Ton Vaion (Palm Sunday)
Dean Kalimniou explores the significance of Palm Sunday in this week's diatribe
«΄Ηρθ'ο Λάζαρος, ήρθαν τα Βάγια, ήρθεν κι ο Χριστός από την Βηθανία...» goes the Epirot Palm Sunday carol. It is interesting that popular folklore preserves the association between the Feast of Palm Sunday, commemorating Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the Resurrection of Lazarus as these two feasts are inextricably and theologically linked.
In times ancient, they were celebrated together as the commencement of Passion Week. Later, this was considered incompatible with the triumphant and exalted character of these feasts and thus, they took on a nature of their own. By the fourth century, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem had developed its own elaborate festive observances, consisting of the Patriarch riding upon a donkey as Christ did before him, from the Mount of Olives, into Jerusalem. The populace walked before him, holding palm leaves in their hands.
While this custom gradually fell into disuse, it had its successor in the Imperial pageantry of Byzantium.
On Palm Sunday, the "walk of the Emperor" would take place, where amid much pomp and circumstance, the Emperor would emerge from his palace and in triumphant procession, walk to Saint Sophia, while his lambadarios would chant the kontakion of the feast: "Sitting on Thy throne in heaven, carried on a foal on earth, O Christ God! Accept the praise of angels and the songs of children, who sing: Blessed is He that comes to recall Adam!" Apparently, as the representative of God on earth, the excessively elaborate ceremonies of the Emperor, though far removed from the humility and simplicity of Christ's own triumphal entry into Jerusalem, is supposed to at least somehow, remind us of the majesty and vast importance of that historical event.
These days, all that has remained of these customs is the traditional adornment of churches in palm fronds, olive branches and inexplicably, bay leaf branches, significant in pagan Greek worship and symbolism and quite possibly a cultural remnant of that age. Interestingly enough, the feast is not known as Palm Sunday in Greek but as Bay-leaf Sunday. Traditionally, teams of village children, carrying a cross made of laurel wood, would scour the village to collect laurel branches and bring them to the church. They would do so, all the while singing: «Βάγια, βάγια του βαγιού, τρώε ψάρι και κολιό και την άλλη Κυριακή, τρώνε κόκκινο αυγό». Upon their arrival at the church, goodies in tow, the church bell would peal happily and the blessing of the bay leaves would be conducted. Popular belief held that bay leaves blessed on Palm Sunday and later burnt could restore health to those that had fallen sick due to the Evil Eye or safeguard the health of farm animals.
In Russia on the other hand, where palm fronds are not readily available, willow branches and pussy willows are substituted and given how seriously the Russians have traditionally taken their festivals, this is not to be smirked at, try as we might.
Another custom, more enduring and in fitting with the triumphant nature of the festival in the midst of the penitential atmosphere of Lent is the eating of fish. Indeed, this is considered in the popular culture to be so integral to the observance of the feast, that it has given rise to the saying: «Αν δε φας ψάρι, πρέπει να γλείψεις ένα ψαροκόκκαλο.»
However, there is an interpretation of Canon LXIX of the 85 Canons of the Holy Apostles which states: "Note that during all the forty days of Great Lent, fish is allowed by the Church but once, and that is only on the feast day of the Annunciation, as is ordained in the manuscript Rituals kept on the Holy Mountain. Hence it is evident that it has been a more modern hand that has written into the printed Rituals and into the Triodia that we may eat fish also on the feast day of the Palms. Besides, even Nicholas the Patriarch in his stichs (or verses) allowed the eating of fish only on the feast of the Annunciation. Wherefore, when we learn this fact, let us follow the forms of the saints, and not the modernities of the heretics, who yield obedience to the dictates of their bellies."
Tradition and custom notwithstanding, Palm Sunday and the Resurrection of Lazarus are of inordinate importance to the Orthodox Church for a number of reasons. The Resurrection of Lazarus has profound Christological significance. It is celebrated by the Church, as St Cyril of Alexandria tell us, as an assurance of the general resurrection of the dead at the end of days.
Therefore, in the apolytikion in the feast, the faithful sing triumphantly: "Giving us before Thy Passion an assurance of the general resurrection, Thou has raised Lazarus from the dead, O Christ our God." Of course, there is a fundamental difference between the resurrection of Lazarus and the resurrection of mankind after the Second coming of Christ. After his resurrection, Lazarus retained the body with which he had died, with all the characteristic features of corruptibility and morality, whereas the Church teaches that in the general resurrection, when the bodies will be raised, they will be spiritual and not subject to corruption.
Nikos Kazantzakis in his book The Last Temptation of Christ, presents Lazarus after his resurrection as a re-animated corpse.
Though unsound theologically, it certainly is a powerful and interesting literary exploration of the feast.
Most importantly, in the Resurrection of Lazarus, we see the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, God and Man clearly exemplified. St John the Evangelist records that Christ, as man, wept at the death of Lazarus, his good friend. In particular, he "groaned and was troubled."
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