Palm Sunday is an important date in the Christian calendar. As the first Sunday before Easter it is the beginning of holy week and the lead up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The week started with Jesus arriving into Jerusalem on the Sunday, followed by his arrest by Thursday, his crucifixion on the Friday, and his eventual resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday.
It is this first Sunday that we are celebrating today.
Palm Sunday commemorates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. The gospels record jesus as arriving in the city on a donkey while the crowd spread their cloaks and palm branches on the street and welcomed him as their long-awaited messiah and king.
During Jesus’ time it was custom in the near east for kings and nobles to arrive not only in a procession and on the back of a donkey, but to also have their path covered in some way as a mark of respect and honour. The humble donkey was known as a symbol of peace and the entry into a town on a donkey by a king or noble showed that they had come with peaceful intentions, in contrast to someone coming on horseback which was thought of as an animal of war. In addition the palm branches were a symbol of goodness, victory or triumph. There are many known examples in the bible where this type of scenario is known, however the return of Christ on Palm Sunday is probably the best known.
The actual practice of celebrating Palm Sunday within the Christian church is thought to have originated in the late 4th century which then spread as far as Constantinople and the Mediterranean by the 5th century. By the 6th and 7th centuries the practice of blessing the palm fronds and an evening procession had changed to a morning procession. This was adopted by the western church in the 8th century when the day became known as ‘Dominica in Palmis’ or Palm Sunday.
The officiating clergyman usually wore vestments of deep red symbolising the colour of blood for Christ’s sacrifice and death. Palm branches were then blessed in a ceremony and a mass including the passion and the benediction were then sung. In England and other countries where the climate was too cold for palm trees substitutes could be made from yew, willow and sallow trees. After the ceremony the palm branches were collected up and burnt to be used on Ash Wednesday the following year.
It was against this backdrop in 867 that King Aelle and Osbert reunited their forces against the Danes and entered the city of York on Palm Sunday. They had no doubt thought to arrive as Christian liberators against the pagans, saving their people as well as the Christian religion from the barbarians. Unfortunately the kings found only death and despair and for the survivors of York, the week that symbolised the death of their saviour and the beginning of a new age in Christianity had strange parallels for the future of their own people.
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