Externals of the Catholic Church – Palms

The beautiful ceremony of the blessing and distributing of palms on Palm Sunday is a remembrance of our Saviour’s entrance into Jerusalem a few days before His death. As He approached the city a great throng came forth to meet Him – some, perhaps, in a spirit of mere curiosity, to see the far-famed prophet and wonder-worker; others because they hoped to see some evidence of His miraculous power; and some because they believed in Him and recognized Him as the long-expected Redeemer.

The Gospels tell us that the people conducted Jesus in triumph through the city gate, spreading their garments before Him as a mark of homage, and that they went before Him in a joyful, procession, carrying palms and chanting hosannas of praise.

The Eastern palm which they used is the date-tree, which forms a distinctive feature of every Oriental scene; and it must have been a graceful and inspiring sight to see the vast throng waving the beautiful palm branches as they marched towards the Holy City.

A Symbol of Victory

The palm is emblematic of victory, just as the olive-branch is of peace; and the custom of using it to denote triumph and joy seems to have been widespread. Among the pagan nations victorious generals and conquering armies decked themselves with the spreading branches of the palm-tree in their triumphal processions; and among the Jews the palm was used to express rejoicing, especially for the celebration of the harvest festival known as the Feast of Tabernacles. In Christian art the palm-branch is often introduced in pictures of martyr-saints, to signify the victory which they have gained and the triumph they are enjoying. And as the palm-tree is a shade tree and produces fruit, it symbolizes well the protection of Divine Providence and the giving of grace.

The genuine Oriental date-palm is, of course, the most suitable for the ceremony of Palm Sunday, but as this is practically unobtainable in many parts of the world, the Church allows the use of other kinds of branches. She states in the rules of the Missal that they may be of “palm or olive or other trees.” Some of our readers will remember when spruce or hemlock was used commonly in our churches, and it is only of late years that the Southern palmetto has come into vogue. It is more suitable, because it considerably resembles the real palm.

The History of the Blessing

Palms are blessed and distributed to the faithful on only one day of the year – Palm Sunday. This, of course, changes in date from year to year, according to the date of Easter.

It is uncertain just when this beautiful custom began. In old Church calendars and other books there are various references which would lead us to suppose that it was practised early in the fifth century, but there is nothing very definite about it until the time of the English saint, the Venerable Bede, about the year 700. It is likely that the use of palms began in the “Miracle-Plays,” or reproductions of the Passion of our Lord, which were common in the early Middle Ages. Just as at the Passion Play of Oberammergau at the present day, the actors in these earlier religious dramas endeavored to represent all the details of our Saviour’s life and sufferings, and it is probable that the triumphal entry into Jerusalem was shown on the stage with the use of palms. Then, following her usual custom of blessing anything intended for religious purposes, the Church began to give a solemn benediction to the palms and made them a sacramental.

The Prayers of the Blessing

The prayers used by the priest in the blessing of the palms are full of beautiful sentiment and expressiveness. The ceremony takes place before the High Mass. The celebrant wears a cope of purple color, denoting penance, and reads from the Old Testament the account of the journey of the Children of Israel through the desert to Mount Sinai, where they found twelve springs of water and seventy palm-trees, and where God promised them manna from heaven. Then comes a Gospel, taken from Saint Matthew, describing the entry of our Blessed Lord into Jerusalem, followed by a prayer that we may gain the palm of victory. Then a beautiful Preface is said or sung, asking a blessing on the palms and on those who take and keep them in a spirit of devotion, and referring to the olive-branch brought by the dove to Noah in the ark and to the palm as an emblem of triumph.

In past centuries the procession on Palm Sunday was a real procession – not merely around the church, but to some distant church, or “station,” where a Mass was said. The blessing of the palms, as we have it now, shows the skeleton of this stational Mass, for it contains many parts of a Mass – an Introit, a Collect, an Epistle, a Gospel, a Preface, a Sanctus, etc. – and still it is no longer a Mass.

The proper way for distributing the palms, as prescribed by the Church, is at the altar-railing; but on account of the large congregations in many of our churches it is usual to have them given to the people in the pews. They should be held in the hand during the reading of the Passion of our Lord in the Mass of Palm Sunday.

The palms which have not been distributed are preserved until the following year, and, being then dry, are burned to obtain the ashes for the ceremony of Ash Wednesday, when they are placed on our foreheads with the solemn admonition to remember that we are dust and shall return to dust – impressing upon us the stem truth that only by keeping ever in mind our last end and preparing for it may we hope to win the palm of final victory.