With Holy Week approaching, Christians are making preparations for Palm Sunday, which honors the last days of Jesus, his trial and crucifixion.
It’s celebrated on the first day of Holy Week and the Sunday before Easter.
Palm Sunday is a celebration of Christianity around the world and the commemoration of Jesus dying and rising again, said Mark Jobe, president of the Moody Bible Institute and founding pastor of the New Life Community Church in Chicago.
After the first celebration in the gospels, the first recorded Palm Sunday dates back to the 4th century in Jerusalem, Jobe said. The ceremony wasn’t introduced to Western Christianity until about the 9th century.
According to the gospels, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem and people welcomed him as their king, he said, thinking he’d release them from Roman oppression. Days later, he was crucified.
The book of Luke, Jobe said, notes that as Jesus approached the cheering crowd welcoming him, he saw that his people wanted political peace but were in desperate need of “spiritual peace.”
“Palm Sunday makes no sense unless you understand that shortly after, Jesus would die and pay the price for anybody, no matter prostitute or religious person, to forgive their sins and to give them an entrance into a new kingdom called the kingdom of Heaven,” Jobe said.
Jesus entered the city knowing he’d be crucified, said Bishop Vashti McKenzie, interim president and general secretary of the National Council of Churches.
“The first chapter in Genesis talks about how God created the world,” she told USA TODAY. “Palm Sunday begins the journey of how God saved the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus.”
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The large, long palm branches were common in the Holy Land, Jobe said. During ancient times, they symbolized goodness and victory.
“It wasn’t something unique to Jesus,” he told USA TODAY. “When kings would come to town or when conquering warriors would come in, they would welcome them with palm branches, which they would throw on the ground in front of them.”
And during Grecian Games, winners would be welcomed with the branches, he said.
Conquering kings typically rode in chariots or on the back of stallions, so Jesus riding a donkey went against the norm, Jobe said.
The donkey, he said, was a symbol of peace but it also represented the fulfillment of a prophecy from Zechariah 9:9.
“Your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” the chapter reads.
The donkey is also a symbol of humility, said McKenzie, from the National Council of Churches.
Today, Palm Sunday celebrations vary according to the denomination.
Some people wear red or purple that day, Jobe said.
Calling it a “very celebratory worship service,” McKenzie, from the National Council of Churches, said churchgoers sing praise songs and lift palm branches of various sizes.
The branches are blessed and some families take them home, placing them on desks or shelves to remember the event.
“Traditionally, some of the branches are saved,” she said. “They’re not given out to people. They are saved and when you get to Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent, the ashes come from those burnt palm branches.”
She stressed a true understanding of why Christians celebrate Palm Sunday.
“It is a time of celebration,” she said. “Jesus died on the cross and when he died on the cross, he died for all of us, not for some of us, not for a few chosen few, but all of us.”
Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY’s NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia – the 757 – and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas, and food. Follow her on Twitter at @Saleen_Martin or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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