Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday

In 1969, I read an article by some liturgical expert claiming that the Palm Sunday procession no longer sufficiently corresponded to our contemporary mentality and so should be eliminated. After my initial shock, I remember laughing out loud, for I had just a few days earlier attended the Ticket-Tape Parade on Broadway for the Apollo astronauts. Based on that celebration, I concluded, the Palm Sunday procession still resonated just fine with contemporary sensibility!  I suspect no one would seriously still dare doubt the perennial and persistent popularity of Palm Sunday. Earlier this week, I breathed my annual sigh of relief as our order of palms promptly arrived in time. It is hard to imagine just what kind of calamity would cause Palm Sunday to dawn without palms the necessary supply of palms, but it is easy to imagine just what a calamity that would be!

The great 20th-century liturgical writer Pius Parsch called Palm Sunday "the golden gateway leading to the holy mysteries of Easter."  The Palm Sunday service is certainly among the Church’s most impressive annual observances, and it has always been particularly popular. Its especially popular features (the palms and the procession) illustrate the popularizing influence of medieval Gallican liturgical innovations on the old Roman Rite. The 20th-century liturgical reforms of Holy Week (first in 1955, then as part of the overall transformation of the Missal in 1969) always seemed to be trying to highlight the Roman rather than Gallican components of Palm Sunday. They even changed its name, but to no avail. Practically everyone still calls it by its unreformed name, Palm Sunday.

Palms are blessed today to commemorate Christ’s messianic entry into Jerusalem in preparation for Passover. While that triumphal entry may have initially resembled a royal cavalcade, the events of what we now call “Holy Week” would reveal how different Christ’s messianic kingship is from our worldly expectations. The blessed palms we receive today evoke not just the historical memory of an event in Jesus’ earthly life, but his entire Passion and the new Passover which we are now invited to celebrate with Christ, our Risen Lord. Having received the blessed palms and held them high during the procession that begins today’s Mass, we take them home and keep them throughout the year as witnesses to our faith in Christ’s kingship and our participation in his Passion and Resurrection.

In his 2011 Holy Week book, Pope Benedict XVI said that the early Church rightly read the Palm Sunday story "as an anticipation of what she does in her liturgy." For the early Church, Pope Benedict continued, "'Palm Sunday' was not a thing of the past. Just as the Lord entered the Holy City that day on a donkey, so too the Church saw him coming again and again in the humble form of bread and wine."

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