Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday and Holy Week Before Easter?
As Easter draws near, faith communities around the world prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday and Holy Week (also known as Passion Week). What are these observances, and why are they such an important part of the Christian calendar?
What is Palm Sunday?Palm Sunday marks the first day of the week leading up to Easter Sunday. Its actual date shifts yearly, depending on the spring equinox and the timing of Lent. This year, Palm Sunday is on Sunday, April 2, 2023.
Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entrance into the city of Jerusalem prior to his death, as described in Matthew 21:1-11. Riding on a donkey, Jesus was greeted with crowds who welcomed him as a king by waving palm branches and laying the branches and their cloaks on the ground in front of his path. The people cheered his arrival, shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"
Descriptions of Palm Sunday ceremonies in Jerusalem are found in travel memoirs from the late 4th century. Today, many communities celebrate the day with a processional, palm branches, hymns, Scripture readings, and crosses made of palm leaves. Although this triumphal entry into the city honored Jesus as a king, it also marked the fulfillment of ancient prophecies about the Messiah (e.g., Zechariah 9:9) as well as the first step toward his death.
What is Holy Week (or Passion Week)?Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and ends with Easter Sunday. Like Palm Sunday, it is a “movable” holiday with dates that shift every year, depending on the church calendar.
Holy Week commemorates the events in Jesus’s life during the last days leading up to his death and resurrection. The week is also known as Passion Week, because it spans Jesus’ greatest suffering. (The word “passion” is taken from the Latin word “pati”—meaning “to suffer or endure”—and when referring to Jesus, usually means the events from his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to his death on the cross. These events are described in the New Testament gospels of Matthew, chapters 21-27; Mark, chapters 11-15; Luke, chapters 19-23; and John, chapters 12-19.
Holy Week and Easter are also connected with the Jewish holiday of Passover and the exodus of Jews from Egypt (described in the Old Testament). Jesus and his first followers, as Jews themselves, were in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Many modern-day Christians explore this connection by sharing a seder meal during Holy Week.
Some church traditions name the specific days of Holy Week and celebrate each day with certain hymns and scripture readings. Other churches do not observe specific days but emphasize the way the events of Holy Week led up to Jesus’ arrest, death, and return to life.
Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday and Holy Week?These two traditions continue to inspire generations of Christ-followers to reflect upon and remember the foundations of their faith.
Here are five things to keep in mind in the week leading up to Easter:
1. The Christian faith is anchored in actual historical events.Unlike a myth or folk tale, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and activity during Holy Week occurred in a real time and place. The Bible provides numerous eyewitness accounts of these events as well as Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings.
2. The events of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter fulfilled ancient prophecies from the Old Testament. Although Jesus’ own followers were shocked and bewildered by the things that occurred during the final week before his death, Jesus was not. He knew what would happen. The details of his death and resurrection had already been foretold in scripture, and these prophecies helped to connect the events of Holy Week and Easter to God’s greater plan for the world.
3. Jesus’ suffering during Holy Week reveals the depth of God’s love for us.Jesus chose to endure incredible suffering and a torturous death—and not because of anything wrong he had done. Jesus accepted the false pretenses for his arrest and execution out of love, not fear or weakness. He made it clear that his death would heal and transform the relationship between sinful people and their Creator, as anticipated in Old Testament prophecy.
He explained this idea in the Last Supper, his last meal with his followers before his arrest. Jesus gave new significance to this traditional Jewish Passover meal by declaring that the matzah (bread) and wine he shared with his followers represented the sacrifice he was about to make for them in death.
4. The reign of Christ as King is far different, and far greater, than people expected in his time.When the crowds welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, they were eagerly awaiting a king who would deliver them from the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. They believed the “kingdom of heaven” that Jesus had spoken of in his earlier teachings was a political entity. Their cries of “Hosanna” were an echo of a portion of Psalm 118 and meant, essentially, “Please save us now!”
However, Jesus’ vision was radically different. His mission was to introduce a holistic and spiritual kingdom with a “now” and a “someday” aspect. In the present, he came to restore the brokenness in people’s lives, replacing self-centeredness with a genuine love for God and others. His followers are invited to be a part of both personal and societal transformation for good. In the future, he will bring a full restoration and complete realization of that good to every aspect of creation.
5. Palm Sunday and Holy Week culminate in Easter Sunday, the greatest celebration in the Christian calendar.Many people today think of Christmas as the “most wonderful time of the year“—but traditionally, Easter Sunday has been considered the most sacred day for Christian communities. For many churches, Easter brings a joyful conclusion to the season of Lent.
Easter Sunday celebrates the historical event on which generations of Christ-followers have built their faith: the resurrection of Jesus, three days after his death and burial. (See 1 Corinthians 15:1-20.) Jesus’ return to life transformed his earliest followers from a fearful, disheartened group into a community of inspired and empowered people determined to carry Jesus’ message and mission to the world.
No matter how you choose to observe this coming week, let these five things enrich the “why” behind your celebration of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter.
Join us as we celebrate Easter! Find more info, including Easter service times and locations and a link to our immersive journey “The Week Before Easter” in the Chase Oaks App, here.