Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the most sacred week of the Liturgical Year for Christians. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the feast, it is the remberance of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, just a few short days before His Passion. And everyone seemed to know he was coming. They were waiting on him, and they were cheering him on. The Bible tells us they waved palm leaves and laid their cloaks on the ground. This was a reception fit for a king!
I’ve always thought it was such a bizarre paradox that the same crowd that welcomed him with such enthusiasm, singing "Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!" would, only five short days later turn on him like rabid dogs and riot for his execution, screaming "Crucify Him!" He knew they would turn, He knew what was coming. He knew the Pharisees and Saducees were plotting to kill him. He knew Jerusalem was their stronghold. But he rode in brilliantly in spite of them all. After all, the Passover was coming, and there can be no Passover without the sacrificial Lamb.
So, on Palm Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ Triumphal Entry. We hand out palm leaves, and we read the Scriptures that remind us of that day. And, having read the end of the book, we look forward, as Jesus must have, to what is to come: Good Friday, and the Resurrection.
Now, I’ve been told that Palm Sunday is one of those dread "traditions of men", and that we should not treat it any differently than any other Sunday. Holy Week is no holier than any other week. This was told to me by the same bunch of folks who are all about being a "New Testament, Acts of the Apostles Church". In other words, they want to do everything like the early Christians did. I applaud that plan! And, because I love Palm Sunday and Holy Week, and most of all, Easter Sunday, I am encouraged to know that the early Christians did, too.
We don’t know for certain what they did the very next Passover after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but we can guess, based on very ancient accounts, that they celebrated it much as we do today. At the end of the 4th Century, a pilgrim to Jerusalem named AEtheria gives an account of the events in Jerusalem that week, which was referred to as the "Great Week". They commemorated Christ’s triumphal entry into the city with great crowds, including babies, assembling on the Mount of Olives. They sang hymns, antiphons, and readings (this is referred to today as ‘liturgy’) then they returned to Jerusalem, escorting the bishop, and bearing palms and branches of olives before him. They held special services in addition to the usual ones. That Thursday (Maundy, or Holy Thursday) everyone had Communion, then again the people went to the Mount of Olives to commemorate with readings and hymns the agony of Christ in the garden and His arrest. They stayed all night, returning to the city at dawn.
Friday, the commemoration continued. In particulare before midday they venerated the relic of the True Cross. For three hours after midday another crowded service was held in commemoration of the Passion of Christ, at which, it is recorded, the sobs and lamentations of the people exceeded all description. In spite of the exhaustion they must have been feeling, a vigil was maintained by the younger and stronger of the clergy and by some of the laity. Then, on Saturday evening, they celebrated the great paschal vigil in the evening, with the baptism of children and adult converts. Today, we call this service the Easter Vigil.
But AEtheria implies that this Eastern Christian celebration was already familiar to her in the Western Church. She wrote her account in approximately 388 A.D. However, we can be fairly sure that the observance of Holy Week as a special, sacred event was probably much older than even that. In 329 A.D., Athanasius of Alexandria talks about the severe fast maintained during "those six holy and great days (preceding Easter Sunday) which are the symbol of the creation of the world." Again, in 331 A.D. Athanasius writes that "We begin the holy week of the pasch on the tenth of Pharmuthi in which we should observe more prolonged prayers and fastings and watchings, that we may be enabled to anoint our lintels with the precious blood and so escape the destroyer." He is, of course, referring to the Passover. Dionysius of Alexandria (circa 260 A.D.)also talks of people going without food for the whole six days.
I can only conclude that Holy Week was a pretty big thing in the "Early Church". As for "traditions of men", well, those traditions were really important to them. You see, there was no Bible at that point. The Bible was not compiled into a single collection of books until 393 A.D. It was not confirmed and made ‘official’ until 397 A.D. They had a lot of writings that they used in their services or liturgies, but no "Bible", no Canon of Scripture. So they did what their predecessors taught them to do. (And their predecssors had been taught directly from the apostles themselves!) And it was beautiful, and it was sincere, and it was real. And some of us still do it today.
Anyway, I think so many modern Christians miss out on the experience of uniting their hearts and lives with the final days of Jesus’ life. We want to skip the ‘bad stuff’ and rush on to the Resurrection. But the Resurrection would not have happened had there not been a sacrificial Lamb. Just like the Israelites would not have gained their salvation without the sacrificial, unblemished lamb, so we too, must have our Lamb. And we cannot, we must not, ignore the sacrifice.
So, this is the beginning of Holy Week. A time to really prepare our hearts to receive the Lamb of God, to really look inside, and unite ourselves with our Savior. Palm Sunday is a joyful beginning, and there will be an even more joyous ending next Sunday, on Easter. But first, there must be the sacrifice.
(Historical Source: New Advent)