This day takes its name from the Gospel story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, recounting the way he was honoured by crowds of people cutting down palm branches to cover the streets he rode through on a donkey, as if he was a celebrated hero.
In places where there are few Palm trees, it is customary to import branches for use in ceremonial re-enactment of the story, and weave crosses from leaves to bless and give to worshippers as a reminder of this occasion, and what happened in the days that followed.
Palms are among the best known and cultivated plants, with about 2600 known varieties. They have been important to humans throughout much of history, in regions of tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate climates. Many common products and foods are derived from palms, making them one of the most economically important of all plants. Today they are a popular symbol for the tropics and vacations. Historically they were symbols representing victory, peace, and fertility. They are part of the biblical landscape, now as they were two thousand years ago.
"Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters." (Exodus 15:27)
"She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment." (Judges 4:5)
The Springtime festival of Tabernacles involved living outdoors in leafy shelters, as a reminder of the sojourn in the wilderness. Abundance of palm trees above all made this possible.
"Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. 'You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year." (Lev 23:40-41)
Jericho, one of the oldest of human habitations, was sited in an oasis area of the Jordan valley, renowned for its Palm trees.
"the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar." (Deut 34:3)
Palm branches were carried in the funeral processions of ancient Egypt, symbolising eternal life, and the idea may have carried over into Hebrew culture, as palm trees appeared as a decorative motif in the account of building Solomon's Temple.
"For the entrance of the inner sanctuary he made doors of olive wood, the lintel and five-sided doorposts. So he made two doors of olive wood, and he carved on them carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, and overlaid them with gold; and he spread the gold on the cherubim and on the palm trees." (1 Kings 6:31-33)
Palm and olive branches were carried in Roman festive processions celebrating military achievement, and the Palm was associated with Nike, the goddess of victories. Jesus' entry into Jerusalem riding a donkey and hailed by the crowds is reported in all four Gospels with small variations. Matthew and Mark report simply that 'leafy branches' were cut and spread in his path, John alone specifies palm branches. John is the evangelist who interprets the passion and death of Christ as a triumph over sin and evil, hence his allusion to this particular entry into Jerusalem as a victory procession, by referring to the use of Palm branches.
"They took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel." (John 12:13)
The sense of celebration and the popularity of Jesus is, however, short lived. Any suggestion that he might be regarded as a King fills the Jewish leadership with anxiety, and a determination to get rid of him before his presence in the holy city causes trouble with their Roman overlords. The fact that Jesus goes on to take action against the money changers in the Temple arouses even more anxiety and resentment against him from the religious authorities, and plotting to turn the crowd of his supporters against him develops.
The church on this day not only remembers this moment of worldly glory given to Jesus, but reads through one entire version of the Passion story for the first time of this week. Other versions will in their turn be re-read and re-enacted in the days following, inviting us to listen and learn anew from each the meaning of his death 'for us and for our salvation'.