The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.
A cute story makes its rounds this time of year. A little boy had to stay home from church on Palm Sunday because he was sick. When family members returned home with palm branches, the father explained to the boy that they had the palms because when Jesus came to town everyone waved palm branches to honor him. The little boy responded, “Sure the one Sunday I don’t go to church and Jesus shows up!”
On Palm Sunday, the ritual in a visual way reminds us that Jesus indeed does show up. We replay the procession that took place in Jerusalem as we move, with palm in hand, singing jubilant songs of “Hosanna, Blessed is he.” The procession we use on Palm Sunday began around the eighth century in what was then the Frankish Empire.
The processions back then were far grander than what we celebrate today. They had the clergy and laity carry palms from a chapel or shrine outside the town, where the palms were blessed, to the cathedral or main church. Either the Blessed Sacrament or a crucifix, adorned with flowers, was carried by the priest. As is our human nature, something can always be made bigger and better. So, in some countries, the tradition began of placing a statue of Jesus riding on a donkey in a large wagon. The wagon became the center of the procession.
Our liturgy this weekend provides three procession options, with one Mass providing for the entire assembly to move in procession.
Today, churches can purchase commercially grown palms for Palm Sunday, but, in earlier times, people used whatever they had at hand: olive branches, yew branches and pussy willows. Flowers of the season were also blessed on Palm Sunday which led to new names for this day such as Pussy Willow Sunday or Yew Sunday.
In many European countries, the palms used on this day are far more lavish than our simple two to three spears of palm branch. Large clusters of palms are elaborately bound together with smaller palm leaves shaped and woven into little crosses and other symbolic designs. Flowers and ribbons can also be woven into the palm cluster and it is then attached to a wooden stick. If you have the opportunity look for a picture of the Holy Father carrying a palm weaving called parmureli for the procession at the Vatican.
In the United States, people are trying to pass on the tradition of palm weaving. Some designs include the artichoke weave, the cross, the fish, the donkey, the pyramid and the grape.
The palm you bring home this Sunday will be blessed. This gives it the status of a sacramental. Sacramentals are sacred signs that confer grace through the church’s power of intercession. As such, they deepen our faith life. Give your blessed palm a place of honor in your home. Let them serve as a reminder to you that each and every day, Jesus shows up!
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.