Saturday, March 28, 2015

Those Popular Palms

I breathed a serious sigh of relief last Monday morning when our annual parish order of palms arrived at the parish office door. They always do arrive, of course. I've never anywhere experienced the horror of Palm Sunday Mass without palms, but that fear that they won't arrive in time continues to nag every year. An unreasonable fear, I suppose - unless, of course, some tragic day it actually happens!

Everyone wants his or her palms on Palm Sunday, which does make it one of the better attended Sundays of the year. Even so some may manage to get palms without having to attend Mass. Palms are given out at the beginning. If one leaves before or during the Mass, one still has his or her palm. And, in one parish where I once served, we had a beautiful decorative display of palms in the entranceway, which some people apparently helped themselves to between Masses! Moral of the story: palms sure are popular!

Of course, just grabbing oneself a palm and not staying for the Mass that follows suggests a serious case of really missing the point of it all. The Palm Sunday liturgy (the palms plus the Mass) is not just a great introduction to Holy Week but is actually in a sense a kind of compendium of it, since it includes the proclamation of the Lord's Passion, which tells virtually the whole Holy Week story. So someone who pays attention on Palm Sunday hears the Holy Thursday and Good Friday stories too.

It is, however, undoubtedly the palms that will always remain the day's biggest attraction. I remember how my mother used to carefully weave crosses of palm to be reverently attached to the crucifix and other sacred images in our Bronx apartment. I can also remember in the first year of  Pius XII's reform of Holy Week - Palm Sunday 1956 - how a neighbor got all upset because he went to an early Mass and got no palms because none would be blessed until the Solemn Mass. That would soon be "corrected" to allow an anticipatory palm blessing for early Mass goers. But it did capture one of the aims of that reform, which was to de-Gallicanize the Palm Sunday liturgy and return it to an older Roman emphasis on the Passion. This was reflected even in the new title the reformed Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae assigned to Palm Sunday - Dominica II Passionis seu in Palmis ("The Second Sunday of the Passion, or also Palm Sunday").

An American liturgist was once quoted as saying that, in the Roman liturgy, “all the fun things came from Gaul” - a reference to the influence of the medieval “Gallican” rites on the ancient Roman rite. (In fact, the traditional Roman Rite, prior to the 1960s, was in many respects really a hybrid of the ancient Roman and the medieval “Gallican” rites.)
One of those “fun things,” that we can thank the “Gallican” rites for, is the Palm Sunday procession - originally, a feature of the 4th-century Jerusalem liturgy which had migrated from there to medieval Europe. The standard Palm Sunday processional hymn, Gloria, laus, et honor (“All Glory, Laud, and Honor”) composed by Theodulph of Orleans early in the 9th century is one vestige of that elaborate medieval ceremony. Its length (originally 39 verses) attests to how elaborate the medieval Palm Sunday once was! It took time, however, for this emphasis on the palms to catch on in Rome. There, the last Sunday of Lent had been focused primarily on Christ’s passion, its distinctive feature not the palms but the chanting of the Passion according to Matthew. Eventually, a missa sicca (i.e., a duplicate liturgy of the word with Matthew’s Palm Gospel), followed by an elaborate blessing of palms and procession, came to precede the Mass at which the Passion was solemnly sung. .Pope Pius XII’s reform of Holy Week radically simplified this, putting the official (if not the popular) emphasis back on the Passion, a development further affirmed in the post-conciliar Roman Missal now in use. 
Like so much of such bureaucratic liturgical antiquarianism, however, the attempted change has never really caught on outside the formal rubrics. Hardly anyone (except liturgists) refers to the day by its current official title, "Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord." The rest of us are quite content to stick with its historical and traditional name, "Palm Sunday." And what seems to excite people - to the extent that anything liturgical excites people anymore - is still the palms. As for the long Passion reading, I sometimes wonder whether many perhaps perceive it as yet one more final lenten penance! Seldom anymore do many people get to hear the Passion proclaimed as it should be in its unique and dramatic traditional chant, sung by three deacons at three different speeds and pitch levels. Nowadays, many must settle for  a monotonic minimalist reading, relieved only by the brief pause when everyone gets to kneel at the equivalent of the traditional Emisit spiritum. That pause also qualifies as one of those great Gallican liturgical “fun things,” a monastic practice whose diffusion is attributed to Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious (778-840).

One of the prayers for the Blessing of the palms in the old (pre-1955) liturgy asked that all who received the palm may obtain protection of soul and body (ut, quicumque ex ea receperint, accipiant sibi protectionem animae et corporis). Another prayed that those who dwell where the palms are brought may obtain blessing and protection from all adversity (in quemcumque locum introducti fuerint, tuam benedictionem habitatores loci illius consequantur et omni adversitate effugata, dextera tua protegat). Sadly, there are no such expressions in the minimalist, post-1969 Palm Sunday prayers. Even so, the sentiment safely seems to have survived in the popular devotion that surrounds receiving the palms, taking them home, and keeping them there throughout the year. Perhaps, in the spirit of the "new evangelization," we would do well to re-emphasize such popular practices as those surrounding the palms, beginning with how we name and refer to the day!

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