It was a Sunday in springtime, around the year A.D. 30. The holy city of Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims who had come for the annual Passover celebration.
Jesus had spent many months traveling through the towns and villages of Palestine, preaching about the kingdom of God and healing the sick wherever he went. And now the time had come for him to claim his title as the Messiah — the savior that God had promised to the Jewish people.
Jesus knew his mission was almost finished, that his time on earth was almost over. As he and his disciples traveled to Jerusalem, Jesus warned them that he would soon be put to death, and after three days he would rise again.
Palm Sunday, one of Christianity’s holiest days, marks the beginning of Holy Week by commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. All four gospels record this arrival of Jesus, as in Matthew 21:1-3.
“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.”
The prophecy of Zechariah more than 500 years before, that a king would come and bring salvation with him, was fulfilled when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey.
“Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)
As Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem, the people spread their cloaks and palm branches on the street and shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” to honor him as their long-awaited Messiah and King.
During biblical times the regional custom called for kings and nobles arriving in procession to ride on the back of a donkey. The donkey, or domesticated ass, was a symbol of peace and those who rode upon them proclaimed peaceful intentions. The laying of palm branches indicated that the king or dignitary was arriving in victory or triumph.
The events of the next week would change the world — forever. Jesus entered Jerusalem and the crowd welcomed him as a king, but by the end of the week, they demanded his death. Even his followers abandoned him in fear. No one, not even his closest followers, really understood the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week until after Jesus returned. He came to offer not only himself, but also the gift of salvation.
In the simplest of terms, Palm Sunday is an occasion to reflect on the final week of Jesus’ life. It is a time for Christians to prepare their hearts for the agony of his Passion and the joy of his Resurrection.