Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday, which the great 20th-century liturgical scholar Pius Parsch called “the golden gateway leading to the holy mysteries of Easter.”

On Palm Sunday, according to the Ceremonial of Bishops, "the Church enters upon the mystery of its crucified, buried, and risen Lord, who, by his entrance into Jerusalem, gave a glimpse of his own majesty. Christians carry branches as a sign of the royal triumph that Christ won by his acceptance of the cross."

Accordingly, the Church has historically celebrated Palm Sunday with suitably great splendor. It has remained one of the more popular and better attended days in the Church's calendar. Of course, how long it can continue to compete with such contemporary aberrations as "spring break" and all the other nonsense that our culture throws up as more attractive alternatives to Sunday Mass attendance remains to be seen. And already there are signs that even the palms that have given this day its popular name may not be quite the draw that they used to be. As Holy Week begins, we carry blessed palms into church to remember and honor Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as Messiah and King. (Until 1955, we also held them aloft during the singing of the Lord's Passion, a powerful symbolic interpretation of the Passion, now sadly lost from the liturgy.) 

And then we take the blessed palms home and keep them there for the rest of the year as a further witness to our faith and trust in Christ the King's victory.  

Until Pius XII's 1950s reform of Holy Week, the old missa sicca, during which the palms were blessed prior to the actual Palm Sunday Mass, contained among its many wonderfully evocative prayers, this one which highlighted the significance of our retention of the blessed palms throughout the coming year: O God, who gather what is dispersed and preserve what is gathered, who blessed the people bearing branches and going out to meet Jesus, bless these branches of palm and of olive which your servants faithfully take up in honor of your name, that into whatever place these branches be brought, the dwellers therein may obtain your blessing, and, every adversity being driven from there, your right hand may protect those whom Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, redeemed.

That prayer's apotropaic appreciation of the palms as permanent sacramentals survived somewhat in the newly invented prayer that concluded the Palm Sunday Procession from 1956 on, but then disappeared completely in the liturgical demolition of the late 1960s.

So perhaps we need to say out loud in other ways what the liturgy no longer so loudly prays, and thus encourage ourselves to make fuller use of this annual sacramental by receiving blessed palms at church and then taking them home and keeping them there throughout the year.

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