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Palm Sunday: What it is, and why it will be low key for Catholics

By Japheth Ogila | April 4th 2020
Catholics led by Diocese of Embu nuns in a procession in Kyeni to celebrate Palm Sunday. [Joseph Muchiri, Standard]

Catholics around the world are celebrating Palm Sunday. It encompasses a deviation from the normal celebrations due to the coronavirus penetrating various countries around the globe.

Doubts cloud the practice of processional walk with palm tree leaves as faithful stream into their local churches for the mass.

In Kenya, the Government had announced a ban on social gatherings. The directive massively affected the church congregations as it abhors close body contacts which could lead to infections.

Based on the government directive, Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) on Saturday evening directed Catholics to follow Palm Sunday service on various local TV stations. The mass is to be aired by stations such as KTN Home, Farmers TV, Citizen, KBC and NTV. The clerics say the move is to enforce the social distance and “stay at home” orders to combat the spread of Covid-19.

What is it?

The fete marks the beginning of a crucial period in the Catholic calendar. According to Catholic.org, Palm Sunday is the last Sunday of the period of Lent. It marks the beginning of what they refer to as the Holy Week leading to the Easter period.

Catholic sources have heaped significance on the Palm Sunday which they tie to a biblical event in which Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem city riding on a donkey as followers welcomed him with palm tree twigs.

Catholic.org states: “Palm Sunday is known as such because the faithful will often receive palm fronds which they use to participate in the reenactment of Christ's arrival in Jerusalem. In the Gospels, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a young donkey, and to the lavish praise of the townspeople who threw clothes, or possibly palms or small branches, in front of him as a sign of homage. This was a customary practice for people of great respect.”

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It reveals that Jesus’ ride on a donkey was symbolic the same as the palm tree leaves themselves.

It reads: “The use of a donkey instead of a horse is highly symbolic, it represents the humble arrival of someone in peace, as opposed to arriving on a steed in war.”

“Palm branches are widely recognised symbols of peace and victory, hence their preferred use on Palm Sunday.”

In further says that Christ rose from the dead after crucifixion a week later, setting the foundation for Catholic Church’s institution and celebration of Easter.

The Catholic Church has clear cut directions of how the church members acquire the palm tree leaves and how they discard them after their prayers.

“During Palm Sunday Mass, palms are distributed to parishioners who carry them in a ritual procession into the church. The palms are blessed and many people will fashion them into small crosses or other items of personal devotion. These may be returned to the church, or kept for the year,” Catholic.org states.

“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,” it further notes of how the church regards the palm tree with divinity.

Origin of Palm Sunday

According to Christian Today.com, the fete began in the fourth century in commemoration of Jesus Christ’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem as documented in Christian’s Holy Bible.

It says: “Palm Sunday started around the fourth century in the Jerusalem Church. In its early celebration, Christians sang hymns and recited prayers and sermons as they walked through several holy sites in the city.”

Though there no accounts of marking Palm Sunday in the Bible, after Jesus’ crucifixion and ascension, Christian Today.com says that practice had certain norms which were followed which spilled from generation to generation.

“When they reached the place where Jesus ascended to heaven, the clergy would recite gospels pertaining to Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. After which, the people would go back to the church for an evening service, with the children carrying with them palm and olive branches,” it states.

“Since then, the celebration has spread in different areas and has also evolved through the centuries.”

Nonetheless, there are other conflicting accounts detailing the beginning of Palm Sunday. For instance, Catholic Culture.org reveals that the doctrine may have begun in northern Italy during the reign of Frankish Kingdom around eighth century.

“This Palm Sunday procession, and the blessing of palms, seems to have originated in the Frankish Kingdom. The earliest mention of these ceremonies is found in the Sacramentary of the Abbey of Bobbio in northern Italy, it says.

In the article describing the history of Palm Sunday, penned by Fr Francis Weiser, it appears the fete was incorporated into Roman Catholic Church after it originated from the Frankish Kingdom.

“The rite was soon accepted in Rome and incorporated into the liturgy. The prayers used today are of Roman origin. A Mass was celebrated in some church outside the walls of Rome, and there the palms were blessed,” states Catholic Culture.org.


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