Palm Sunday marks the last Sunday before Easter, and signals the beginning of Holy Week, an important period of prayer and reflection for Christians before the Resurrection of Jesus.
The feast celebrates Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, an event mentioned in all four of the Gospels.
According to biblical sources, Jesus’s entry into the ancient holy city took place just a few days before he was betrayed at the Last Supper, and is considered to mark the beginning of Christ’s Passion, or the events leading up to his suffering and eventual death on the cross.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem just days after Lazarus was risen from the dead
Although the circumstances leading up to Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem differ a bit in each of the Gospels, all describe Jesus entry into the city as a joyous event, as citizens gathered around him and proclaimed him to be the Lord.
In each Gospel, Jesus rides into the city on a donkey, which, compared to the horse, is an animal of peace, not war. This signals that Jesus is king, but a holy king of peace, not an earthly king of war.
The people of Jerusalem laid down their robes, as well as palm fronds, on the road, welcoming Christ into the city as a royal.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus had just rose Lazarus from the dead only a few days before, and word of the miraculous event had already spread throughout Jerusalem, where amazed crowds awaited the arrival of Christ.
In the other Gospels, Christ enters the city from the Mount of Olives, and there is no mention of Lazarus during the event.
As the Greek Orthodox commemorates the Feast of Lazarus, or Lazarus Saturday just one day before, it is clear that John’s telling of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is the one accepted for Palm Sunday by the Church.
In many parts of Greece and Cyprus, many people bake sweet bread or cookies shaped like Lazarus wrapped up in his funerary bandages, called lazarakia, for Lazarus Sunday.
Palm Sunday Liturgy in Greece
Palm Sunday is largely considered a joyous, celebratory feast as the faithful await Jesus’ own arrival, by way of the Resurrection, on Easter Sunday.
Much like the people of Jerusalem, Christians celebrate the coming arrival of Christ by praising him as Savior.
Much like in many other branches of Christianity, Orthodox celebrations of Palm Sunday include the distribution of palm branches that have been blessed and formed into the shape of a cross.
Traditionally, the branches are made into the shape of the cross on Lazarus Saturday, the day before, in preparation for the event.
Believers usually keep the blessed palm branches in their homes until the upcoming year.
In the Western Church, the palm branches given out the year before are returned to the church the next year just before Lent, so that they may be burned.
The ashes produced are then used on Ash Wednesday to mark the forehead of believers.