Palm Sunday begins holiest week of Christian calendar

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the holiest week of the year for Christians and is customarily represented with palm fronds or palm branches.

The palm represents victory in the Bible and was laid on the road for Jesus when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as the new Messiah.

A familiar plant to Floridians, the palm is a hardy plant that can withstand a lot of storms and beating, just as Jesus did in the final days of his life, said Phil Derstine, senior pastor of the Family Church at Christian Retreat.

“It’s a powerful symbol of our Christian lives,” he said.

But beyond the palm branches, local pastors are hoping to remind people of the true purpose of Jesus’ Palm Sunday journey and at the same time instill the excitement of his mission, say local pastors.

Bill Pierson, pastor of Jesus Only You, J.O.Y. Fellowship, a traveling ministry that brings the word to the people, plans to hand out the symbolic palm leaves to the residents of an assisted living facility where he will be preaching Sunday.

Pierson plans to talk about the meaning of Palm Sunday and the days that followed. The scriptures say Jesus knew his destiny.

“He knew he was going to be sacrificed; he knew he was going to die so he could lead us back to God,” said Pierson, who also is the president of the Ministerial Fellowship of the Gulf Coast.

Anne Barber, pastor of My Father’s House in Ellenton, plans to tie the message of Palm Sunday together with Jewish tradition and Passover, the festival of the leavening of bread, by inspiring a message of “sweeping out the leavening in our lives.” One of the reasons Jesus traveled to Jerusalem was to celebrate Passover.

My Father’s House will have a Palm Sunday service, but tonight they will highlight the events of Holy Week with a festive music and dance processional called “The Way, The Truth and The Life.”

The story of the first Palm Sunday tells of crowds rallying with excitement around Jesus Christ as he rode into Jerusalem aboard a donkey. The people believed Jesus was their new king, one who would liberate them from Rome and establish Israel.

Jesus Christ was surrounded by a temporary, triumphant atmosphere, but the people wanted something different, said Barber.

“How sad Christ was when he looked over Jerusalem,” Barber said. “He came for their peace, but was rejected. The people thought he was going to deliver them from Rome. They didn’t understand.”

Pierson compares the events surrounding the last days of Jesus’ life to a presidential election. He said often there is a lot of “pomp and circumstance” during an election, but often people’s perception of a candidate changes once they are elected.

It was much the same with Jesus.

“Jesus Christ was going to run the kind of kingdom he wanted,” said Pierson. “They wanted it to be physical here and now. Up until that time, we hadn’t seen anything like that in our history.”

On that first Palm Sunday, the people laid cloaks in Jesus’ path as they would for a king. Happy and energized, the people shouted “Hosanna,” and “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.”

But their jubilation was short lived and the story of Palm Sunday becomes one of irony, said the Rev. Elizabeth Deibert, pastor of Peace Presbyterian Church of Lakewood Ranch. People were disturbed to discover that Christ’s strength came not in political power and popularity, but in the form of sacrifice, service and peace, she said.

“We all rally around to celebrate Christ when he confirms and supports our preconceived notions of who he is and what his reign will bring,” said Deibert, whose church will celebrate Palm Sunday with a procession of choir singing and children waving palm leaves. “It was Jesus’ very followers that are one minute singing his praises and then days later, they have all fallen away. Even his closest friends denied him and said they did not know him.”

Deibert plans to make her Palm Sunday message about “the risk of misunderstanding.” It continues to be as relevant and inspirational as it was then, she said.

“We understand and we misunderstand,” Deibert said. “We are quick to fall away as they did during that first Holy Week. It’s a real reflection of the human condition.”

Derstine hopes to use the symbol of the palm and Palm Sunday to illustrate why the last days of Jesus’ life can be a time of opportunity rather than crisis.

“It was a message of hope when Jesus rode into Jerusalem,” said Derstine, whose congregation is planning a festive parade of Davidic dance and song on Palm Sunday. “God has created us to be a people to weather the storm.”