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Today, 20 March 2016, is Palm Sunday. A few years ago, I posted the following article to Helium writing site, now gone …
There are some important differences in the way Palm Sunday is observed in Western and Eastern Christian churches.
In Western Christian churches, the clergy and their attendants gather outside the church where the minister consecrates palm leaves using an aspergillum, a device for sprinkling holy water. Some other plant, such as willow, boxwood or yew, is used in cooler climates. The congregation then forms a procession and enters the church singing a hymn, as it re-enacts Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem just before his death. Sometimes the procession includes the choir and parish children.
All Catholic churches and most Anglican churches follow this procedure. Many Protestant churches have a procession on Palm Sunday, but they don’t use an aspergillum. Lutheran churches often have the children march around inside the church with their palm branches. In Eastern Christian churches, palm leaves are often given out at the altar steps. In some places, such as India, marigolds are laid in the sanctuary. In India, the men traditionally take their palm leaves from the left of this area and the women from the right. At the Church of Pakistan, an Anglican church, members enter the church singing Psalm 24.
Churches will often keep the old palm fronds until the following Ash Wednesday nearly a year later. These sacramentals are then burned and used as ashes on this day. Clergy of the Catholic Church wear blood-red garments on this day, signifying Jesus’ sacrifice.
Eastern Christian churches have a similar ceremony to the Western churches for Palm Sunday. The Eastern churches finish Lent two days before Palm Sunday. In between is Lazarus Saturday, which celebrates the rise of Saint Lazarus who had been dead for four days before Jesus breathed life back into him. Church members make crosses out of palm leaves on this day, ready for Sunday’s procession. Churches are often decorated in a special color, often green, for Palm Sunday.
Palm leaves are not available in many of the Eastern countries that practise Christianity. One of the various species of pussy willow is often used instead. Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe and Russia, as well as Western Christian churches in Northern Europe, use goat willow or grey willow. In the northern United States and Canada, American pussy willow is used. Olive branches are commonly used in Eastern Europe. The branches of any species will be blessed just the same, as they do not have to be palm fronds.
In the East, worshippers receive a branch and a candle on the Saturday or just before the start of Sunday’s service. The procession is known as the ‘Great Entrance’, representing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on that day. Unlike the Western churches, the whole congregation often forms the procession. Devotees might take the branches home. Many churchgoers have an ‘icon corner’ in a room of their homes where they have an icon of Jesus. Here they pray and keep crosses, candles, holy water, and palm or willow or olive branches.
In Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a donkey walk as part of Palm Sunday, as Jesus was sometimes depicted riding a donkey. The Tsar would often lead the parade. There have been recent moves to revive the event.