and around the compound and into the street. “It was a public demonstration of our faith and belief in the risen Christ. That’s how we used to do it. I don’t know if that is done now.” She continued: “Alternatively palms were just handed out by altar boys, or altar girls because now we have girls also. In certain countries and places, depending on the size of the parish, the priest distributed the palms to his congregation, but in Trinidad servers handed them out.”

Ramdeen added that there is an important lesson to be learned from how Jesus was treated by the crowds. “We must not forget about the fickleness of people. One minute they’re praising Jesus as king and the next they want to exchange him for Barabbas and have him crucified on the cross. “If we are to live as Catholics and reflect Gospel values—there are more than 300,000 Catholics in T&T—we would change our society. We will be the leaven in the dough, we will be the light that shines. Jesus was seen as the light of world. He came for us to live like he did.”