Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Blessing of Palms in the Missal of St Pius V (Part 1)

This article is the first in a series which will discuss the theology of the Palm Sunday ceremonies of the Missal of St Pius V, the revised version of Pope Pius XII, and the Novus Ordo. It is of a length that requires splitting it into two parts; in 2017, I published a series similar to this one on the ceremonies of Good Friday, the arrangement of which was revised halfway through, so I am not quite sure how many articles this one will come to, but all aspects of the ceremonies will be covered.

For reference, complete descriptions of the first two versions of Palm Sunday are given in part 1 and part 2 of my series on the 1955 Holy Week reform, which was published in 2009; only part 1 is really pertinent to this article. The purpose of this series is not to discuss the origins of the traditional ceremony, or the variants thereof used in the Middle Ages.

To begin with, we must note two important characteristics of the Roman Holy Week. First, among the historical rites of Christendom, it is the only one in which the Passion narratives are read before the days on which the events which they recount originally took place, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. In the traditional arrangement, the Passion of St Matthew is read on Palm Sunday, that of St Mark on Holy Tuesday, St Luke on Spy Wednesday, and St John on Good Friday. [1]

The beginning of the Passion of St Matthew in a Gospel lectionary of the last quarter of the ninth century, originally made at the monastery of San Gallen in Switzerland, now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Département des Manuscrits, Latin 9453). Note the signs which can be seen above the letters in various places, indicating the three different voices in which the Passion is sung.
Secondly, it is almost the only rite in which the Passion narratives of the four Evangelists are read as a whole; which is to say, both chapters of each Passion are taken together as a single reading. I say “almost” because in the Ambrosian Rite, the Passions of Ss Mark (14, 12 – 15, 46), Luke (22, 1 – 23, 53) and John (13, 1 – 14, 6, and the whole of chapters 18 and 19) are also read in this fashion. However, these three are all read at a single ceremony, Matins of Good Friday; in the Ambrosian Masses from Spy Wednesday to the Easter vigil, and in the other major services of the Triduum, the narrative is, so to speak, carried entirely by St Matthew.

Because of this arrangement, by which the accounts of the Lord’s Supper and the events of His Passion are always joined together, and spread through the whole week, the Roman Holy Week should be understood as a conceptual unity, within which each part is intimately connected with the others. It is in this light that we should examine the different ceremonies, and the results of the changes subsequently made to them.

This principle can in fact already be discerned in the Mass of Passion Sunday, the day on which the tenor of the Roman liturgy undergoes a notable shift from the theme of penance and baptismal preparation to meditation on the Passion. In the Gregorian propers of this Mass, we hear the voice of the Lord speaking in His sufferings: in the Introit (Psalm 42) “from the unjust and deceitful man deliver me,” in the Gradual (Psalm 142), “Deliver me, o Lord, from my enemies,” and in the Tract (Psalm 128), “Often have they fought against me from my youth … The wicked have wrought upon my back.” The Communion, however, looks forward to Holy Thursday, when, on the day before He suffered, Christ gave us the Mass as the memorial of His death: “This is (My) Body, which shall be given up for you: this is the cup of the new covenant in My Blood, says the Lord; do this, as often as you receive it, in remembrance of Me.” (1 Cor. 11, 24-25)


The first ceremony of Holy Week, the blessing of the Palms, is unique within the Roman Rite as the only example of a blessing that imitates the rite of Mass. It has an Introit, Collect, Epistle, Gradual, and Gospel, followed by a Secret (which, however, is sung aloud), a Preface dialog and Preface, the Sanctus, several prayers for the blessing, analogous to the Canon of the Mass, and then the distribution of the palms accompanied by antiphons. This imitation is close, but not perfect; there is no equivalent to the Offertory antiphon, and the Sanctus is the only part of the Kyriale included, in reference to the closing words of the Gospel which is read at this blessing, “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.” This was clearly done to underline the tremendous solemnity and importance of the rite, as the greatest of the major blessings incorporated into the liturgical year and mandatorily celebrated therein.

The liturgical texts are full of references to the other events of the week, as for example, the opening Collect, which mentions both the death of the Lord and His Resurrection. The use of the rite of Mass looks forward to Holy Thursday, the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper and of the institution of the Mass.

The most notable example of the way the rite is connected to the other parts of Holy Week is the Epistle, Exodus 15, 27 – 16, 7, which lays out the program for the week to come, and unites all of the main ceremonies of the Triduum with Palm Sunday.

“In those days, the children of Israel came into Elim, where there were twelve fountains of water, and seventy palm trees: and they encamped by the waters. cap. 16 And they set forward from Elim, and all the multitude of the children of Israel came into the desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month, after they came out of the land of Egypt. And all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat over the flesh pots, and ate bread to the full. Why have you brought us into this desert, that you might destroy all the multitude with famine?’ And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold I will rain bread from heaven for you; let the people go forth, and gather what is sufficient for every day, that I may prove them whether they will walk in my law, or not. But the sixth day let them prepare to bring in, and let it be double that which they were wont to gather every day.’ And Moses and Aaron said to the children of Israel, ‘In the evening you shall know that the Lord hath brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord.’ ” (Vespere scietis quod Dominus eduxerit vos de terra Aegypti, et mane videbitis gloriam Domini.)

The Gathering of the Manna, from a Flemish book of Hours, end of the 15th century. (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, CLM 28345; CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
The reading begins with a mention of palms, in reference to the rite of Palm Sunday. The fickleness of the Israelites, who have just crossed the Red Sea in the previous chapter, and now murmur against God’s prophet and priest, the very ones who led them out of Egypt, represents the fickleness of those who were in Jerusalem at the time of the Lord’s triumphal entry, crying out “Hosanna,” and five days later, gathered before Pilate and cried out “Crucify him!” The gathering of twice as much manna on the day before the Sabbath refers to the consecration of two Hosts on Maundy Thursday, one of the Mass, and one which is reserved for the Mass of the Presanctified on the following day. [2]

The words of Moses and Aaron towards the end of the reading, “Vespere scietis – In the evening you shall know”, refer to the Gospel of the Easter vigil, Matthew 28, 1-7, which begins with the words “Vespere autem Sabbati – on the eve of the Sabbath.” The Easter vigil is not a first Mass of Easter, an anticipation of the Resurrection, but rather a vigil in the true sense of the word, “a keeping watch.” At that point, we know in the celebration of the liturgy that Christ has risen, but we do not yet see Him in His glory, a fact which is symbolized by the incomplete character of the Mass, at which there is no Introit, Creed, Offertory, or Agnus Dei, and the Peace is not given. (The story of how the Lord “brought you forth out of Egypt” is of course also a part of the Easter vigil.) The words “et mane videbitis gloriam Domini – and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord” look forward to the second verse of the Gospel of Easter morning, Mark 16, 1-7, “Et valde mane una sabbatorum – And very early in the morning, the first day of the week.” In both of these Gospels, the Risen Lord is mentioned, but does not appear in person. However, with the restoration of the Introit after two days on which it was not sung, on the third day He speaks directly and in person: “I have risen, and am still with thee.” It is at this Mass, on the morning of Easter, that the fullness of solemnity is restored to the liturgy, and the glory of the Lord is indeed seen.

The Epistle is followed by one of two responsories, which take the place of the Gradual. The first of these looks back to the Gospel at the Mass of the previous Friday, John 11, 47-54, which tells of the conspiracy of the chief priests and Pharisees against the Lord.

R. The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, “What shall we do, for this man doth many miracles? If we let Him alone so, all will believe in Him, * and the Romans will come, and take away our place and nation.” V. But one of them, called Caiphas, since he was the high priest that year, prophesied, saying, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” From that day, therefore, they devised to put Him to death, saying, “And the Romans will come, and take away our place and nation.”


The second one is borrowed from Matins of Holy Thursday; the text is from Matthew 26, which is part of the Passion Gospel read at the Mass that follows.

R. On Mount Olivet He prayed to the Father, “Father, if it may be, let this chalice pass from Me. * The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh weak; Thy will be done. V. Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation. The spirit…”


Both of these texts remind us that the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem was a prelude to His Passion, plotted by His enemies even before He came to the Holy City, and now fully imminent, as indicated also by the uniquely Roman custom of reading the Passion as part of the liturgy of Palm Sunday.

The Gospel, St Matthew 21, 1-9, is the ritual declaration of the occasion on which, and in imitation of which, the palms are blessed.

Notes: [1] In the Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites, the Gospel of Spy Wednesday consists of events which took place on that day (Matthew 26, 1-5 in the former, Matthew 26, 2-5 and Mark 14, 3-11 in the latter), but only these, and not the Last Supper itself, or any of the subsequent events of the Passion.

[2] For the Church Fathers, the manna was understood as a clear prefiguration of the Eucharist. St Cyprian, Epistle to Magnus (PL III, 1150A): “We see the mystery of this equality (among all believers) celebrated in Exodus, when the manna flowed down from heaven, and as a prefiguration of the things to come, showed the nourishment of the bread of heaven and the food of Christ when He would come.”

St Ambrose, De Sacramentis (PL XVI, 444B), immediately after explaining the words of Consecration: “It was indeed a great and venerable thing, that the manna rained down upon the Jews from heaven: but understand this. What is greater, the manna from heaven, or the body of Christ? The body of Christ, to be sure, who is the maker of heaven. And then, he that ate the manna, died: who shall eat this Body, it shall be unto him the forgiveness of sins, and he shall not die forever.”

Ambrosiaster, Commentary on the Epistles of St Paul (PL XVII, 234A-B): “ ‘And they all did eat the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink; and they drank of the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.’ (1 Cor. 10, 3-4) He calls the manna and water (Exod. 16, 15; 17, 6) ‘spiritual’... having in themselves a figure of the future mystery, which we now receive in commemoration of Christ the Lord.”

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