Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Palm Branches


Palms are sacramentals of the Church distributed to the faithful on Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) -- the day that commemorates Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Their purpose is to honor Christ's glory and Kingship, as did the inhabitants of Jerusalem who met Him, strewing palm branches on the street before Him.

Carrying palms (or olive or willow branches, etc., if palms aren't available) in procession goes way back into the Old Testament, where it was not only approved but commanded by God at the very foundation of the Old Testament religion. In the fall of the year, after the harvest, when the people gathered for the Feast of Tabernacles God said in Leviticus 23:40:

And you shall take to you on the first day the fruits of the fairest tree, and branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook: And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God.

Again we read of palms in the II Machabees 10:6-8:

And they kept eight days with joy, after the manner of the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long before they had kept the feast of the tabernacles when they were in the mountains, and in dens like wild beasts. Therefore they now carried boughs and green branches and palms, for him that had given them good success in cleansing his place. And they ordained by a common statute, and decree, that all the nation of the Jews should keep those days every year.

And in the 7th chapter of the Apocalypse, we see that those who were "sealed" are seen by John carrying palms:

Apocalypse 7:9-10:
After this, I saw a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands. And they cried with a loud voice, saying: Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne and to the Lamb.

The palms are blessed before the High Mass on Palm Sunday. Vested in red cope and standing at the Epistle side of the Altar, the priest recites a short prayer, and then reads a lesson from the book of Exodus which tells of the children of Israel coming to Elim on their way to the Promised Land, where they found a fountain and seventy palm trees. It was at Elim that God sent them manna.

After a few verses from the New Testament, the priest reads the story of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem the Sunday before His death, and about how the people put palms in the Savior's path and sang hosannas because, ironically, they expected a temporal victory by the One they thought would be the great military leader who would conquer the Romans..

Then we pray, begging God that we may in the end go meet Christ, that we may enter with Him into the eternal Jerusalem. The following preface and prayers ask God to bless the palms, that they may be sanctified and may be a means of grace and divine protection to those who carry them and treasure them with faith.

The palms are distributed to the people at the Communion rail. The priest will press the palm against your lips so you can kiss it, and then his hand. Alternatively, the palms may be handed out by the altar boys. In any case, Scripture and prayers follow, and then a procession of clergy, servers, and people through the church or outside around the church.

Some of these same palm branches are saved and burned the next year to make the ashes for the next Ash Wednesday -- the palms, which symbolize triumph, and the ashes, which sympbolize death and penitence, forming a great symbolic connection between suffering and victory.

The branches given to the faithful are held in the hand at the singing or reading of the Passion and the Gospel during the Mass, but when Mass is finished we take them home and hang them over crucifixes or holy pictures. Men will sometimes wear a piece of it in their hats or pin it to their lapels, and a piece should also be placed with one's sick call set.

It is custom to break off a piece of the palm and -- while praying to St. Barbara (or St. Walburga) for her intercession, and lighting a blessed candle (especially one blessed at Candlemas) -- burn it for protection against storms. I offer this prayer against storms from the Pieta prayerbook (make the Sign of the Cross at each + sign):

Jesus Christ a King of Glory has come in Peace.+ God became man, + and the Word was made flesh.+ Christ was born of a Virgin.+ Christ suffered.+ Christ was crucified.+ Christ died.+ Christ rose from the dead.+ Christ ascended into Heaven.+ Christ conquers.+ Christ reigns.+ Christ commands.+

May Christ protect us from all storms and lightning. + Christ went through their midst in Peace, + and the Word was made Flesh.+ Christ is with us with Mary.+ Flee you enemy spirits because the Lion of the Generation of Juda, the Root David, has won.+ Holy God! + Holy Powerful God! + Holy Immortal God! + Have mercy on us. Amen.

Another custom is to shape the palm into Latin Crosses 1 before hanging them (for instructions, see the Palm Sunday page).

The next year, when we get new palms, the old palms are burned and their ashes buried.


Footnote:St. Brigid's Cross
1 There's another type of Cross that is woven by Catholics -- St. Brigid's Crosses (see picture at right). They are made on St. Brigid's Feast Day (1 February) out of rushes or reeds and hung on the inside of the front door of one's house, especially in Irish Catholic homes. They are left there all year and replaced the next St. Brigid's Day. St. Brigid's Crosses have their origin in the fact that a dying chieftan asked St. Brigid about a Cross she was shaping out of reeds. In explaining her gesture, she told him the story of Christ, and he converted. For instructions on how to make a St. Brigid's Cross, see the page on the Feast of St. Brigid.

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