Thursday, April 23, 2020

Unity and Disunity in the Rites of Palm Sunday

In my 2017 series on the rites of Good Friday, I explained the various ways in which the traditional liturgy of that day, commonly known as the Mass of the Presanctified, imitates the rite of Mass, in order to emphasize the union of the Last Supper and of the Mass with the Sacrifice of the Cross. I then explained how the 1955 Holy Week reform divorced the Last Supper from the Sacrifice of the Cross by divorcing the rite of Good Friday from that of the Mass. This divorce communicates the Protestant idea that the Last Supper, and the rite which Christ instituted thereby, were merely a commemoration of the Sacrifice of the Cross, rather than the anticipation of the Sacrifice and its perpetuation in time, as the Church believes and teaches. I then explained how the post-Conciliar reform undid this change in some respects.

The Elevation of the Host during the Mass of the Presanctified. (From our first Good Friday photopost of last year.)
In the current series, I have explained how the changes to the rites of Palm Sunday follow a similar trajectory. In the 1955 reform, the Palm Sunday Mass was altered far less than the blessing of the palms and the procession were; the only textual change was the removal of the first part of the Passion of St Matthew, including the narration of the Institution of the Eucharist. This change is, however, far the most theologically significant, and far the most dangerous. Together with the removal of the parallel passages from the Passions of St Mark and Luke, it underlines the divorce between the Mass and the Sacrifice of the Cross effected by the changes to the Good Friday liturgy. The post-Conciliar reform then recognized and partially corrected this mistake by restoring most of the Gospel passages deleted from the Missal in 1955, including the accounts of the Institution of the Eucharist.

I have also explained how the traditional form of the Palm Sunday blessing and procession is closely united not just to the Mass of that day, but also to the rest of Holy Week and Easter as well, and how the 1955 reform detached them from the rest of Holy Week and Easter. The post-Conciliar reform undid this change in a few respects, while keeping the fundamental tenor of the 1955 rite. Although far more extensive, this change is by definition less theologically problematic than the change to the Mass, since it impinges on a rite which was instituted by the Church, not by the Lord Himself: a sacramental, rather than a Sacrament. One may therefore argue that is it not positively necessary for the blessing of Palms or the procession to be celebrated in a manner that unites them to the rest of Holy Week, whereas it is not merely inappropriate to divorce the Last Supper from the Sacrifice of the Cross, but dangerous to the Faith.

One might further argue that the traditional Roman Rite is exceptional in emphasizing the unity of Palm Sunday with the rest of Holy Week as strongly as it does, and that other venerable liturgies are less emphatic on this point. In the 1955 reform, the first part of the ceremony becomes the only part of Holy Week that is celebrated in red; in the traditional Ambrosian liturgy (a favorite putative model for the modern reforms), it is the only part of the week that is done in violet. In the Byzantine Rite, Palm Sunday is actually formally categorized as a feast day, one of a special group called the Twelve Great Feasts; it is commonly celebrated in green, a color which it shares with Pentecost and the feasts of certain Saints. [20] Within the Roman Rite, there were many variant forms of the ceremony; at the time of the 1955 reform, the most widely diffused among them by far was that of the Dominicans, which was done in white, and follows an order similar to that of the 1955 reform. [21]

From our third Palm Sunday photopost of last year, the distribution of the palms at the church of St Joseph in Troy, New York. The Old Carmelite Rite, which is celebrated at this church, also uses white for the first part of the Palm Sunday rite.
All of this is true, but only superficially relevant. While there are many variations to the Palm Sunday ceremonies, there is one element which they all have in common, namely, that they all explicitly keep the day as a prelude to the Passion.

Among the antiphons which the Ambrosian Rite sings at the procession, we have the following: “…the children of the Hebrews came to meet Thee, and taking palms in their hands, they blessed Thee: ‘Blessed art Thou who hast come to the Passion of Thy own will to deliver us; Glory to Thee!’ ” In a similar vein: “Come all, let us adore the throne of dominion six days before the Passion…” The Mass of Palm Sunday does not read the Passion as the Gospel, which is a uniquely Roman custom, but is no less focused on it for that. The first reading is Isaiah 53, the last of the Suffering Servant passages, and the Gospel, John 11, 55 – 12, 11, recounts the conspiracy of the priests and Pharisees against the Lord, and the anointing of His feet, which He Himself said “was done for (His) burial.” Several of the Mass chants also refer to the Passion, as for example the Ingressa, which is the same as the Roman Introit for Spy Wednesday. “In the name of the Lord let every knee bend, of those on heaven, on earth and below, for the Lord became obedient unto death, the death of the Cross…” (Following the normal Ambrosian custom, this is also sung at the Mass of the three following days.)

The Byzantine Rite keeps Palm Sunday rather differently from the Roman, since palms are blessed the evening before, after the Gospel at Matins, not before the Divine Liturgy, and furthermore, the procession is no longer done. But the day’s liturgical texts also refer to the Passion repeatedly. One of the most frequently used, the tropar that closes Vespers and is sung at the Divine Liturgy, says “Confirming the general resurrection before Thy Passion, Thou didst raise Lazarus from the dead, O Christ God! Wherefore we also, like the children bearing the symbols of victory, cry out to Thee, the conqueror of death: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!” Many other references to the Cross or Passion might be adduced to the point. The Dominican prayer for the blessing of the palms begins with a statement that immediately associates it with the Passion: “Almighty and everlasting Redeemer, who deigned to come from heaven to earth, and to Thy voluntary Passion, that Thou might deliver the human race with Thy precious blood….”

By contrast, the reforms of 1955 and 1969 leave the whole first part of the rite with but one glancing reference to the Passion, the single word “passuro” in the hymn Gloria, laus et honor. This, of course, is in the official Latin text, but may well disappear with the choice of “another suitable song” in the modern rite. Ritually, the separation between the blessing and procession on the one hand, and the Mass on the other, is more rigidly enforced in 1955, mostly notably by specifically suppressing the long-standing custom of holding the blessed palms during the singing of the Passion.

The 1955 reform changes the character of the procession from a penitential rite to a celebratory one, a change which carries over into the post-Conciliar rite. This is expressed, within the limits of the drastically reduced number of texts, by a new emphasis on Christ as King. The hymn Gloria, laus et honor is given a new label, “a hymn to Christ the King”, and a new rubric states that “Christus vincit or another hymn in honor of Christ the King may be sung.” The prayer added to the end of the procession, which was suppressed in 1969, begins with the words “Lord Jesus Christ, our King and Redeemer.” In the more recent reform, the first of two options for the prayer of the blessing includes the phrase “we who in exultation follow after Christ the King”, and it contains the same rubrics about the music as the 1955 version, without specifically mentioning the newly unfashionable Christus vincit.

However, with the textual and ritual divorce of the blessing and procession from the Passion, the Kingship of Christ which they celebrate is divorced from the context in which it was won and made manifest.

In the Gospels themselves, Christ is referred to as a “king” almost exclusively in two contexts, at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and during the Passion. At the former, He is hailed sincerely as the son of David, heir of Israel’s greatest king, and thus also as the long-awaited political liberator of the Jewish people. But it is not here or now that He conquers and is crowned; as He Himself said to Pilate, in the words of the Passion of St John which the Church reserves for the actual day of His death, His kingdom is not of this world. Having entered the Holy City and cleansed the temple, He withdraws from it almost at once.

It is at the Passion, not the triumphal entry, that Christ did what He came to do when He entered the city, “to fight with the prince of death for the life of the whole world, and by dying to triumph.” It is at the Passion that He is hailed, mockingly now, as the King of the Jews, and yet still crowned. And it is at the Resurrection that His triumph and His kingdom are made manifest, when He tells the disciples, “All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth.”

Ecce Homo, by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), 1612, now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The traditional Roman blessing of the palms, with its many references to the other days of Holy Week and to Easter, therefore does exactly what the Gospels themselves do; it connects the great event of Our Lord’s triumphal entry to its greater context, presenting it as the prelude to His saving Passion and Resurrection. It is of the very essence of the liturgy that we celebrate these events, not as things in the distant past, but in such a way that we ourselves are present for them; and thus, the penitential character of the traditional procession serves a reminder that if we would truly follow Him, we must follow Him to Calvary, and there share in His triumph.

Notes (continuing the numeration from the previous articles):
[20] The Byzantine Rite does not have a formalized color scheme like the western rites, but appoints bright vestments for Sundays and feast days, and dark ones for penitential days. Within this rule, there are a great many traditions about using certain colors on certain days, which are adhered to with greater or lesser strictness in different places.
[21] The Dominican blessing of the palms consists of a single prayer, followed by the distribution of the palms while the two antiphons Pueri Hebraeorum or sung, and then the Gospel. This is the same order found in the 1955 Palm Sunday, but the prayer is much longer, and the Gospel is done with the normal ceremonies of the Mass.

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