Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Blessing of Palms in the Reforms of 1955 and 1969

This article is the third in an ongoing series about the theology of the various forms of the rites of Palm Sunday; the previous parts may be read here: part 1, part 2. Because the blessing in both of the modern reforms is so short, and they are so similar to each other, they are here combined into a single article. The procession will be covered in the next two articles in the series, followed by the discussion of the Mass.

In my 2017 series on the theology of the Good Friday ceremonies, I described how the rite informally known as the Mass of the Presanctified deliberately imitates the rite of the Mass, and how the reform promulgated in 1955 goes to extreme lengths to divorce it from the rite of Mass. I also explained some of the ways in which the post-Conciliar reform undid this. A similar process is seen in the changes made to the blessing of the palms in 1955 and 1969.

The blessing of the palms at Mary, Help of Christians in Hong Kong; from our first Palm Sunday photopost of 2014.
The 1955 reform retains four elements from the traditional blessing: the opening chant, the blessing, which is effected with one prayer rather than five, the distribution of the palms accompanied by antiphons, and the Gospel, in that order. There is no longer any hint of the imitation of the rite of Mass, which is the particular characteristic of the traditional version.

The one prayer of blessing which was kept, the fifth in the older version, is the only one among the original five which refers only to Palm Sunday. “Bless, we beseech Thee, o Lord, these branches of palms, and grant that what Thy people do today bodily in veneration of Thee, they may perfect spiritually with the highest devotion, by gaining victory over the enemy, and ardently loving the work of mercy.” All of the other textual elements (Collect, Epistle, Gradual, Secret, Preface, Sanctus, the first four of the five prayers of the blessing, and the two final prayers) are removed, and with them, all of the references to the other days of Holy Week, and to the Passion and the Resurrection.

The older version of the blessing was clearly designed as part of a thematic unity that included the whole of Holy Week and Easter, a unity which begins with the exclusively Roman custom of reading the Passion on Palm Sunday. The new version is isolated as a completely separate ceremony from the Mass that follows it, and from the rest of Holy Week, not only on a textual level, as described above, but also on the ritual level.

The blessing is now done in red, a color which is used in no other part of Holy Week, while the Mass remains in violet. It is done not at the altar like a Mass, but at a table which is set in the middle of the sanctuary, in such a way that the celebrant faces the people. (This is also, incidentally, the point at which versus populum worship, conceived as such, was first introduced into the Roman Rite.) The branches can also be held by the faithful in their hands from the beginning of the ceremony. In this case, they are not blessed at the altar, and do not come to the faithful from the altar, or even from the sanctuary; the priest does still sprinkle them with holy water and incense them, either from the entrance to the sanctuary, or by passing through the church. Otherwise, they are distributed to the faithful as previously. The Gospel is then sung, with all of the normal ceremonies of the Mass, except that the celebrant is not incensed, and the blessing is thus finished.

Since the two antiphons which are sung at the distribution of the palms, Pueri Hebraeorum, portantes ramos and Pueri Hebraeorum vestimenta prosternebant, are quite short, and the distribution itself may be quite long, the Missal of St Pius V specifies that they may be repeated until it is finished. It was also customary, but informally so, to sing them with verses of the Psalms, as may also be done with the Communions at Mass. In the 1955 reform, this custom is formalized by the addition of part of Psalm 23 (vss. 1-2 and 7-10) to the former, and Psalm 46 to the latter, and indications where to repeat the antiphon. In both cases, the doxology is also added, contrary to the principle that it is not said in the Masses of Passiontide.

The blessing of the palms at the church of St Monica in Edmond, Oklahoma; from our first Palm Sunday photopost of 2016.
In the post-Conciliar reform, the blessing of the palms is essentially the same as that of the 1955 reform, but like everything else, blighted by a series of poorly conceived options. The most notable alteration is that the branches are no longer distributed at all, but held by the faithful from the beginning. [8] (The chants which formerly accompanied the distribution are now assigned to the procession.) The color of the vestments is still red, but that of the Palm Sunday Mass has been changed to red. This restoration of an important sign of unity between the two parts of the ceremony is taken to a silly extreme by making the use of a cope at the blessing optional; the celebrant may wear a chasuble instead. [9]

The opening chant Hosanna filio David is kept, but may be replaced “by another suitable chant”, in accordance with one of the deadliest rubrics in the modern rite. The priest then begins the ceremony as he begins the Mass, with “In the name of the Father…”, one of the formulae of greeting, and a brief “monitio” (reminding, admonition) “by which the faithful are invited to actively and consciously participate in the celebration of this day.” This introduction is not repeated for the beginning of the Mass proper, which also serves to reunify the two parts of the ceremony.

The Missal provides a set text for the “monitio”, which is accompanied, as always, by the spoken-word version of the same deadly rubric: “in these or similar words.” However, the set text itself reintroduces a principle that had been eliminated by the 1955 reform, namely, that the rites of Holy Week form a unity, and that the Palm Sunday ceremony is part of the commemoration of the Lord’s Passion. “(T)oday we are gathered, so that with the whole Church, we may keep the prelude of Our Lord’s Paschal mystery, namely, His Passion and Resurrection, for the fulfillment of which, He entered His city, Jerusalem. … let us follow the Lord, that being made partakers of His Cross through grace, we may share in (His) Resurrection and life.”

There are two prayers for the actual blessing, neither of which is the one prayer retained by the 1955 reform. The first one contains the words “sanctify these branches with Thy blessing”, and the cross that tells the priest to make the sign of the Cross over them. The second prayer is a bowdlerization of the prayer that stands in the place of the Secret in the traditional blessing; in accordance with one of the worst conceits of the post-Conciliar reform of blessings, it does not actually bless anything. (The words in italics here are omitted from the previous version).

“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 that we who today show these branches to Christ in His triumph, may bring to Thee in Him the fruits of good works. (original: so that we who go forth to meet Christ with good works, bearing palms and olive branches); and through Him enter into everlasting joy.”

The branches are then sprinkled with holy water; for no discernible reason, incense is no longer used. The Gospel is then sung. In year A, the traditional Gospel of St Matthew, 21, 1-9, has been lengthened by two verses; in year B, a choice is made between St Mark (11, 1-10) and St John (12, 12-16), in year C, it is from St Luke, 19, 28-40.

Notes (continuing the numeration from the previous posts):

[8] Thanks to one of our readers, Jehan-Sosthènes Boutte, for pointing out that the option to distribute the branches to “the concelebrants, ministers and some of the faithful” remains in the 1984 Caerimoniale Episcoporum (268), even though it is not mentioned in the most recent edition of the Missal.

[9] The rubric is in fact stated in such a way that the chasuble seems to be the preferred option. “The priest and deacon, wearing the red sacred vestments required for the Mass, … In place of the chasuble, the priest can wear a cope…”

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