Today is Palm Sunday. It is a day commemorated in many different religions to mark the Sunday before Easter, the day when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem to be with the people of that city, to teach them, and pray. During that brief one-week period between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, Jesus' enemies conspired against him, framed him, make false allegations against him, set him up as a scapegoat, organized mobs against him, then killed him. That week of bloodshed and betrayal is called Holy Week, apparently without any trace of irony.
Jesus came to Jerusalem. He met with the people. His disciples were with him. Jesus taught, committed a few miracles (such as raising Lazarus from the dead), and introduced himself as the son of God. He called God "Dad." These actions were considered heresy because some groups did not believe he was the son of God, and thought he was just a troublemaker who had come to stir up trouble and get the people to rise up against Roman rule. Jesus was arrested, "tried" in a kangaroo court, and condemned to death by crucifixion -- hands and feet nailed to a cross and left to hang until dead. Which happened on the Friday after Jesus first entered Jerusalem on the donkey.
The story has it that when Jesus rode into town, the local people laid palm fronds on the path to welcome him. Palm Sunday commemorates that event. In many religious, pieces of a palm are handed out to the church goers. Many churches have processions with their churchgoers and the church leaders walking along a certain path to commemorate the path that Jesus rode when entering Jerusalem.
In many services, the alter on Palm Sunday is covered with palms which are blessed, then kept, and burned the following year, the ashes used on Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) to mark the forheads of the faithful.
Good Friday is the Friday of Holy Week, this coming Friday, and it is the day when Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. Actually his body was put inside a cave-like opening, the front of the cave being covered with a heavy rock. Later when his disciples returned for his body, they found the rock had been moved and the body was gone. From that, they concluded he had ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God.
The Christian religions believe that Jesus was killed as part of a prophecy, that God sent his only son Jesus specifically for the purpose of being crucified and tortured, spat upon, humiliated, cursed, to take away the sins of the world, take away all the sins of man.
This concept of the sacrifice of the life of an innocent as being a magic elixer that could wash away all the bad that men have done existed in the world long before Jesus came along.
For example, Agamemnon, the leader of the warriors involved in the sacking of Troy, took one of his young daughters along with his war party for their long trip. When things went bad on the trip, disease and weather delayed them and many died, Agamemnon built a pile of sticks and wood, tied his daughter Iphigenia to a post on top, then burned her to death. This was a sacrifice -- the sacrifice of the young virgin female being the most favored -- and was intended to make the Gods smile upon the warriors.
What is the rationale for the seemingly childish belief that it is possible to murder one living creature, to cast upon that creature all the evil and bad of the world and then, by killing the creature, wipe away the consequences of all that bad. This is the origin of the term "scape-goat": the sins were put upon the goat by the humans, the goat was slaughtered in a ritual, and the humans who had committed the sins were thereby "cleansed."
Is this simply the product of guilty minds that cannot bear to believe that the evil they do will never be erased from the world, that it will stain and taint them long after they are dead? It's easier to kill a child than to accept the fact that the bad people do is never erased, there is no such thing as devine forgiveness. What if we did not have this concept? Would people be more likely to behave properly if they understood their misdeeds will haunt them forever, can never be erased? This belief that Jesus died for the sins of man, to take away the sins of the world, is the central premise of Christianity.
It's interesting that in Catholicism, nobody gets off the hook that easy. You could say Jesus died to take away our sins, so we're all good. But in Catholicism, what they did was take the murder of Jesus, (which took away all the sins of the world) and turned that into a new Big Sin. So everyone who is born is burdened, marked at birth, with responsibility for the murder of Jesus. It's called Original Sin. It can only be removed by a Catholic baptism.
The basic story of the crucifixion, death, and ascension into Heaven of Jesus is summarized in a prayer commonly called the Apostles Creed. This prayer originally appeared hundreds of years after the death of Jesus, and exists among many Christian religions in slightly different form. It is really a summary of Christian belief.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
One piece of music traditionally associated with Palm Sunday or Holy Week is Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere." This excerpt is from a 1981 recording made in Merton College Chapel, Oxford. When this piece of music was first performed for a 17th-century Pope, he issued a decree that it could only be performed during Holy Week, and further could only be performed in the Sistine Chapel. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88346837