7. PALM-BEARING DAY - CHRIST ENTERING JERUSALEM
The Lord's triumphant entry in Jerusalem is known as the Palm-Bearing day, only a few days before His Passion. It was named so, from the palm tree fronds that were held by the crowds who had swarmed to welcome Him. The day we celebrate this event is known as Palm Sunday.
The miracle of Lazarus' resurrection - which is celebrated on the previous day - had aroused the curiosity of the Judeans and may of them had hurried to Bethany, according to John the Evangelist " not only for Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead ". And the Evangelist continues:
"On the following day, a great crowd which had come for the feast, upon hearing that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took fronds from palm trees and went out to welcome Him, shouting 'Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel'. Having found a young donkey, Jesus mounted it, as was written: 'do not fear, daughter Zion ; behold, your king arrives, seated on the foal of a donkey' (from the bible reading of the feast day, John 12, 12-15).
As we can see from the foregoing verse, the Messiah's triumphant entrance into Jerusalem happened exactly as was written in the Old Testament. Specifically, the prophet Zacharias had prophesied that the Messiah would come to "the daughter Zion ", that is, Jerusalem , as a righteous king, mild and peaceful, astride a young foal.
The foal, which is not yet prepared to bear a yoke, symbolizes the Christians that would be derived from heathen nations. Before accepting Christ, they were not accustomed to bearing a yoke and to bearing the weight of divine law. This has been pointed out by the Fathers of the Church: " Just as the foal was not yet tame enough, nor able to walk properly, thus the heathen peoples were not accustomed to being educated by the divine law " (Saint Cyril of Alexandria , PG 72, 145 C). Athanasius the Great sees in the foal the " nations' lack of horse sense and their lack of understanding " (BGF 35, 43).
This allegorical importance of the foal is stressed by the feast-day hymns. In a Vespers hymn of Palm Sunday, we are told that: " the straddling of the foal portrays the unrestrained element of the heathen, who are turned around, from faith-lessness to faith ". Unrestrained, and with a thirst for salvation, the heathen would run to the Christian camp in order to be turned into faithful, from faithless. (from the same divine service, we hear: " thus, You straddled the foal symbolically, as if borne on a vehicle, astride the nations, o Saviour ".
The palm fronds that the happy crowds held in their hands are symbols of victory and rejoicing. It was a custom of the Judeans to hold such branches, when welcoming official personages. We find palm fronds etched in catacombs and on ancient Christian graves. They symbolized the early Christians' conviction of the Christian faith's victory.
As we shall see further down, when describing the icon of the palm-bearers, scores of children can be seen depicted among the rejoicing crowds. Together with the adults, they also welcome the Lord with palm frond in their hands. In fact, we see in our icon a little child up on a tree, cutting palm fronds with a pruning tool and throwing them down to the ground. Another child is depicted in a charming pose: it is offering a frond to the foal to eat. Finally, others are spreading their garments on the path, so that Christ may pass over them.
However, the question is raised: How was the hagiographer informed of the role the children played during the Lord's entrance to Jerusalem ? The holy Evangelists make no mention of this detail. They simply say that " most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them down on the roadway " (Matthew 21,8, Mark 11,8)
On this issue, the hagiographer relies on the tradition of the Church, as we observe in that which is implied by Matthew the Evangelist. He makes a mention of the children cheering, after the end of the welcoming (21, 15-17). We also have the Apocrypha text of Nicodemus, who says: " and the children of the Jews were holding branches in their hands... others, were laying down their garments ". When the Lord drove the traders out of the temple, which had been transformed into a den of thieves, and when He cured the lame and the blind, children's acclamations of the Lord were heard: 'Hosanna, to the son of David'. To the Pharisees who had lost patience, the Lord reminded them of the words of the psalm: 'from the mouths of babes and children, I shall compose a laudation' (Psalm 8,3). That is, from the mouths of babies and small children who are still breast-feeding, You have composed o Lord, a perfect hymn; It is only natural, that hymns and impulsive cries of delight, the overflowing of joy of innocent children, would be heard during the welcome into Jerusalem . They were, after all, sharing their parents' sentiments.
In projecting the children, and apart from remaining faithful to tradition - which can be seen in the feast-day hymns - the Byzantine hagiographer satisfies another spiritual demand of the faithful. For those who know from the Scriptures how much the Lord loved the children, it would be unthinkable for children not to be participating in such a splendid reception. The Judeans were expecting the Messiah as a secular regent, with material power, that would come to punish the enemies of Israel . The reception that was reserved for the Lord was not without an ulterior motive. They bestowed honors on Him, because they hoped he would return honor and glory to them. In which case, it would be only the children that were without any ulterior motive, simple and sincere. They sensed somehow the divine majesty of the Lord, and their hymns were sincere, impulsive and spontaneous.
This contrast between the disposition of the guileless children and the disposition of the ulterior, fickle Judaic rabble is underlined in a Vespers hymn of the feast-day. Addressing the Lord, the hymnographer says: ".... And Children laud You as befits God; while the Jews blaspheme illegally ....". This is why our Church is justified in prompting us to praise the Lord " as did the Children, who held the symbols of victory" (from the closing hymn).
Description of the icon. The Lord's entrance into Jerusalem was a triumphant one. The crowds that flooded the streets, the enthusiasm that was displayed during the welcome, and the praises that were heard, all compose a festive picture. The hagiographer depicts this joyous atmosphere with warm, vivid colors. These can be seen in Christ's garments, the apostles, the Judeans, the buildings, the clothes that are spread out across the roads by children.
This was a popular custom for the Judeans. It was a show of honor that was reserved only for a king who was rising to his office by being anointed with sanctified oil. The Lord is named Messiah, which means 'the one who is anointed by the Holy Spirit'. In this icon, only the children are laying garments down on the street, because the elders are welcoming Him as king of this world.
The icon has a duality in its appearance, at its upper and its lower area. Below, we have two groups of people: one group is the apostles who were following the Lord, and the other group is of men and children (in other icons, women are also portrayed). In between these two groups, the Lord dominates the scene imposingly. His head is turned towards the disciples, whom He blesses with His right hand. He holds a closed scroll in His left hand. Docility as well as sorrow line His face. His entrance into Jerusalem was the road to His Passion. As God, Christ knew that many from the crowd who were cheering Him as a king, would after a few days be cursing Him as though He were a criminal, and would be shouting "Quickly! Quickly! Crucify him!".
At the top of the icon, we see on one side the golden-yellow mountains and on the opposite side, the city with the temple of Solomon in its center. These two views merge beautifully in the center, where the tree is, with the boy in its branches.
With its hymns, its feasts and its divine services, our Church invites us to also glorify the Lord, by participating in His passion, by walking alongside Him, by crucifying ourselves along with Him. The following Vespers hymn reminds all of us of our obligations as members of the Christ's Church.
" On this day, the grace of the Holy Spirit has gathered us together; and with all of us bearing Your Cross, we say: 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna to the most High' ".