Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger
Early in the morning of this day, Jesus sets out for Jerusalem, leaving Mary His Mother, and the two sisters Martha and Mary Magdalene, and Lazarus, at Bethania. The Mother of Sorrows trembles at seeing her Son thus expose Himself to danger, for His enemies are bent upon His destruction; but it is not death, it is triumph, that Jesus is to receive today in Jerusalem. The Messias, before being nailed to the cross, is to be proclaimed King by the people of the great city; the little children are to make her streets echo with their Hosannas to the Son of David; and this, in the presence of the soldiers of Rome's emperor, and of the high priests and Pharisees: the first standing under the banner of their eagles; the second, dumb with rage.
The prophet Zachary had foretold this triumph which the Son of Man was to receive a few days before His Passion, and which had been prepared for Him from all eternity. "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion! Shout with joy, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold thy King will come to thee; the Just and the Savior. He is poor, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass" (Zach. 9, 9). Jesus, knowing that the hour has come for the fulfillment of this prophecy, singles out two from the rest of His disciples, and bids them lead to Him an ass and her colt, which they would find not far off. He has reached Bethphage, on Mount Olivet. The two disciples lose no time in executing the order given them by their Divine Master; and the ass and the colt are soon brought to the place where He stands.
The holy Fathers have explained to us the mystery of these two animals. The ass represents the Jewish people, which had been long under the yoke of the Law; the colt, upon which, as the evangelist says, no man hath yet sat, is a figure of the Gentile world, which no one had ever yet brought into subjection. The future of these two peoples is to be decided a few days hence: the Jews will be rejected, for having refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Messias; the Gentiles will take their place, to be adopted as God's people, and become docile and faithful.
The disciples spread their garments upon the colt; and our Savior, that the prophetic figure might be fulfilled, sits upon it, and advances towards Jerusalem. As soon as it is known that Jesus is near the city, the Holy Ghost works in the hearts of those Jews, who have come from all parts to celebrate the feast of the Passover. They go out to meet Our Lord, holding palm branches in their hands, and loudly proclaiming Him to be King. They that have accompanied Jesus from Bethania, join the enthusiastic crowd. Whilst some spread their garments on the way, others cut down boughs from the palm trees, and strew them along the road. Hosanna is the triumphant cry, proclaiming to the whole city that Jesus, the Son of David, has made His entrance as her King.
Thus did God, in His power over men's hearts, procure a triumph for His Son, and in the very city which, a few days later, was to clamor for His Blood. This day was one of glory to our Jesus, and Holy Church would have us renew, each year, the memory of this triumph of the God-Man. Jesus begins His reign upon the earth this very day; and though the first Israel is soon to disclaim His rule, a new Israel, formed from the faithful few of the old, shall rise up in every nation of the earth, and become the kingdom of Christ, a kingdom such as no mere earthly monarch ever coveted in his wildest fancies of ambition.
This is the glorious mystery which ushers in the great Week, the Week of dolors. Holy Church would have us give this momentary consolation to our heart, and hail our Jesus as our King. She has so arranged the service of today, that it should express both joy and sorrow; joy, by uniting herself with the loyal hosannas of the city of David; and sorrow, by compassionating the Passion of Her Divine Spouse. The whole function is divided into three parts.
The first is the blessing of the palms, which imparts a virtue to these branches and elevates them to the supernatural order. Thus they become a means for the sanctification of our souls and the protection of our persons and dwellings. The faithful should hold these palms in their hands during the procession, and keep them in their homes as an outward expression of their faith, and as a pledge of God's watchful love.
A word on the antiquity of this ceremony will not be superfluous. It began very early in the east. It is probable that, as far as Jerusalem itself is concerned, the custom was established immediately after the ages of persecution. St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem in the 4th century, tells us that the palm tree, from which the people cut branches to meet the Savior, was still to be seen in the valley of Cedron. In the west, we find first mention of this ceremony in the Sacramentary of St. Gregory, in the late 6th century.
The second of today's ceremonies is the procession, which follows the chanting of the Gospel narrative. It represents Our Savior's journey to Jerusalem, and His entry into the city. To make it more expressive, the branches that have just been blessed are held in the hands of the faithful. With the Jews, to hold a branch in one's hand was a sign of joy. The Divine Law had sanctioned this practice, as we read in the following passage from Leviticus, where God commands His people to keep the feast of tabernacles: And you shall take to you, on the first day, the fruits of the fairest tree, and branches of palm trees, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God (Lev. 23, 40). It was, therefore, to testify their delight at seeing Jesus enter within their walls, that the inhabitants, even the little children, of Jerusalem, went forth to meet Him with palms in their hands. Let us, also, go before our King, singing our hosannas to Him as the conqueror of death, and the liberator of His people.
Palm Sunday Procession with the Blessed SacramentDuring the Middle Ages, it was the custom, in many churches, to carry the book of the Holy Gospels in this procession. The Gospel contains the words of Jesus Christ, and was considered to represent Him. The procession halted at an appointed place: the deacon then opened the sacred volume and sang from it the passage which describes Our Lord's entry into Jerusalem. In England and Normandy, as far back as the 11th century, the Blessed Sacrament was carried in procession. The heresy of Berengarius, against the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, had been broached about that time; and the tribute of triumphant joy here shown to the Sacred Host was distant preparation for the feast and procession of Corpus Christi, which were to be instituted at a later period.
A touching ceremony was also practiced in Jerusalem during today's procession: the whole community of Franciscans (to whose custody the Holy Places were entrusted) went in the morning to Bethphage. There, the Father Guardian of the Holy Land, being vested in pontifical robes, mounted upon an ass, on which garments were laid. Accompanied by the friars and the Catholics of Jerusalem, all holding palms in their hands, he entered the city, and alighted at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Mass was celebrated with all possible solemnity.
From these different usages, we learn that, in today's procession, the Church wishes us to honor Jesus Christ as though He were really among us, and were receiving the humble tribute of our loyalty. Let us lovingly go forth to meet this our King, our Savior, who comes to visit the daughter of Sion, as the prophet has just told us. He is in our midst; it is to Him that we pay honor with our palms: let us give Him our hearts too. He comes that He may be our King; let us welcome Him as such, and fervently cry out to Him: Hosanna to the Son of David!
The third part of today's service is the offering of the Holy Sacrifice. The portions that are sung by the choir are expressive of the deepest desolation; and the history of Our Lord's Passion, which is now to be read by anticipation, gives to the rest of the day that character which we all know so well. For the last six or seven centuries, the Church has adopted a special chant for this narrative of the Holy Gospel. The historian (Chronista) relates the events in a tone that is at once grave and pathetic; the words of Our Savior (Christus) are sung to a solemn yet sweet melody, which strikingly contrasts with the high dominant of the several other interlocutors and the Jewish populace (Synagoga).
This Sunday, besides its liturgical and popular appellation of Palm Sunday, has several other names. Thus it was called Hosanna Sunday, in allusion to the acclamation wherewith the Jews greeted Jesus on His entry into Jerusalem. Our forefathers used also to call it Pascha Floridum, because the Feast of the Pasch (or Easter), which is but eight days off, is today in bud, so to speak. It was in allusion to this name, that the Spaniards, having on the Palm Sunday of 1513, discovered the peninsula on the Gulf of Mexico, called it Florida.