Pussy Willow Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday for those that celebrate on the Gregorian calendar. But for Ukrainians that celebrate today or on April 21st by the Julian calendar this day is called Pussy Willow Sunday or Verbna Nedila [or Flowery Sunday].

Palm trees don’t grow in Ukraine so in the Ukrainian Christian tradition, it was replaced by a willow, a plant, which blooms in early spring and symbolizes the beginning of a new life. It is likely that origins of this custom are ancient, and probably precede the acceptance of Christianity in Ukraine.

On this day pussy-willow branches are blessed in church. After Palm Sunday services, it was customary for Ukrainians to tap each other with the blessed pussy willow branches. In pagan times, it is said that this tapping transferred living energy from the willow plant (which was a goddess totem) to the person being tapped. Children, particularly, would be tapped, so they would grow big, strong and healthy. Tapping of friends with the pussy willow branches was actually a wish for good health, wealth and happiness. The people tap one another with these branches repeating the wish below.

The blessed willow branches were then taken home. Some of the blessed pussy willow branches were placed above the holy pictures in the home, to protect the household from evil spirits. These branches would replace the branches that had been placed the previous year. The branches which were taken down were carefully burned; a few would be used to light the stove to bake this year’s pasky.

Some of the branches were planted by the father or oldest son. If they took root, it meant a marriage for the daughter of son of the family. Often they would be planted near the family’s well, to keep evils spirits away from it, and to make the water healthy and good tasting.

Blessed branches were used to drive the cattle to pasture for the first time on St. George’s Day, and then the father or eldest son would lightly tap the cattle with them to ensure good health and fecundity. Branches would be used to ward off storms, and thrown into fires to help put them out. A branch or two would be placed in the coffin with the deceased, to protect them from demons.

Meditation by Lisa at Korovai

Christ the King –Byzantine Styled

The Roman Church has a separate feast of Christ the King in 1925, with Pius XI’s encyclical Quas Primas. It was to counter the rise of secularism by proclaiming that Christ is the only true king of the believers. The original and ancient feast of Christ the King, however, is today, Palm Sunday. The Gospels record that Jesus is received in Jerusalem, imitating King David by riding into the city on a humble donkey. This is to become a central theme in Holy Week. The Sanhedrin will condemn Jesus for blasphemy, but will give him over to Pontius Pilate for execution for political reasons, that he set himself up as a rival king to the Emperor, a crime of treason. This is, in fact, the crime for which Pilate judges him, putting the accusation on the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The feast today is of immense spiritual importance, but, unfortunately, got tangled up with the concept of “king” that the people had. They wanted a political Messiah who would free them from Roman rule. Instead, Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and he forbids his followers to fight for him. The kingdom of God is not a kingdom of worldly power, but a kingdom of our hearts and minds given freely to Jesus, the Son of God, that we may live in peace with our neighbor and with the will of God, and may grow in wisdom and understanding. St. Paul describes what the kingdom of God is like in today’s epistle: “ … whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). 

We must question ourselves today, do we want a king like the mobs did, a political king who will validate our nationalism and support our ideologies, or do we want a king that deifies our souls and hearts and minds? Only the one, true, authentic King can be our redemption and spiritual glorification, in a kingdom established on love of God and love of neighbor. On Holy Saturday, then, we sing, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence and with fear and trembling stand … for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is coming to be sacrificed and to give himself as food for the faithful” (Cherubic Hymn, Paschal Vigil Liturgy).