"12 The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13 took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out:
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’
The King of Israel!” (John 12: 12-13)
On the last Sunday before Easter, the Christian world celebrates Jesus' triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, starting the final week of His life prior to the Resurrection. This year I was lucky enough to experience this celebration at the very place it all happened - the Catholic Palm Sunday procession on Mount of Olives.
(Press on any image to see a large version.)
On that Sunday Jesus leaves the house of Lazarus at Betfage, a village on the Eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. His disciples find a donkey's colt that's never been ridden - maybe the donkey serves as a symbol of peace and humility, as opposed to the horse which tends to symbolize war and pride. Jesus rides down the hill, seeing Jerusalem in all its splendor of the 2nd Temple period, knowing full well it won't last much longer. As he makes his way down, the locals throw down at his feet tree branches (palms, according to John, possibly insinuating the Roman Empire's downfall), and greet him with calls of Hosanna.
In Jewish liturgy, Hosanna is pronounced Hosha-Na, meaning "Save, I pray". It first appears in Psalm 118 (which incidentally also includes the important verse "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone", used by Jesus in his teachings). The term is applied specifically to the Hoshana Service, a cycle of prayers from which a selection is sung each morning during Sukkot, the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. The complete cycle is sung on the seventh day of the festival, which is called Hoshana Rabbah (Great Hosanna). When the ritual was held in the Temple it incorporated the use of willow branches, so it's no surprise that the masses who greeted Jesus using this salutation did the same.
Some time after the destruction of the Temple, the Hoshana tradition came full circle, where on Hoshana Rabbah some Jews commemorated the Temple ritual with a pilgrimage to none other than the Mount of Olives...
Palm Sunday Procession 2015
On Palm Sunday (March 29 this year), my tourists and I joined the thousands of Catholic and Protestant pilgrims who came streaming down the Mount of Olives, singing hymns and bearing palm fronds and olive branches. The procession took place in the afternoon, beginning at the Bethfage Church, following the so called "Palm Sunday Road" which descends into Gethsemane, ascending into the Old City via the Lions' Gate and ending at the Church of St. Anne's.
The procession was led by local Arab Christian Scouts groups from all over the country, waving their flags and banners, marching in their uniforms and singing. After them marched a never ending stream of pilgrim groups from what seemed like every country in the world - people of all colors and ages, all walks of life, singing songs of all languages - all united in the festive atmosphere. At the back of the line walked the leaders of the Catholic Patriarchate: Head of the Custody of the Holy Land (the Custos) in the brown robes of the Franciscan monks, the Latin Patriarch in purple robes and a Greek bishop in black robes, representing the large Orthodox communities of Israel, who celebrate on a different date.
Finally the marchers gathered at the Church of Saint Ann where the Christian Scouts bands played their music, and then the bands left one by one, the ceremony ended and the crowds dispersed.
If you are in Israel around Easter, by all means, this is a fascinating event to take part in. Leave your valuables at home (yes, there are pickpockets around, unfortunately), bring a bottle of water, take a taxi to the top of Mount of Olives and hop in line.