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Hallo again to all.

Today was Palm Sunday in the entire Christian world. East and West, orthodox and heterodox, the sun and the moon delivered the same date to church calendars everywhere.

Referred to in the earliest Books of Common Prayer as "the Sunday Next before Easter", this day is one of the most liturgical and most liturgically varied of the church year. We rejoice in all of the celebratory traditions even as we enjoy our own, but in our travels we've encountered very different styles.

Battle Abbey, Hastings, East Sussex

Palm tree at Battle Abbey, Hastings, East Sussex

Even the name by which many of us call this day — Palm Sunday — has a cultural bias. Palm trees, Arecacæ, grow mostly in the tropics. Never mind that there are three sorry but ancient palm trees clinging to life behind Battle Abbey in East Sussex; virtually no Arecacæ grow of their own free will north of Marseille. In Latvia it's called pūpolu vītols svētdiena and in neighboring Belarus it's called шапіках вярбы нядзелю. Both mean "Pussywillow Sunday". There being no palm trees, it's quite common in many countries in Eastern Europe to use pussy willow (Salix cinerea) for the procession on this day, but not every culture actually changes the name of the day. We're told that in Kerala, where there's no shortage of palm trees, the custom is to use fresh flowers in the liturgy, tossing them joyfully all around during the reading of the Gospel.

There is a lot of evidence that the custom of celebrating the procession and the passion on the same Sunday is very very old. A recent Oxford doctoral dissertation*, noting that 'One of the most overtly dramatic rituals in the Anglo-Saxon calendar is the Palm Sunday procession', traces the origins of that procession back to the very earliest Christians. Dr M Bradford Bedingfield writes 'Of the Jerusalem rituals described by Egeria in the fourth century, those for Palm Sunday are perhaps the most dramatic, involving a procession from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem.' Received wisdom seems to be that while this procession certainly originated in Jerusalem, it was introduced into the West in about the eighth or ninth century. Bedingfield continues by noting that 'Throughout Anglo-Saxon treatment of Palm Sunday, both in preaching and in the liturgy, the point of the day is its relationship to Easter weekend.'

It is a bit liturgically jarring to begin a worship service with a triumphant procession and end it with the violence of conviction and sentencing. But, as a clergy friend noted once, that contrast 'strikes a dramatic note that seems true both to the original events and to life itself'. A few editions of the Book of Common Prayer historically provided separate liturgies for palm and passion. And the UK's infamous Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874 frowned on ritualism such as the palm procession, so much so that in 1906 the Report of the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline, with all of the subtlety of a child tattling to his parents about a sibling's behaviour, noted under 'Present Breaches and Neglects of the Law' that some churches are criminally blessing palms, lighting Paschal Candles, washing altars, and celebrating the Stations of the Cross.

We suppose that if you skip all of Holy Week and attend church only on Palm Sunday and Easter, that you need to have the palms and the passion in the same service. But this week in front of us is rich with Holy Week events, and it would be very jarring to miss them, whether or not we've already heard the story of Jesus' arrest and conviction. Some stories just get better each time they are re-told.

No constables barged in to our church this morning to arrest the priest for blessing palms, and we aren't expecting Stasi visitors at the Great Vigil to notify the authorities about our Paschal Candle. Mostly we are expecting, sad to say, sparse attendance at those events and lots of bright new clothing at the Easter morning service.

See you next week. We'll be quite busy between now and then and would like to think that you will be, too.

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Last updated: 17 April 2011

*Dramatic Ritual and Preaching in Late Anglo-Saxon England, DPhil Oxon thesis by Marvin Bradford Bedingfield, 1999.

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