Symbolism in the Palm Sunday Event

Entry into Jerusalem, painting by Giotto di BondoneGiotto di Bondone (1267-1337), Cappella Scrovegni a Padova, Life of Christ, Entry into Jerusalem

Palm Sunday is the final Sunday of Lent, the beginning of Holy Week, and commemorates the triumphant arrival of Christ in Jerusalem, days before he was crucified.  The event is mentioned in each of the four canonical Gospels and reveals how the tide changed for Jesus in the space of just five days from welcoming Him with praise, only to be betrayed, cruelly treated and many baying for His blood!  We might reflect on how fickle and easily swayed human beings can be.  We can doubtless think of examples in our own experiences of life.  But a week later, Christ would rise from the dead on the first Easter.

Palm Sunday is known as such because the faithful will often receive palm fronds which they use to participate in the re-enactment of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem.  Palms are a widely recognised symbol of peace and victory.  In the Gospels, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey and to the lavish praise of the townspeople who threw clothes and palms or small branches in front of him as a symbol of homage.  This was a customary practice for people of great respect.  The use of a donkey instead of a horse is highly symbolic also.  It represents the humble arrival of someone in peace, as opposed to arriving on a steed which a King would do when minded for war. It symbolised His entry as the Prince of Peace.  Christian theologians believe that the symbolism is captured prophetically in the Old Testament:   “…See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey…”  (Zechariah 9:9)

During Palm Sunday Mass palms are distributed to parishioners, having been blessed, and many people will fashion them into small crosses or other items of personal devotion. Because the palms are blessed, they may not be discarded as trash.  Instead, they are appropriately gathered at the church and incinerated to create the ashes that will be used in the follow year’s Ash Wednesday observance.

The vestment colours of the Mass on Palm Sunday are deep red, the colour of blood, indicating the supreme redemptive sacrifice which Christ was entering the city to fulfil.