Palm Sunday

The feast of the Passover commemorates the liberation of the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt and constitutes the most important celebration in the Jewish calendar. Since the time of King Josiah around 600 years before Christ, Jews were no longer to celebrate the Passover within the family only. As of that time, the (Paschal) lamb eaten during each family’s festive meal had to be slaughtered in the temple of Jerusalem. Those who did not have a lamb that had been slaughtered in the temple could not fully celebrate the Passover meal (cf. 2 Kings 23: 21–23).

Jesus also wanted to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. He sent His disciples on ahead in order to prepare everything. Jesus described to them how they would find a mount for Him: »Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose it and bring it. And if anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” say, “The Lord has need of it,” and immediately he will send it here. So they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it« (Mark 11: 2–4).

Jesus enters Jerusalem

Everything happened just as Jesus had told them. The Lord rode into Jerusalem on a young donkey. The crowds of people who welcomed Him would have consisted primarily of pilgrims. They spread their garments out on the path before Jesus, threw down palm branches and cried out, “Hosanna.” (cf. Mark 11: 7–10). Each of these few lines contains symbols that allude to the Messiah.

The palm

At least since the victories of the Maccabees, the palm has been a symbol for Israel’s independence: “Therefore they bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also, and sang psalms unto Him that had given them good success in cleansing His place” (2 Maccabees 10: 7).

The word “Hosanna”

The words “Save now, I pray, O Lord” (Hebrew hosheeah-nna) from Psalm 118: 25 were probably sung by the pilgrims as they entered the temple on Passover. This exclamation can be interpreted to mean “Save now!” or “Save, pray!” For both the Romans and the Jewish high priests this cry represented an enormous provocation. To the Romans it was a reminder of the successful uprising of the Maccabees, who had liberated Israel from oppression. And for the Jewish temple priests, this cry signified blasphemy, since it implied that the people counted on the man Jesus to help and deliver them.

The donkey

Jesus rode into Jerusalem upon a donkey, a poor man’s mount. The words foretold by the prophet Zechariah, who lived in the sixth century before Christ, were thus fulfilled: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem; the battle bow shall be cut off. He shall speak peace to the nations; His dominion shall be from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9: 9–10).

For the educated and mighty among the Jews, it must have appeared as though Jesus was preparing a revolt against the rule of the priests. But the Romans also had reason to feel a little nervous, because such a celebrated entry was reserved only for Caesar. Anyone who permitted Himself to be welcomed into Jerusalem in this manner would have seemed to be in competition with the Roman emperor. In the eyes of the Romans this amounted to high treason.

Nevertheless, neither the high priest nor the Roman governor Pilate felt much like intervening or acting at the time. The risk of a sudden popular uprising was too great. They sought to lay hands on Jesus by treachery instead. Their last chance before the feast of the Passover was on the Friday – during the day – before the celebration of the Passover (cf. Luke 22: 3–6).

Palm Sunday

When we celebrate Palm Sunday today we are following the tradition of the Christian congregation in Jerusalem. It is said that already around the year 400 this congregation would gather on the Mount of Olives and descend in procession into the city. The children were said to carry palm leaves and olive twigs in their hands on these occasions.

In our celebrations of Palm Sunday, the focal point is the Lord Himself, who, according to the accounts of the Gospels, has made Himself known to all peoples as the Messiah and the Prince of Peace.

The disciples of Jesus must also have recognised the fact that His deliverance of Israel was far more effective and lasting than any purely secular act of political liberation. Jesus was not a ruler of this world. He was not like the princes and kings of this earth. Rather He is the Lord who conquered death and who will return in glory to take His bridal congregation to Himself.

Maundy Thursday, institution of the Eucharist

The Lord’s Supper is not synonymous with the Passover meal, because the Passover meal was only celebrated by the high priest after he had slaughtered the lambs on the Day of Preparation. Let us examine the sequence of events of the celebration: the Friday before Passover Saturday is the Day of Preparation, on which all preparations are made. Lambs are slaughtered, and wine and herbs are prepared for the Passover on this day. The Passover feast itself is celebrated on the Saturday. This sounds easy enough, but the current 24-hour time reckoning was not yet in practice at the time. By our reckoning, each day begins at midnight and ends at midnight, lasting from 12 midnight to 12 noon. It was quite different with the Judaic calendar.

To this day Jews mark the beginning of the day at 6.00 p.m. of the preceding evening, which coincides with the rising of the first star. Accordingly the day also ends at 6.00 p.m. The Judaic Day of Preparation thus lasts from 6.00 p.m. on Thursday to 6.00 p.m. on Friday. The Sabbath – and thus the official Passover meal – begins as of 6.00 p.m. on Friday.

However, Jesus celebrated His last supper on the Thursday evening, the Day of Preparation. He celebrated this event with His disciples as a meal of fellowship which was closely associated with His suffering and imminent sacrificial death: »And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you”« (Luke 22: 19–20).