Palms and Crosses, Victory and Passion: The Tensions of Palm Sunday

It began innocently enough, the Archdeacon responsible for the parish where I am serving at the moment asked why Anglicans fold their Palm Sunday palm fronds into small crosses. This form of Anglican origami is, of course, not limited to Anglicans or to the current generation or to this geographical region, but it is observed with a vigor around here that gives it a status far above its paygrade. An innocent question, I assumed with a simple answer, but one that has led me down a rabbit hole of turns and twists and a frustrating series of non-answers. Along the way it afforded a wonderful Facebook conversation with suggestions, personal anecdotes, and varying answers – all of which were interesting, and all of which made it even more complex. My original hypothesis was dead wrong, and the “answers” are still emerging…why do we do this to palm fronds? In order to start to form an answer, we need to back up into the convoluted history of what is popularly called Palm Sunday…

In the beginning there is Egeria – we all know from various encounters with the history of the liturgical year that it is in 4th century pilgrim accounts from Jerusalem we start to hear of imitating the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy or Great Week. In her account, at the 11th hour of the day (after a busy day of other liturgies and stations), all the people, with branches and palms, escort the bishop from the Mount of Olives to the Anastasis, singing “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” (The Pilgrimage of Egeria, 31). She confirms what earlier pilgrims had already written, along with Bishop Cyril, particularly in the association of children singing and carrying palms. From the holy city the tradition is carried forth – we assume – to be taken up as the primary focus on that Sunday morning in the Syriac tradition. There, the hymns and readings centred on singing the hosannas, palms and olive branches adorned the church and the processional cross, the station outside the front door was a type of the station at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, a joyful entry into Jerusalem by all (into the church) followed, and then the eucharistic liturgy continued that particular focus. It is only in the evening liturgy (the evening office of the lamp) that the church has been stripped, the focus shifting to the week of great suffering, and the same processional path now stopping at the closed front door pleading to be admitted into the Kingdom of God.

The Syrian influence on many other churches is extensive, and perhaps contributes to this procession in Constantinople, an imperial city with its own way of mapping the church over the city. We read of the complexity of the Palm Sunday procession in the liturgical books of the 10th and 11th centuries, with a gathering at one church (Church of the Forty Soldier Martyrs) where palms are distributed, prayers prayed, and then a procession with a complicated array of ecclesial and “civil” participants involving most of the city. After several stations, the procession arrives at the Great Church (Hagia Sophia) followed by the divine liturgy. Eventually, however, the texts (scripture and ecclesial) remain, but the literal use of palms and branches fades away, for political reasons in a conquered city, but perhaps for other reasons too.

What of the Latin-speaking West? We know from scattered resources that liturgically walking the streets of Rome came a bit later than in other urban centres of Christianity, and that processions often carried with them a penitential or supplicatory nature. The Palm Sunday procession, as it developed in the East, was not penitential, but rather a procession of victory and rejoicing, linking the ancient use of palms with signs of victory and honour with the gospel accounts of the entry into Jerusalem. It stands to reason, therefore, that it might have been at odds with the developing repertoire of processional liturgy in Rome. But there is another factor for which the timing is a bit murky: the earliest lectionary evidence points to a focus on the reading of the passion according to St. Matthew on this Sunday prior to Easter, and the earliest liturgical books for the city of Rome show a palm procession added as a later separate section to the primary liturgy focused on the passion (with a blessing of the branches that included a prayer of protection for the faithful). The first clear evidence for a blessing of palms in the “Eastern” style is in the Bobbio Missal (I’ll go with the most recent research, Vienne and early 600s…) So Rome (and all that the city of Rome influences) probably adopt the tradition from their Merovingian/Frankish neighbours to the north, or from the Byzantine influence of Constantinople in the 6th century, or from both, adding it to a primary focus on the passion of Christ.

You may remember that the point of this ramble through history was how did we get to folding our palms into crosses – how indeed? There are multiple ethnic and geographic descriptions of forming the palms into glorious shapes, but historically it seems to be a result of an “east-meets-west” affair. One of the most interesting is the Western Christian return to Jerusalem and the imposition of Frankish practices on the new Latin Kingdom at the turn of the millennium. What seems to have merged in their elaborate processional practices is a development of two earlier traditions of a hypapante and adventus, meeting and arrival. The meeting was physically ritualized in many Christian centres with two processions – one group going out to meet Christ (“going to Bethany”) and then both processional groups escorting the “King” with the solemn celebration of welcoming a ruler to the city. Medieval historians think some of the elaborate ceremonial that makes its way to Jerusalem originated in that hotbed of liturgical reform in the late 11th century, Chartres Cathedral, which in the Jerusalem version has the Patriarch and a small group processing to Bethany with the “true cross”, then returning to Jerusalem where they were met with a group coming out of the city with blessed palms and olive branches. When the two groups meet there is an adoration of the cross, several stations of prayer, and an eventual return to the Holy Sepulchre. This cross meets palms plays out in other ways in other places, and Christ is “represented” varyingly by the bishop/patriarch, a gospel book, relics, the true cross/cross, but consistently the blessed branches (victory) meet the cross (passion) in an assortment of dramatic ways.

Just one more story of the complexity of the development of Passion Sunday with the Liturgy of the Palms…the Sarum Use in England (inculturated Roman Rite), picks up the “creation” of Lanfranc of Bec’s addition of the Blessed Sacrament, which he brought to Canterbury in the 12th century. The elaborate accounts of the procession for Palm Sunday around London (up to the 1547 injunction against these processions) had a meeting between one procession bearing the relics of saints and a suspended pyx with the Sacrament (Jesus and his disciples) meeting a larger group (the crowd) singing “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”, now carrying clear eucharistic overtones. The many stations involved children and adults singing from high platforms (tossing cakes and flowers to the waiting crowds below) and there are indications of short plays done along the route.

What are we to make of this seemingly unending rabbit hole of variable historical development? At the heart of it is the procession with the cross and the procession with the palms which meet in marvelous and diverse ways. I think Kenneth Stevenson had it partially right when he said the “palm cross, a relatively recent invention, is by its nature interpretive because it spells out the symbolism of Palm Sunday in linking the palm procession with the passion gospel.” (Jerusalem Revisited, page 24) Both Roman Catholic cautions (use an unveiled cross decorated with palms as the primary symbol of Christ, 1955) and Anglican (Lee Mitchell on not waving palms already made into small crosses because the palms need to be signs of victory and processional logic calls for something larger) represent a move away from a focus on the palms themselves (or other branches) and back to procession.

In just a few days we will go out to meet our Saviour in the annual juxtaposition of joy and sorrow, palm and passion. The clash is an essential dimension of Holy Week – it keeps us from ordering the days as if Jesus was to suffer and die again and sets the week as sacramental commemoration and participation rather than solely mimicry and representation. But occasionally, the incredibly complex history of our liturgies may startle us again in the midst of the reality that it is today we do this, now is the acceptable time.

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