The solemnity of "Palm Sunday" markes the beginning of Holy Week in the Roman liturgical calendar. The feast appears as early as the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries. The procession of the Palms gives this Sunday its distinctive character.
The annual procession of the palms originated in Jerusalem as a commemoration of the entry of Christ into the Holy City to consummate the great work of the Redemption. According to Egeria's 4th century account of the Holy Week celebrations in Jerusalem, the people of Jerusalem were led to reenact this event at the spot where it had actually happened. The faithful of Jerusalem gathered around their bishop on the Mount of Olives. There they sang hymns and listened to readings from the Old Testament and to the Gospel account of our Savior's entry. Then at five o'clock they set out carrying olive or palm branches in their hands, accompanying the bishop, who was seated on a mule, to the Church of the Resurrection. During this procession they sang psalms and hymns with the constant refrain: "Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord." Upon arriving at the church they sang Vespers.
From Jerusalem this custom made its way to the churches of the Gallican rite in the West. In turn, the entire rite came to Rome from the Gallican lands through the Romano-Germanic Pontifical of the 10th century.
By the Middle Ages the rite of the palms had acquired a distinctly dramatic form. The procession would go from one church to another, usually one outside the city walls. The presence of Christ was symbolized in various ways: in some parts of France by the gospel book, in northern Italy by a large cross decorated with green foliage, in Germany by an image of Christ borne on the back of a wooden donkey, in England and Normandy by the Blessed Sacrament itself. Upon returning to the gate of the city or to the door of the principal church, the faithful would cast their garments and their palm or olive branches before the symbol of Christ and repeat the same acclamations the Jews had used to greet the coming of the Messiah King. There too the hymn Gloria Laus, et honor (All glory, laud and honor) was sung, a choir within the gates alternating with those outside. Then one of the clerics knocked at the door and all entered singing the antiphon Ingrediente Domino in Sanctam Civitatem.
In the beginning there was no blessing provided for the palms. The earliest blessing is found in the Liber Ordinum of the Mozarabic Rite (6th century). By the end of the Middle Ages this had become a very elaborate ceremonial. Such emphasis was laid upon the blessing and upon the palm itself as a sacramental that the real purpose
of the whole ceremony was obscured. In time the procession became secondary, and often was not observed at all. That is why Pius XII's Holy Week Ordinal (promulgated in 1955) simplified the blessing and restored the procession of the palms. Thus the triumphal procession in honor of Christ the King once more occupies the central place that belongs to it. Like all the Holy Week rites, it is not a mere commemoration, but a mysterium in which not only the historical event is recalled to mind but Christ's own victory is reenacted in the Church. We celebrate this event only by living it. Hence all are invited to take part in it by carrying palms and singing the acclamations to the King. Because of the festive nature of the procession the priest and the sacred ministers wear red—the royal color, the color of victory—instead of the penitential purple; and the cross, the standard of victory, is carried unveiled.
Bibliography: w. j. o'shea, The Meaning of Holy Week (Collegeville, Minn. 1958). t. j. talley, Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd emended edition (Collegeville 1991). t. j. talley, "The Entry into Jerusalem in Liturgical Tradition," in With Ever Joyful Hearts: Essays on Liturgy and Music: Honoring Marion J. Hatchett, ed. j. n. alexander (New York 1999) 211–226. j. m. pierce, "Holy Week and Easter in the Middle Ages," in Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times, eds. p. f. bradshaw and l. a. hoffman (Notre Dame, Ind 1999) 161–185.
[w. j. o'shea/eds.]