Today is Palm Sunday (Dominica in Palmis) and the beginning of Holy Week. This Sunday is synonymous with the blessing and carrying in procession of palm branches in imitation of those carried by the Hebrew people who welcomed Christ into Jerusalem.
In the ancient world palm branches were a sign of peace and victory; they were carried by Romans and Greeks in their great state processions and often used as adornments.
In the Holy Land, as in most parts of the near East, the type of palm tree that grows is called in Latin Phoenix Dactylifera, better known to us today as the Date Palm from which succulent dates are harvested. These trees apparently grow to heights of eighty feet, although forty feet is more common, and dates can be harvested from them six years after they have been planted; they continue to produce fruit for around one hundred years. Its trunk is straight, tall and unbroken, terminating in a crown of fronds.
As its Latin name indicates, palms were associated with the mythical bird, the Phoenix, because it was thought that the bird would land on the fronds of this majestic tree, then combust in flames, and from the ashes of the old bird a new bird would rise through a kind of regeneration. For obvious reasons the early Christians came to associate the Phoenix Dactylifera with Christ, who from rose from death to new life. Dactylifera simply means ‘date bearing’.
Many places are mentioned in the Bible as having connection with palm trees: Jericho, for example, was known as the “city of palm trees”; Bethany, where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived, means the “house of dates”; the place-name Phoenicia, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, is in all probability derived from the Greek word for palm. In the Book of Psalms, Psalm 92, the familiar comparison is made: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree.” In the Book of Revelation, the saints are described in heaven as: “clothed with white robes and with palms in their hands.” Palms became symbol of martyrdom in the early Church.
Blessed palms are sacramentals. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sacramentals are: “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church.” Other sacramentals include relics, holy oils, holy water, a rosary etc. They should therefore be treated with respect and given a place of honour in our homes. It is usually recommended that blessed sacramentals be burned rather than simply thrown away.