Monday, March 30, 2020

The Blessing of Palms in the Missal of St Pius V (Part 2)

As noted in the first article in this series, the various parts of Holy Week are united to each other by the uniquely Roman custom of reading each of the four Passions as a unit, and spreading them through the week. This thematic unity is also very much evident in the prayers that form the second part of the blessing of Palms, which are arranged in a manner analogous to the Secret, Preface and Canon of the Mass.

After the Gospel, the following prayer, which stands in the place of the Secret, is sung out loud. “Increase the faith of them that hope in Thee, o God, and mercifully hear the prayers of Thy suppliants; let Thy manifold mercy come upon us: let these branches of palms or olive trees be blessed; and as in a figure of the Church, Thou didst multiply Noah going forth from the ark, and Moses going out of Egypt with the children of Israel; so may we go forth to meet Christ with good works, bearing palms and olive branches; and through Him enter into everlasting joy.”

The Old Testament episodes mentioned in this prayer, Noah and the Ark (Genesis 6-8) and the Crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15), are read among the twelve prophecies of the Easter vigil. In accordance with the tradition of the Fathers [3], the prayers which follow these readings also refer to these episodes as figures of the Church, multiplied by the addition of new children in the sacrament of Baptism. The Flood is also mentioned in the blessing of the baptismal font, and the Crossing of the Red Sea in the Exsultet.
Noah Receives the Olive Branch from the Dove; from a psalter which belonged to King St Louis IX of France, and was commissioned for use at the Sainte Chapelle, 1270. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 10525.
The conclusion of this prayer segues into the preface dialog and a preface, which in the Roman tradition is a feature of many of the more solemn blessings and rites. For example, there is a preface in the ordination rites of bishops, priests and deacons, but not in those of subdeacons, the minor orders, or the giving of the clerical tonsure. No other blessing in the Roman Missal includes a preface, nor do any of the ordinary blessings in the Rituale. [4]

The preface itself reads as follows.

“Truly it is meet and just … Who art glorified in the assembly of Thy Saints. For Thy creatures serve Thee, because they acknowledge Thee as their only Creator and God, and all Thy creation praiseth Thee, and Thy Saints bless Thee. For with free voice they confess that great Name of Thine only-begotten Son before the kings and powers of this world. Before Whom the Angels and Archangels, the Thrones and Dominions stand; and with all the host of the heavenly army, sing the hymn of Thy glory, saying without ceasing: Holy…”

In the Gospels, direct references [5] to Christ as a king occur almost exclusively during the two events which the Roman Rite commemorates this day, His triumphal entry into Jerusalem and His Passion. In St Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday, “king” occurs in the prophecy of Zachariah which he cites (9, 9), “Tell ye the daughter of Sion, ‘Behold thy king cometh to thee’ ”, which is also quoted by St John (12, 15). In Ss Mark and Luke, it occurs in the words spoken by the crowds, but obliquely in the former: “Blessed be the kingdom of our father David that cometh: Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11, 10), “Blessed be the king who cometh in the name of the Lord, peace in heaven, and glory on high!” (Luke 19, 38).

The first chant of the ceremony, analogous to the Introit of the Mass, is based on these words: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. O King of Israel: Hosanna in the highest!” In the Missal, this is cited to Matthew 21, 9, the last verse of the Gospel which is read at the blessing, but the words “King of Israel” are added from John 12, 13.


All of the other direct references to Christ with the word “king” occur in the Passion narratives, with two exceptions. In the Gospel of the Epiphany, Matthew 2, 1-12, the Magi are the first to call Him “the King of the Jews”, and do so in the presence of one of “the kings and powers of this world”, Herod the Great, who then sought to kill Him, and whose son, Herod Antipas, later mocked Him in His Passion (Luke 23, 11). In the first chapter of John, Nathanael says to Christ, “thou art the Son of God, thou art the King of Israel”; the latter title is used elsewhere in the Gospel only in the Palm Sunday narrative cited above.

The Preface therefore declares that on this day, as the Church and her members “confess that great Name of (God’s) only-begotten Son before the kings and powers of this world”, they are naming Him as King. Although this theme does not occur again in the prayers by which the palms are blessed, it is very prominent in the chants that accompany the procession, and most particularly, in the famous hymn sung at the door of the church, “Gloria, laus et honor.”

From our second Palm Sunday photopost of last year, the singing of the “Gloria, laus et honor” at the door of the Oratory of Ss Cyril and Methodius, the Institute of Christ the King’s church in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
“The kings and powers of the world”, who were driven to kill the Lord because He was proclaimed the King of Israel, are not only Pontius Pilate in whose name he acts. They are also the chief priests and Pharisees, who in the Gospel of the preceding Friday (John 11, 47-54) plot against Jesus for fear that “all will believe in him; and the Romans will come, and take away our place and nation.” St John explains that the high priest Caiphas’ words “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people”, were in fact a prophecy “that Jesus should die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but to gather together in one the children of God, that were dispersed.”

Although a Preface is used in many rites and blessings, the blessing of the palms is the only one in which it is followed by the Sanctus as it is at the Mass. [6] This is the only part of Ordinary of the Mass that is used in the blessing, which was obviously done to include the words by which the children of Israel hailed the coming of the Messiah, “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest.”

The five prayers which follow and form the “canon” of the blessing are also replete with references to these themes, and to the other parts of Holy Week. (It must be noted that the prayers assume that both palms and olive branches are blessed.) The first prayer speaks of the olive “which the dove, returning to the ark, bore in its mouth”; this is repeated in the fourth, which states that God “ordered the dove to announce peace to the lands through the branch of an olive.” The second prayer begins with the words “O God, who gather what is scattered, and preserve what is gathered”, which refer to the unwitting prophecy of Caiphas cited above; the words “these branches which Thy servants faithful take up to the honor of Thy name” echo the Preface.

The third and longest prayer, like the Collects of both the blessing and the Mass, mentions both the Passion and the Resurrection. Since the palm branch was in ancient Rome a symbol of victory, “the palm branches await (Christ’s) triumphs over the prince of death”, and the shoots of olives, the source of oil, and hence of anointing, “cry out in a certain way that the spiritual anointing (i.e., of the Messiah, the anointed one) has come.” “For already then, that blessed multitude of men understood that it was prefigured that our Redeemer, taking compassion on human miseries, was about to fight with the prince of death for the life of the whole world, and by dying to triumph.” [7] The fifth prayer is the only one that contains no overt references to the Passion or the other parts of Holy Week, but does speak vaguely of “victory over the enemy.”

After the five prayers, the branches are sprinkled with holy water and incensed in the usual way; from this point on, the focus of the rite turns almost entirely to the matter at hand. The prayer which follows the blessing speaks of Christ “humbling Himself to us”, alluding to the Epistle of the Mass, Philippians 2, 5-11, but the rest of it is about the crowds that accompanied Him, and of us “following in His footsteps.” The branches are then distributed to the clergy and the faithful, while two antiphons are sung. “The children of the Hebrews, bearing the branches of olives, went forth to meet the Lord, crying out, and saying, ‘Hosanna in the highest.’ ” “The children of the Hebrews spread their garments in the way, and cried out, saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David: blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.” The prayer after the distribution is also focused entirely on the events of Palm Sunday.


As I have written before more extensively, the liturgical celebration of the events of Our Lord’s life is not a series of commemorations of events in the dead past. We live though these events as things for which we are really present, and in which we really participate. With this idea of the liturgy as the living representation of the events of Christ’s life, the blessing of the palms changes tenor in this final part to prepare us for the procession, for the first in a series of events in Holy Week in which we truly “follow in His footsteps.”

Notes (continuing the numeration from the previous post):
[3] E.g. St Jerome, Letter 69, to Oceanus (PL XXII, 660): “The world sins, and is not cleansed without the flood of waters, and immediately, the dove of the Holy Spirit … flies down to Noah, as if he were Christ in the Jordan, and with the branch of refreshment (or ‘restoration’) and light, proclaims peace to the world. Since he would not let the people of God go out from Egypt, the Pharaoh with his army is drowned, as a type of baptism.” The olive branch is called “the branch of refreshment and light” because of the use of olive oil for both healing (Luke 10, 34) and light; Pharaoh is a type of baptism because he represents sin that it washes away.

[4] In some other Uses of the Roman Rite, this custom is extended to other blessings; so e.g. at Sarum, the blessing of candles on the Purification included a preface, although the blessing of ashes on Ash Wednesday did not.

[5] By “direct references”, I mean those in which He is explicitly referred to with the word “king”, as opposed to the indirect (and, in the Synoptic Gospels, far more numerous) references to His kingdom. (E.g. Matt. 13, 41, “The Son of man shall send his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all scandals, and them that work iniquity.”)

[6] Many editions of the Rituale Romanum have a blessing of water on the vigil of the Epiphany that includes many elements of the Mass, among them, a Preface which did in fact segue into the Sanctus. It does not, however, imitate the rite of Mass anywhere near as closely as the blessing of the Palms does; its construction is by any standard entirely sui generis. This blessing was used at Venice, various dioceses in Germany and Hungary, and at least two churches in Rome. It was not, however, included in the original edition of the Rituale issued by Pope Paul V in 1614, and is omitted from most Italian editions; it was also not, apparently, used in either France or the Iberian peninsula.

Sometime in the first quarter of the 18th century, a priest of the diocese of Brescia named Pietro Lucatello inserted several elements into this blessing, a change which was officially repudiated by the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1725. This seems to have brought the rite into bad odor, and in 1890, it was officially replaced by a more classically Roman blessing, still in use today, which contains no elements of the Mass whatsoever. (Many thanks to Gerhard Eger and Zachary Thomas, the authors of the blog Canticum Salomonis, for their help in researching this matter.)

[7] This sentence is inspired by a passage in St Augustine’s Treatises on the Gospel of St John (51.2), which is also read at Matins on the day before Palm Sunday in the Breviary of St Pius V. “... erat Dominus mortem moriendo superaturus, et tropaeo crucis de diabolo mortis principe triumphaturus. – the Lord was about to overcome death by dying, and triumph over the devil, the prince of death, by the monument of the Cross.” Compare the text of the prayer: “Redemptor noster ... cum mortis principe erat pugnaturus, et moriendo triumphaturus.”

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