Derrick Yap OFM


Palm Sunday opens the Holy Week celebration and because it is the start of the week, it is appropriate that the spirit of Holy Week be communicated in the liturgy of this day.  The unity and uniqueness of this week focuses on the Passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.  This theme is reflected in the brief introduction by the celebrant where he says “Christ entered in triumph into his own city, to complete his work as our Messiah: to suffer, to die, and to rise again… United in him in his suffering on the cross, may we share his resurrection and new life.”  The readings in the Divine Office are also concerned with the aspects of the passion and the resurrection, in addition to those of kingship and victory.


Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem was a many-sided kaleidoscopic event, its ambivalence is most painfully obvious in view of what happened a few days later, where Jesus was rejected by the people and by the Jewish and Roman authorities and condemned to the Cross.   There are many layers here:

  1. The Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah would not establish the reign of God by force of arms but would “come humble and riding on an ass” (Zech 9:9).
  2. The expectation of the Jews at the time – that the new prophet from Nazareth would set up a messianic kingdom, a final and definitive reign of peace, and that kingdom was about to begin, especially after the miracle of the raising of Lazarus.  We recall the processional hymn, “Who is he, the king of glory?  He, the Lord of armies. Let him enter, the King of glory!” (Ps 23:10).
  3. The expectation of the disciples – which was no different from the masses.  They asked him after the resurrection “Lord, will you this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
  4. Mind of Jesus – he prayed that the misunderstanding would be set aside, that he would penetrate beyond the hour of darkness and of hell.  And through his Father’s power and the operation of the Holy Spirit, he would enter into his real kingdom, which would be eternal. 
  5. Heart and mind of today’s congregation – what are their expectations (von Balthasar, p. 69)?  Von Balthasar in his reflection speaks of liberation from poverty and injustice.  But on a more personal level, what would our expectations really be?




Tracing the significance of palm branches, we find that:

  1. From ancient times they have been a symbol of victory and triumph.  The Romans rewarded their champions of the games with palms.  Jews followed the same custom (Lev 23:40, 1Macc 13:37). They also carried palm branches on their festive occasions, hence the use of palms at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. 
  2. New Testament: symbol of martyrdom (Rev 7:9), victory over death, usually using date palms (Gk: foinix).
  3. LXX transliteration of Ps 91:12-13: Palm tree planted in the house of God.  Palm trees represent paradise.  In ancient art, Jesus is portrayed in heaven amid palms.
  4. The word foinix became confused with phoenix, believed to revive from its ashes.  Thus, since the end of the 4th century, the palm branch also becomes the symbol of resurrection.


The historical development of the Palm Sunday liturgy can be briefly stated as below:

  1. It was celebrated with particular solemnity since the 1st century of Christianity and is one of the 12 Major Feasts in the Liturgical Calendar of the Byzantine Rite. 
  2. From earliest times, the celebration in Jerusalem was conducted with great joy and solemnity and it begun at the 11th hour (5pm).  The practice was passed to Egypt then to Syria and then to Asia Minor.  In the 5th century, it was practiced in Constantinople and the celebration was moved to the morning in the 6th and 7th century (Pamphlet for Byzantine Rite, p.1).
  3. The pilgrimage diary of a 5th century Spanish ascetic Etheria, informs us of the practice in Jerusalem at that time.  There would be a lengthy word service in the afternoon on the 6th Sunday of Lent. Towards the evening, people would process into Jerusalem with olive or palm branches. 
  4. By the year 600, the celebration had moved to the West and the name Palm Sunday surfaced in Spain and Gaul without any reference to a procession. 
  5. In an 8th century Sacramentary from northern Italy known as the Bobbio Sacramentary, there existed a rite for the blessing of palm branches.
  6. In the Middle Ages, the procession with palms had become very popular.  In addition to the palms, the cross or gospel book was also employed as symbols of Christ’s presence on the way to Jerusalem.  This custom disappeared at the end of the Middle Ages.
  7. In 1955, the reform of Holy Week revived the procession with palm branches (Neumann, p. 9-10). 


Liturgy Matters


The liturgy embraces both the exultation and desolation that constitutes human life and weds them to the exultation and desolation of Christ.  And there lies our promise and our hope.  And therein lies also the paradox.  At the start of the liturgy, the celebration of triumphant entry with shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David” is deeply contrasted with the cries of “Crucify Him!” when we read the Gospel minutes later, concerning the Passion and death of Jesus.  In the Gospel, the scenes of the Last Supper and Jesus’ Passion offer further examples of the paradoxical nature of the liturgy, in the conflicting images of a farewell meal and the betrayal of Judas; in the promise of Peter and the realization of his denials at cockcrow; in the gathering of friends and their scattering at the first sign of danger. 


Kenosis, that is, self-emptying, as stated in the second reading, is the key to understanding the paradoxical meaning of this day.  Being emptied is the only way to become full in Christ, and only in willingness to be emptied can the filling up occur.  Only by experiencing cross and death can we possibly enter into the fullness of life in Christ’s resurrection (Neumann, p. 8). 


Cylwicki says that the effects of the contrasting moods are to reaffirm our faith in Jesus with the shouts of Hosanna and by the laying of our cloaks for him; also it is to solidify our hope, where death abounds in the midst of life.  The passion and resurrection of Jesus prove that life will prevail over death and we do not just have to endure the tragic, we can also triumph over it because of our faith and hope in Jesus.


Assembly – the people are gathered outside the Church and this underscores the threshold nature of this event.  By taking the first step with Jesus, there is no turning back and we are passing over with Christ in every facet of our lives (Neumann, p. 7)


Procession – this is not meant to be a nostalgic re-enactment but a joyful acclamation of Jesus as Messiah and King whom we honour with branches.  The blessing of branches in the liturgy has these words “honour Christ… by carrying these branches… by faithfully following him”.  Thus it is a public profession of discipleship inspired by faith and a grateful heart (Neumann, p. 8).  Flood (p. 8) has this to add about the significance of the procession.  He likens it to a journey with Jesus.  And in this journey, do we recognise him in the gospel, in each other, in our own selves?  Does our journey with him mean more than anything else? 


Ending – the ending of the worship is left open and shows that this is only the beginning of Christ’s passion journey and ours (Neumann, p. 9).



The Readings


The sequence of the readings is noteworthy as it provides a logical progression of thought.  The very first passage we hear is a gospel account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem amid triumphant shouts of victory.  This text, which is read right at the commencement of the liturgy, puts the procession of palms into perspective and helps the congregation to recall the event and so enables them to participate with better understanding


            The 1st and 2nd readings in the Mass are chosen to shed light on the gospel text and on the mystery of God’s plan for our salvation.  The 1st reading works with the motifs of discipleship, suffering and trust, which again surface in the gospel with reference to Jesus.  The 2nd reading possesses an added motif of exaltation. This theme is not carried into the gospel since the resurrection account is omitted. This is probably deliberate so as not to take away the climax from the Easter Vigil.  But because the exaltation theme is present in the 2nd reading, it lingers in the minds of the congregation even though most of the gospel is foreboding, giving them the anticipation of what is to come in a few days’ time.


The long gospel text recounts the events beginning with the conspiracy against Jesus right up till Jesus’ burial, which is almost the story of the whole week, and the text is imbued with paradoxes that are not easily fathomable.    


1st Reading


            This passage from Isaiah is the third servant song and it opens with the statement that God’s word is the source of salvation.  The servant must first be a disciple, prayerfully receiving God’s word before he can presume to teach others (Brown et al, I-377).  This suffering servant (the Messiah) accepts his role from the Father and is to preach God’s mercy to the people, but they reject and torture him.  However, all is overcome by meekness and by a deep faith in God his protector (Fuller et al, p. 593), since God is on his side and he will not be moved from his resolute purpose by their insults and injuries.  Applying this to our lives, we should recall that our struggles find a parallel in the suffering and crucifixion of Christ.  He is truly human and so he is our example that the journey to heaven is possible.  Our temptations in comparison to his trials are light. He was obedient and sinless, yet was humiliated and suffered and faithfully preached the message of God (O’ Sullivan, p. 155).


            Another major motif of this reading is trust, referring to Jesus’ trust in God the Father.  “I set my face like flint, I know I shall not be shamed” (Flood, p. 6).  The Responsorial Psalm (Ps 21) also carries the theme of trust.  The response is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and the first three verses speak about the humiliation and physical tortures delivered to him, but the fourth verse takes a sudden turn and is full of trust and praise for God. 


            Besides taking Christ as our example and building on our trust in the Father, the 1st reading also likens Jesus to the suffering servant who is rejected and ill-treated because of what he had said.  But Jesus does not seek approval from men but from God who grants him his triumph since Jesus is true to his vocation and is faithful.  On Palm Sunday, we are asked to live in solidarity with the Man of Sorrows and in fellowship with all victims of oppression, injustice, hatred and neglect (Maestri, 137-138).


2nd Reading


            St. Paul is quoting here an earlier liturgical hymn in which the Judeo-Christian Church expressed its faith in the true humanity and the true divinity of Jesus Christ.  But the text has been modified slightly with the addition – even death upon a cross (v. 8).  The hymn represented an early kerygmatic confession of faith.  The hymnic interpretation is based on rhythmic quality of the sentences, on the use of parallelism, and on the rare, characteristically un-Pauline expression.  The version listed here follows the arrangement of E. Lohmeyer (Brown et al, II- 250).


                        v. 6            Divine Pre-existence

                        v. 7             Humiliation of Incarnation

                        v. 8              Humiliation of Death

                        v. 9             Celestial Exaltation

                        v. 10            Adoration by the Universe

                        v. 11            Jesus’ new title: Kyrios


            He who was in the form (morphē) of God, implying that he was entitled then to all the divine prerogatives, humbled himself to become a man like us, and emptied himself in his incarnation. He hid his divine glory in the servant-condition. Similar to all men before God – Christ became in everyway as other men.  This emphasizes the reality of Christ’s abasement from a human viewpoint.  This self-humiliation goes still further.  His obedience (the mark of a servant) leads to the death of a slave on a cross.  With this death, he reaches the depths of abasement farthest removed from divine dignity.  But he received the divine glory back at his resurrection where God has given him the highest glory because of his deepest humiliation.  He receives the divine name, which is YHWH. LXX translates it as Kyrios, and in English as Lord (Brown et al, p.1195).  Because of this, everyone must confess and adore his equality in divine glory with his Father. 


            Thankfulness should fill our hearts towards the Father; and to his divine Son, our gratitude and confidence.  This should be our response to this reading.  Jesus is God and man and he humbled himself in order to represent us before the Father.  By his perfect obedience, he earned for us through his being our brother as well as being the Son of God, not only God’s forgiveness but also our sharing of his divinity (O’ Sullivan, p. 157).


More significantly, the 2nd reading is, in miniature, the story of Holy Week.  It reminds us that we need to see these events as a whole, as culminating in Jesus’ resurrection as the light and hope of our lives now.  The purpose of this week is to help us realise that more fully (Flood, p. 7).




            The long gospel passage, from Mark, narrates the Passover meal, the agony and arrest in Gethsemane, the trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus our Lord. 


            Craghan (p. 208) explains this text as full of paradox and mystery. It is calculated to evoke from the reader the centurion’s profession of faith: “Clearly this man was the Son of God!”  In the Jewish trial, the outcome is not the establishing of Jesus’ guilt but the revelation of his unique dignity – Messiah, Son of the Blessed One, Son of Man seated at God's right hand.  This revelation sadly results in cries of blasphemy and not those of homage.  In this light, Craghan says that God’s presence is a great discovery.  We often bypass people unlike ourselves.  They could be poor or not have the right job.  The suffering servant (Jesus) did not project the right image for the people, so he was rejected.  Yet he spoke for God.  With the servant, God’s presence is a great discovery.  Jesus was ridiculed, taunted, stripped, spat upon, and crucified.  Only in his death is his true identity revealed – clearly this man was the Son of God.  With Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, God’s presence is a great discovery.  Those who care for the poor and needy, and alleviate pain, persist in finding God. Those who deal honestly with the beautiful and less than beautiful people come across the great discovery of God.


            Trust is another theme taken up here by Flood (p. 14).  He already used the 1st reading to focus on trust and here again with the gospel, he re-enters into this theme.  The journey of Jesus into Jerusalem is worth reflecting on.  He knew what its consequences for him would be and we can think about that decision of his.  In the second reading of the Office of Readings, St Andrew of Crete wrote about ‘Christ going of his own accord to that holy and blessed passion to complete the mystery of salvation’.  He decided to commit himself fully to the kingdom, in spite of there being no apparent chance of success. He trusted that God would come to him in spite of what happens.  What is our trust in God like? 


            Another important facet of the gospel is Conversion.  Jesus through his incarnation, death and resurrection has made us sons of God, and heirs of God’s eternal kingdom.  During Holy Week, we need to remind ourselves daily of what God has done and is continuing to do for us.  We know we are utterly unworthy of the unfathomable love that God has shown us.  When looking at the crucifix, what can we do but bow our heads in shame and beat our breasts in humble contrition as some of the crowds did returning from Calvary on that first Good Friday.  But though we have reason to be ashamed and we need repentance, there should be no despair but hope, since Jesus asked for forgiveness for all those who brought about his agony and death..  “Forgive them Father…” and we are included. Holy Week will be a turning point in our lives if we repent of the past and turn to our loving God (O’ Sullivan, 158).


Some thoughts


            These thoughts arose while pondering on the question of von Balthasar about our expectations.  I see the events of Holy Week as recreating for me the reality that Jesus has broken the shackles of death and is leading me by the hand into his eternal home.  The triumph of Palm Sunday is like our moment of Baptism, when Christ claimed us as his own and at that moment, clasped our hand into his.  That is the moment of infused grace; that is the moment of victory.  But as the week progresses, the agony of Jesus and the moments of severe temptation present themselves and these have their parallels in our lives. When we are faced with multiple choices, the impulses of the Spirit and those of the flesh combat each other, causing us much distress, because of the fear of sacrifice, of suffering, of giving up instant pleasures.  There are doubts about whether all these pains will be worthwhile in the end, whether there is really God who loves us and calls us to him.  These tangible questions of the intangibles can be a source of much confusion and emptiness.  What happens after this is really dependent on the individual.  The freedom of choice is offered to each and every one of us.  But God presents Jesus as a model for all to follow.  Though in agony over his impending Passion, he never turned his eyes away from God and with certainty, placed his all into the hand of the Father, including his spirit.  He subjected himself willingly and patiently to the humiliations and physical pains of the Passion and crucifixion, even till the point of death.  These are all reflected in the readings of Palm Sunday.  His total self-giving and self-emptying was returned with total exaltation in his resurrection and glory.  That is certainly the vision and goal for us to look towards, while we abide in the Father and ask for the help of the Spirit to bear our trials and temptations patiently and to hold strong in our faith that one day we will join Christ in his eternal glory.




Neumann D., Holy Week in the Parish, 7-13.

Flood E., Making More of Holy Week, 1-15.

von Balthasar  H. U., You Crown the Year with Your Goodness, 69-75.

Pamphlet: Palm Sunday according to the Byzantine Rite Tradition.

O’ Sullivan K., The Sunday Readings, Cycle B, 155-160.

Maestri W., Grace Upon Grace, Cycle B, 137-138.

Cylwicki A., His Word Resounds, Cycle B, 125-127.

Craghan J., Yesterday’s Word Today, 208-209.

Brown R.E.  S.S., Fitzmyer J.A.  S.J. and Murphy R.E. O.Carm. (ed), The Jerome Biblical Commentary.

Fuller R.C., Johnston L. and Kearns C. (ed), The New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture.