Palm and Pilgrims
Today is known as ‘Palm Sunday’ as the celebration of Mass is preceded by an account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where, according to John’s Gospel, people ‘took palm branches and went out to meet Him’ (Jn 12:13).
In the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrims from Western Europe who visited the Holy Land would often return with palm leaves as tokens of their visit, which they folded into a cross to bear witness to their Christian faith. Such a person became known as ‘palmer’, a surname that some people still retain to this day. Palmers were generally recognised as well-natured, holy people, evidenced by their good works and devotion to Christ as they travelled on their pilgrimage.
In 1688, it was decreed by the Congregation of Rites that a palm carved on a catacomb or tomb was proof that a martyr had been interred there and in ancient art, palms also stood as a representation of heaven, as Jesus was often pictured in heaven amongst palms.
In the Bible, further to the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, John states in the Book of Revelation that he saw a great multitude standing before the Lamb, ‘holding palm branches in their hands’. Thus, they came to symbolise not only reverence but peace following the end of conflict. The symbolism prompted soldiers returning from the Crusades (1095-1492) to adopt the palm also; they would carry them or wear the image of one on returning home. The Order of the Holy Sepulchre, an organisation whose mission is to support the Christian presence in the Holy Land, still awards the ‘Palm of Jerusalem’ as a decoration of distinction today. Also, early in the twentieth century, Pope Leo XIII established the Jerusalem Pilgrim’s Cross to honour and endorse pilgrimage to the holy places of Christianity in Palestine.
Often, medieval pilgrims to the Holy Land would also bring back palms to deposit in their home churches, a tradition which links to our own celebration of the Mass on Palm Sunday with it’s distribution of palm crosses.
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