Believers worldwide have commenced their annual observance of Holy Week beginning with Palm Sunday, which highlights the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago.
Millions of Christians from Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches carried palm leaves in processions Sunday to recall Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem in the days before his crucifixion. Palm Sunday, which falls the Sunday before Easter, is the sixth and last Sunday of Lent and the first day of the Holy Week.
"It's the beginning of Holy Week and that's very important to Catholics," commented the Rev. Richard Donohoe, pastor of St. Paul's Cathedral in Birmingham, Ala., to The Birmingham News.
Commemorating Palm Sunday with palm branches goes back to the early Christian church, Donohoe added. And it remains a favorite among parishioners at St. Paul's, who are handed palm branches as they enter the church for morning and evening services.
"The kids like it. The procession is wonderful; it's a time of solemnity and joy," the reverend said.
On Palm Sunday, in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Episcopal Church and most Lutheran churches, palm fronds are blessed outside the church building and a procession enters, singing, re-enacting the entry into Jerusalem. In some Lutheran churches, children are given palms, and then walk in procession around the inside of the church while the adults remain seated. These palms, which the Roman Catholic Church considers to be sacramentals, are saved in many churches to be burned the following year as the source of ashes used in Ash Wednesday services.
In Jewish tradition, palm branches are used to signify triumph and victory. On that first Palm Sunday, it was the highest honor the cheering crowds in Jerusalem saw fit to welcome who they expected to be a political savior.
"They were cutting branches from the trees around him and laying them at his feet," Donohoe said.
Many from those same crowds were later shouting approval as Jesus was crucified by the Romans, according to Gospel accounts.
At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI opened the Roman Catholic Church's most solemn week by urging young people to live peaceful and pure lives.
Continuing the tradition started by Pope John Paul II, Benedict dedicated Palm Sunday to the young, who were out in force in St. Peter's Square.
He told them in his Palm Sunday Mass that to follow God they should have "innocent hands and pure hearts."
"Innocent hands are hands that are not used for acts of violence," he said, according to The Associated Press. "They are hands that are not sullied by corruption and bribes."
Hearts are pure when they are not "stained by lies and hypocrisy," the pontiff continued. "A heart is pure when it is estranged from the intoxication of pleasure; a heart for whom love is true and not just the passion of a moment."
This year, Holy Week also includes the second anniversary of the April 2, 2005, death of Pope John Paul II. On Monday, the Catholic Church will close one phase of its investigation into John Paul's saintliness as it keeps up the momentum to have the beloved pope beatified in record time.
Benedict put John Paul on the fast track for possible sainthood just weeks after his April 2, 2005 death, when he waived the customary five-year waiting period and allowed the investigation into John Paul's virtues to begin immediately.
Such a waiver had only been granted once before: for Mother Teresa, who was beatified in 2003, six years after her death.