From Armenia to every corner of the Middle East Palm Sunday is celebrated as a feast for children. Describing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, St Matthew’s Gospel highlights the participation of children in the event. “When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He did and the children crying out in the temple and saying ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ they were indignant and said to Him, Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes – have you never read ‘Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise?’” (Matthew 21:15-16)

Children are singled out for mention in the first historical witness we have to this feast as well. Towards the end of the fourth century the Spanish nun Egeria, on pilgrimage to the newly-adorned holy places of Palestine, described what she saw on that Palm Sunday: “As the eleventh hour draws near … all the children who are [gathered at the top of the Mount of Olives], including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others, olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led. … From the top of the mountain as far as the city and from there through the entire city … everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence.” The scene Egeria witnessed has been repeated ever since.

While today this procession is held at the end of Orthros or the Divine Liturgy, Egeria describes it as taking place “at the eleventh hour,” our 5 PM. This practice echoed the Gospel witness that “Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So when He had looked around at everything, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve” (Mark 11:11). There they spent the night.

Children and the Church Today

Palm Sunday services attract large numbers of families who may never attend the Liturgy otherwise. Many clergy blame negligent parents; others feel that the Church has not tried hard enough to reach these parents.

Some say that the Church spends too much effort educating children while ignoring adults. After all, they reason, the Lord blessed children but directed His teaching at adults.

Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, superior of Moscow’s Stretensky Monastery offers another insight. He suggests that, instead of debating about whom we should teach, we should reexamine what we do with them. Are we emphasizing secondary matters when we should be introducing them to Christ? He writes:

“Children at the age of eight or nine go to church and sing on the kliros, amazing and delighting everyone around them. But by the age of fourteen to sixteen, many – if not the majority – stop going to church.

“Children have not become acquainted with God. No, they of course are acquainted with the rites, with Church Slavonic, with order in church, with the lives of saints, and with sacred history as arranged for children. But they are not acquainted with God Himself. No encounter has taken place. The result is that parents, Sunday schools and – sad as it is – priests have built the house of childhood faith upon the sand (Matthew 7:26), and not upon the rock of Christ.

“How can it happen that children do not notice God, despite all the most sincere efforts of adults to instill faith in them? How can it turn out that children still do not find within themselves the strength to discern Christ the Savior in their childhood lives and in the Gospel?

“When responding to this question, we raise yet another adult problem, one that is reflected in our children as in a mirror. This is when both parents and priests teach one thing, but live in another way. This is a most frightful blow to the tender strength of childhood faith, an unbearable drama for their sensitive minds.”

If children only come to church on Palm Sunday, is it because their elders – parents, relatives, adults around them – have not reflected to them their own encounter with the Lord themselves?

Our Holy Week and Jerusalem

In 326-28 the Empress Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Palestine at the behest of her son to mark the places where Christ lived and died by constructing shrines and churches. According to Eusebius of Caesarea she was chiefly responsible for two churches, the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem (still in existence), and a church on the Mount of Olives, the site of Christ’s ascension. Jerusalem. She also took part in the excava-tions at the site of the Lord’s death and burial where the Great Church of the Resurrection stands today. It soon became the practice for great celebrations to take place at these sites, particularly when the events which took place there were observed. It was at these shrines that historical commemorations of the events of the Lord’s passion were first conducted.

In time local Churches throughout the Mediterranean world began to imitate the appealing Jerusalem practices, developing the historical observances of Holy Week as we know them today.

The Power of the Redemption

The first observances of Pascha in both East and West, however, were not attempts to recreate the events of the Lord’s passion. Rather they were focused on the effects of the Lord’s death and resurrection in the lives of the faithful. Thus the highpoint of the Resurrection celebration was the baptism of catechumens, which took place before the Paschal Liturgy, and the reconciliation of penitents on Holy Thursday: those whose serious sins had excluded them from the community,. In the same spirit Byzantine Churches today offer the Mystery of Holy Unction on Holy Wednesday. People are anointed for the healing of their spiritual infirmities, uniting with Christ in the power of His death and resurrection.

On Celebrating This Feast

In His humility Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and He is glad that He became so humble for our sake, glad that He came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to Himself. And even though we are told that He has now ascended above the highest heavens – the proof, surely, of His power and godhead – His love for mankind will never rest until He has raised our earthbound nature from glory to glory, and made it one with His own in heaven.

So let us spread before His feet – not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither – but ourselves, clothed in His grace, or rather, clothed completely in Him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before Him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the Conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of His victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel. (St Andrew of Crete)