Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Palm Branches


Palms are sacramentals of the Church distributed to the faithful on Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) -- the day that commemorates Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Their purpose is to honor Christ's glory and Kingship, as did the inhabitants of Jerusalem who met Him, strewing palm branches on the street before Him.

Carrying palms (or olive or willow branches, etc., if palms aren't available) in procession goes way back into the Old Testament, where it was not only approved but commanded by God at the very foundation of the Old Testament religion. In the fall of the year, after the harvest, when the people gathered for the Feast of Tabernacles God said in Leviticus 23:40:

And you shall take to you on the first day the fruits of the fairest tree, and branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook: And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God.

Again we read of palms in the II Machabees 10:6-8:

And they kept eight days with joy, after the manner of the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long before they had kept the feast of the tabernacles when they were in the mountains, and in dens like wild beasts. Therefore they now carried boughs and green branches and palms, for him that had given them good success in cleansing his place. And they ordained by a common statute, and decree, that all the nation of the Jews should keep those days every year.

And in the 7th chapter of the Apocalypse, we see that those who were "sealed" are seen by John carrying palms:

Apocalypse 7:9-10:
After this, I saw a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands. And they cried with a loud voice, saying: Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne and to the Lamb.

The palms are blessed before the High Mass on Palm Sunday. Vested in red cope and standing at the Epistle side of the Altar, the priest recites a short prayer, and then reads a lesson from the book of Exodus which tells of the children of Israel coming to Elim on their way to the Promised Land, where they found a fountain and seventy palm trees. It was at Elim that God sent them manna.

After a few verses from the New Testament, the priest reads the story of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem the Sunday before His death, and about how the people put palms in the Savior's path and sang hosannas because, ironically, they expected a temporal victory by the One they thought would be the great military leader who would conquer the Romans..

Then we pray, begging God that we may in the end go meet Christ, that we may enter with Him into the eternal Jerusalem. The following preface and prayers ask God to bless the palms, that they may be sanctified and may be a means of grace and divine protection to those who carry them and treasure them with faith.

The palms are distributed to the people at the Communion rail. The priest will press the palm against your lips so you can kiss it, and then his hand. Alternatively, the palms may be handed out by the altar boys. In any case, Scripture and prayers follow, and then a procession of clergy, servers, and people through the church or outside around the church.

Some of these same palm branches are saved and burned the next year to make the ashes for the next Ash Wednesday -- the palms, which symbolize triumph over evil, and the ashes, which sympbolize death and penitence, forming a great symbolic connection between suffering and victory.

The branches given to the faithful are held in the hand at the singing or reading of the Passion and the Gospel during the Mass, but when Mass is finished we take them home and hang them over crucifixes or holy pictures. Men will sometimes wear a piece of it in their hats or pin it to their lapels, and a piece should also be placed with one's sick call set.

It is custom to break off a piece of the palm and -- while praying to St. Barbara (or St. Walburga) for her intercession, and lighting a blessed candle (especially one blessed at Candlemas) -- burn it for protection against storms. I offer this prayer against storms from the Pieta prayerbook (make the Sign of the Cross at each + sign):

Jesus Christ a King of Glory has come in Peace.+ God became man, + and the Word was made flesh.+ Christ was born of a Virgin.+ Christ suffered.+ Christ was crucified.+ Christ died.+ Christ rose from the dead.+ Christ ascended into Heaven.+ Christ conquers.+ Christ reigns.+ Christ commands.+

May Christ protect us from all storms and lightning. + Christ went through their midst in Peace, + and the Word was made Flesh.+ Christ is with us with Mary.+ Flee you enemy spirits because the Lion of the Generation of Juda, the Root David, has won.+ Holy God! + Holy Powerful God! + Holy Immortal God! + Have mercy on us. Amen.

It's customary for some to shape the palm into Latin Crosses 1 before hanging them (for instructions, see the Palm Sunday page).

The next year, when we get new palms, the old palms are burned and their ashes buried.

St. Peter's Palms

As symbols of victory over evil, palms are also symbols of martrydom, and those who've died for the cause of the Faith are often depicted in art holding palm branches. Because of this, another custom involving palms is the blessing of palms on April 29, the feast of St. Peter of Verona, also known as St. Peter Martyr, a Dominican who, in A.D. 1252,  was murdered by Cathar heretics for defending the holy Faith. His last words were "Credo in unum Deum," the first words of the Nicene Creed.

At Mass on his day, palms may be blessed by the priest with the following blessing:

V: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R: Who made heaven and earth.

V: The Lord be with you.
R: And with your spirit.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we beg you to bless + these tree-branches, to pour out on them a heavenly blessing, by the power of the holy + cross and the prayers of St. Peter Martyr; for when you once went forth to triumph over the enemy of mankind, you willed that little children pay honor to you, waving palms and tree-branches before you. By the sign of the holy + cross, let these branches be so endowed with your blessing, that wherever they are kept the prince of darkness with all his followers may flee in fear and trembling from such homes and places; no damage may be done there from lightning and storm; no inclement weather consume or destroy the fruits of the earth; no happening disturb or molest those who serve you, the almighty God, who live and reign forever and ever.

R: Amen.

V. Adjutórium nostrum in nómine Dómini.
R. Qui fecit caelum et terram.

V. Dóminus vobíscum.
R. Et cum spíritu tuo.

Orémus. Dómine Jesu Christe, Fili Dei vivi, bene+díc hos árborum ramos supplicatiónibus nostris et infúnde eis, Dómine, per virtútem Sanctae Cru+cis et per intercessiónem beáti Petri Mártyris, benedictiónem caeléstem, qui triumphatúrus de hoste géneris humáni per manus puerórum palmas et árborum ramos in honórem tuum adhibéri voluísti, talémque benedictiónem signáculo Sanctae Cru+cis accípiant: ut, in quibuscúmque locis áliquid ex eis pósitum fúerit, discédant príncipes tenebrárum et contremíscant et fúgiant pávidi cum ómnibus minístris suis de locis vel habitatiónibus illis. Non ibi nóceant fúlmina et tempestátes, non fructus terrae consúmat aut depérdat ulla intempéries eleménti, nihílque inquiétet aut moléstet serviéntes tibi omnipoténti Deo. Qui vivis et regnas in saécula saeculórum.

R. Amen.

These palms are then taken home, shaped into crosses, and buried at the four corners of one's property in order to protect one's home from natural disasters, and evil.


Footnote:St. Brigid's Cross
1 There's another type of Cross that is woven by Catholics -- St. Brigid's Crosses (see picture at right). They are made on St. Brigid's Feast Day (1 February) out of rushes or reeds and hung on the inside of the front door of one's house, especially in Irish Catholic homes. They are left there all year and replaced the next St. Brigid's Day. St. Brigid's Crosses have their origin in the fact that a dying chieftan asked St. Brigid about a Cross she was shaping out of reeds. In explaining her gesture, she told him the story of Christ, and he converted. For instructions on how to make a St. Brigid's Cross, see the page on the Feast of St. Brigid

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