The olive tree? But surely these are branches blessed last year on Palm Sunday? So I looked at what the current Missal says about Palm Sunday – or to give it its full title, “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.”ASH WEDNESDAY: The ashes are of branches of the olive tree or, according to custom, of the palm tree or other trees, which have been blessed the previous year.
There was no rubric there specifying what kind of branches should be used by the people, though the processional cross was to be adorned with palm branches. Most of the mentions of branches, in both rubrics and prayers, simply used the word branches. Of the four Gospel texts of the Triumphal Entrance, only John explicitly says “palm branches”. This is reflected in several of the texts for the First Form, the Solemn Entrance with profession, where the Hymn to Christ the King and the responsory immediately following both declare that the Hebrews were waving “branches of palm”. But before that, in the same selection of processional texts, we find Antiphon 1:
Nevertheless, the Third Form, the simple entrance, has this entrance antiphon:The children of the Hebrews, carrying olive branches…
A quick search of the internet reveals advocates of using olive branches, since these represent peace in contrast to the palms which signify military victory – but also, of course, advocates of using palm because one explicit mention in the Gospel is enough to validate this. For practical reasons, before modern shipping and transportation, any available branches were (and still are) permissible – meaning in Bavaria and Poland the day of the Lord’s Passion is also known as *beep* Willow Sunday!in their hands they carried palm branches…
An Anglican source points to a 2006 book suggesting a contrast between Pilate entering Jerusalem from the west carrying a palm branch as a sign of imperial power, while Jesus enters from east hailed by olives as the King of Peace.
The current missal is, of course, a literal translation of the 2002 Missale Romanum (and in these texts correspondes precisely).
Both the UK and USA versions of the pre-2010 Missal open Palm Sunday with a rubric that the faithful “carry palm branches” and merely mention on Ash Wednesday that the ashes fittingly come from “branches” previously blessed.
The 1965/66 English-Latin Missal contains the same instruction as the current Missal for Ash Wednesday, favouring olive, but for Palm Sunday specifies blessing branches of "palm, olive or other trees".
So there has clearly been a deliberate change of instruction. Between 1965 and 2002, the Latin Missal dropped the mention of "palm or olive" in its rubrics for Palm Sunday. Following the literal requirements of Liturgicam Authenticam, our current Missal faithfully reproduces the enduring Ash Wednesday rubric preferring olives, which must have been suppressed as not reflecting Anglosphere botany in the previous translation. Taken together, where our previous English Missal preferred palm, the current one prefers olive.
There’s no doubt that olive, palm and other branches are all valid for liturgical use on Palm Sunday and their ashes for Ash Wednesday. But insofar as a rubric seems to imply that olive branches are normative except where palm or other options are customary, where does this preference for olive branches come from? Is it simply a practical reflection of Italy being in a place where olive is more accessible than palm, and Roman practice becoming the model for the world-wide church? Is it a theological choice to emphasise the symbol of peace over the sign of imperial power? Or is there another factor at work here? Your insights, please!