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  • Mary Palinkos

Egeria: Unsung Hero of Palm Sunday

The procession of the palms on Palm Sunday is one of the iconic liturgies of our church. We move as a group, singing and waving our palms, to remember Jesus’ triumphant entry to the city of Jerusalem.

The Gospel of John (12:12-13) recounts:

Green palm branches extent out into darkness
Palm branches (Photo by Vova Krasilnikov from Pexels)
The great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord."

Thanks to one ancient woman, we know that this tradition of processing for Palm Sunday stretches back to the fourth century (!), if not before.

Egeria (also known as Etheria or Aetheria) kept a travel journal when she made a pilgrimage from Spain to Jerusalem, sometime around the year 380.

Here's part of what she wrote:

“And as the eleventh hour approaches, the passage from the Gospel is read... 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.”

We don’t know much about Egeria herself. The above was in a letter she sent home to the women in her community in Spain. Ancient sources call her a nun because she wrote to her “sisters,” but it’s possible she was simply addressing her faith community.

A fresco or painting of a woman with medium-tone skin, dark hair, and a soulful gaze
Egeria, pilgrim

Without her account, we never would’ve known just how ancient this practice is. Egeria’s letter is not only the earliest account of the Palm Sunday celebration; it's our earliest account of Christian pilgrimage of any kind![1]

Sometimes, we imagine ancient women as subservient or, at the very least, silent. But in early Christianity especially, women were at the forefront of this new religious movement. Thanks be to God for Egeria, an unsung hero of Palm Sunday.

[1] Vikan, Gary (1991). "Egeria". In Kazhdan, A. P (ed.). The Oxford dictionary of Byzantium. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 679.

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