Palm or Flowery Sunday

On Palm Sunday, we recall the triumphant entry of the Lord Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem, to the acclamations of the crowd, who had come to believe in him after the events of Lazarus Saturday.

Palm Sunday is counted as one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church. As on Lazarus Saturday, bright vestments are worn at all services on this day, instead of the dark vestments used during the Great Fast, and Great and Holy Week. According to the traditional fasting rules, fish may be eaten on this day.

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”Christ the bridegroom

For centuries, the Jewish people looked forward to the coming of God's "anointed" (in Hebrew, Messiah; in Greek, Christos), who would be at once Savior and King. The patriarchs and prophets foretold his coming: a descendent of King David, he was to rule the nations, but would also be a humble servant of God. The prophet Isaiah described a suffering servant who would "save the people from their sins", which other prophets spoke of a "Son of Man" who could come in glory and power.

After the raising of Lazarus, the people began to have faith in Jesus; it was Martha, the sister of Lazarus, who declared to Jesus, "I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God; he who is to come into the world." It was at this point that the Lord made his way to Jerusalem, where the chief priests and Pharisees had made plans to apprehend him.

Our Lord sent his disciples to fetch a a donkey-colt, which no one had ever ridden. (There was a tradition that the ability to guide such an animal was a mark of the Messiah). The disciples brought both the colt and its mother, for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem. The evangelist Matthew tells us that this was in fulfillment of prophecy: "Tell the daughter of Zion, your King comes to you without display, astride an ass, astride a colt, the foal of a beast of burden". Christ would enter Jerusalem not on a horse, a symbol of the warrior, but on the work beast of the poor - one traditionally ridden by the kings of Israel.

The shout of the crowd makes it plain that they saw Jesus as a great figure, a king and prophet, and (perhaps) the Messiah:

Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest!

The word "hosanna" is Hebrew and means, roughly, "O save!" - Psalm 117:25, "O Lord, grant salvation." In the form "Hosanna in the highest", it has become a general acclamation of joy and praise. Psalm 117, a processional song of praise, will be quoted many times in the course of this feast, especially verse 26: "Blessed is he whom comes in the name of the Lord."

Palms, branches, flowers and willows

As our Lord made his way into Jerusalem, the crown accompanying him from Bethany and Bethphage spread their cloaks on the ground before him, as was done for the Jehu, King of Israel (2 Kings 9:13), who had been anointed by Elisha the prophet. Others spread branches before our Lord, while a crowd of people coming from Jerusalem came to meet him, carrying branches of palm (John 12:13).

In ancient times, the palm was a sign of triumph and victory in the Greco-Roman world; among the Jews, palm branches were carried at festive celebrations (Leviticus 23:40). In the New Testament, palm branches became a sign of martyrdom - victory over death. In the early Christian church, a procession was held before Pascha to commemorate our Lord's entry into Jerusalem, with the faithful carrying "palms and branches." This led eventually to the name Palm Sunday for this feast (in Slavonic,Nedil'a Vaj.)

In Constantinople, in addition to palms, other flowering branches (olive, laurel, lilac) were carried in procession, leading to to the name Flowery Sunday (in Slavonic, Nedil'a Kvitna). In the colder climes of Eastern Europe, few flowers would bloom this early in Spring; but the common pussy-willow would be in bud at this time, and so branches of pussy-willow came to be used.

At Vespers

On the evening of Lazarus Saturday, Vespers with Litija is held for Palm Sunday. Three prophecies are read from the Old Testament:

In the final hymn of the aposticha, we ourselves repeat the shouts of the crowd on the way to Jerusalem:

Today the grace of the Holy Spirit has gathered us together;
and taking up your Cross, we all say:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest!

At the dismissal, the troparion of Lazarus Saturday is followed by the troparion of Palm Sunday, which places both these days in the context of the Paschal mystery:

Through baptism we were buried with you, O Christ our God,
and we have become worthy of immortal life by your resurrection.
Therefore we raise our voices in praise to you:
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

At Matins

At the morning Matins on Palm Sunday, the same Resurrectional hymns which were added on the Saturday of Lazarus - the hymns of the myrrhbearers, and "Having beheld the resurrection of Christ" - are omitted on this particular Sunday. The Gradual is that of Tone 4, for feasts. All these features mark this day as a great feast of the Lord.

The Gospel at Matins is the account from Saint Matthew of our Lord's entry in Jerusalem (21:1-11,15-17). The account continues with the expulsion of the merchants from the temple precincts, and our Lord's healing there of the blind and lame who came to him. Some protested upon hearing children cry out, "Hosanna to the Son of David"; but our Lord responds by quoting Psalm 8: "From the speech of infants and children you have framed a hymn of praise." (This verse is used as the prokeimenon before the Gospel.)

Immediately after the chanting of Psalm 50, the celebrant blesses palm and willow branches, by sprinkling them with holy water and reciting the following prayer:

O Lord our God, enthroned upon the cherubim: you have reaffirmed your
power and sent your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to save the
world through his Cross, Burial, and Resurrection. When he drew near to
Jerusalem for his voluntary Passion, the people that sat in darkness and the
shadow of death took, as tokens of his victory, boughs of trees and
branches of palms, thus foretelling his resurrection. O Master, keep and
preserve us also as, following their example on this eve of the Feast we
carry in our hands palms and branches like the crowds and the children
crying "Hosanna!" to you. With hymns and spiritual songs, may we attain
the life-giving Resurrection on the third day; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
with whom you are blessed, together with your most holy, good, and
life-creating Spirit, now and ever and forever.

During the singing of the canon at Matins, when the people come forward to venerate the Gospel, the celebrant gives to each one some of the blessed palms and branches (instead of anointing them with blessed oil as he would normally do at this point). The palms are carried by the clergy and faithful throughout the rest of the day's services.

The procession

Between Matins and the Divine Liturgy, a procession of the clergy and faithful, carrying the newly-blessed palms and branches, may take place. (If Matins was not held, then the palms should be blessed before the Divine Liturgy, so that they may be carried in procession, and held during the services by clergy and faithful alike.) The troparion and kontakion of the Palm Sunday, or the stichera of the litija, are sung during the procession.

The Divine Liturgy

The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom is celebrated, rather than the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil to which we have become accustomed on the Sundays of the Great Fast.

The Divine Liturgy begins with special antiphons, taken from Psalms 114, 115, and 117. From this Sunday until after Pentecost, no variable hymns are taken in the "tone of the week".

The Entrance Hymn is also from Psalm 117:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord;
we bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God and has revealed himself to us.

The troparia of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday are then sung. In a departure from the ordinary course of these hymns, "Glory to the Father..." is sung before the troparion of Palm Sunday. (Normally, only kontakia are sung at "Glory...." and "Now and ever..." in the Divine Liturgy). This means that the tone 4 troparion melody is used for "Glory...." instead of the tone 4 kontakion melody. Therefore, both the "Glory..." and "Now and ever..." are written out musically in the Divine Liturgies book.

In the apostolic reading (Philippians 4:4-9), Saint Paul echoes the message of the Old Testament readings at Vespers: the faithful should rejoice, because the Lord is near. Here, the Lord's two-fold coming is seen as already accomplished, and also yet to be, when he comes in glory. In the meantime, the faithful should live in hope rather than anxiety.

The Gospel at the Divine Liturgy is the account from Saint John of our Lord's triumphant entry into Jerusalem, beginning with the anointing of the Lord Jesus at Bethany, and the crowd's desire to see both Jesus and Lazarus.

As usual on great feasts, the Magnification and Irmos from the ninth ode of the canon at Matins are sung in place of the hymn to the Theotokos, "It is truly proper." In most canons, the irmos is addressed to the Mother of God, but here it describes the feast:

Extol, O my soul, the Lord seated on a colt.

The Lord is God and has revealed himself to us.
Prepare the festival!
Come, and with great rejoicing, let us extol Christ.
With palms and branches in our hands, let us sing his praises:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,
our Savior.

The Communion Hymn sings this theme one final time: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. The Lord is God and has revealed himself to us. Alleluia!"

At the evening Vespers

At Vespers on the afternoon or evening of Palm Sunday, we sing once more the stichera describing our Lord's entry into Jerusalem. But with the aposticha at the end of Vespers, the theme changes, and we have come to the threshold of Great and Holy Week:

Passing from the feast of palms and branches, O faithful,
to the venerable and saving solemnity of the sufferings of Christ,
let us behold Him who voluntarily endures his Passion for us,
and in thanksgiving let us sing:
O Fountain of mercy and Harbor of salvation,
O Lord, glory to you!

Music for Palm Sunday

Texts and music for Vespers, Matins, blessing of palms, Divine Liturgy, and the afternoon Vespers have been prepared by the Metropolitan Cantor Institute. See the Liturgical Calendar.

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