A few weeks ago I wrote about the Lenten practice of Stations of the Cross, which grew out of the pilgrimages early Christians took to Jerusalem to walk in Jesus’ footsteps in his last days. Much of what we know about this kind of pilgrimage comes from a journal kept by a Spanish nun named Egeria (or Etheria or Aetheria) who traveled to Jerusalem in the fourth century (sometime in the 380s). The nun wrote of her experiences for a group of nuns and other women back home, and it is the earliest such account that we have. The beginning and ending of the text is missing, but the middle part survives — you can read an English translation here.
Part of the text we have is a travelogue, describing Egeria’s journey that ranged from Mount Sinai to Constantinople, and included visits to Mount Nebo, and Job’s tomb in modern-day Syria, as well as a three-year stay in Jerusalem. She also wrote detailed accounts of the worship services of the church in Jerusalem, at a time when the liturgical year was evolving into what we have today. Of particular interest to us at this time of year is her record of Lenten and Holy Week observances, as is the fact that the celebration of Jesus’ birth had not yet settled onto December 25.
Here’s what she had to say about the Palm Sunday service, the procession with palms to the Mount of Olives, which we will observe this coming Sunday, March 25:
Accordingly at the seventh hour all the people go up to the Mount of Olives, that is, to Eleona, and the bishop with them, to the church, where hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said, and lessons in like manner. And when the ninth hour approaches they go up with hymns to the Imbomon, that is, to the place whence the Lord ascended into heaven, and there they sit down, for all the people are always bidden to sit when the bishop is present; the deacons alone always stand. Hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said, interspersed with lections and prayers. And as the eleventh hour approaches, the passage from the Gospel is read, where the children, carrying branches and palms, met the Lord, saying; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord, and the bishop immediately rises, and all the people with him, and they all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people going before him with hymns and antiphons, answering one to another: Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. And all the children in the neighbourhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives, and thus the bishop is escorted in the same manner as the Lord was of old. For all, even those of rank, both matrons and men, accompany the bishop all the way on foot in this manner, making these responses, from the top of the mount to the city, and thence through the whole city to the Anastasis, going very slowly lest the people should be wearied; and thus they arrive at the Anastasis at a late hour. And on arriving, although it is late, lucernare (candle-lighting) takes place, with prayer at the Cross; after which the people are dismissed.
I find it so moving that when we have our own Palm Sunday procession with palms, we are not only walking in the footsteps of those who witnessed Jesus’ entry in to Jerusalem, but also of countless pilgrims like Egeria. To be sure, their procession and worship lasted all day, and so was a bit more immersive than our circling our sanctuary; nevertheless, we are taking part in a very ancient remembrance. The ancient liturgies continue as we move through Holy Week, following Jesus in his last days. Why not make a point to join us, and the myriad pilgrims who have gone before?