Saturday, April 16, 2011




The idea of a Palm Sunday procession originated, not surprisingly, in Jerusalem where people could really have the sense of re-enacting various events of Jesus’ passion and death in the very places where they had occurred. It was well established by the fourth century: a large crowd, including lots of children singing “Hosanna,” preceded the bishop on a long walk from the top of the Mount of Olives into and across Jerusalem into a church to celebrate mass. It’s easy to see how such a ritual would capture people’s imaginations; and by the ninth century there were Palm Sunday processions in Spain and Gaul. The custom would take root in Rome only in the eleventh century. The actual rituals of the blessing of palms and the procession varied quite widely from place to place. The blessing of the palms could be very elaborate, for example, while in some places the bishop would imitate Christ by riding in procession on a donkey. Last year on Palm Sunday I posted some thoughts about the custom in some countries of having a statue of Christ on a donkey that was rolled along in the procession.


The detailed ritual re-enacting of various sacred actions of the gospel, begun in Jerusalem and spreading throughout the Christian world, while it is appealing to many people, also poses a danger: we can begin to think of each episode as a separate stand-alone event without seeing it as part of the single “paschal mystery” of suffering-death-resurrection.

A good example of this unfortunate splitting up of the paschal mystery is the popular devotion called the fourteen “Stations of the Cross.” These meditations follow Jesus’ passion from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate through his death and burial, and end (incredibly!) with Jesus’ lying dead in the tomb. To stop the story at that point is not only misleading, it’s almost blasphemous. Worse, it implies that you and I can or should look at our own suffering and pain apart from Jesus’ triumphant victory over suffering and death at Easter. That’s real bad theology! Presently when the stations are celebrated in public, the service often ends with a sort of “fifteenth station,” a brief meditation on the resurrection – i.e. the event which gives all of the events of Christ’s suffering and death their ultimate MEANING.

A similar unfortunate separation of the resurrection from the suffering and death of Christ is reflected in the history of the so-called “holy triduum.”


The expression “holy triduum” or “sacred triduum” originally referred to the three days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Easter was an integral and essential part of the “holy week” celebration. Saint Augustine, for instance, refers to this triduum in the fifth century. Toward the middle of the seventh century, however, a commemoration of the Last Supper was introduced on Holy Thursday at Rome (where that day had previously been mostly the day for reconciliation of penitents). This new commemoration caused an unfortunate shifting of days: the “triduum” then became Thursday-Friday-Saturday, and Easter was cut completely out of the picture! The triduum became a self-contained unit involving only Jesus’ suffering and death.

This new arrangement is misleading and could very easily distract at least some people from the full MEANING of Christ’s suffering and death (which, after all mean nothing without the resurrection). The church has revised her rituals and her language in recent years to try to counter that misconception. The official language in the church’s calendar, for example, now refers to “the Easter Triduum of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection,” which begins only with the evening mass of the Lord’s Supper, thus restoring the original unity of suffering and resurrection.


The ceremonies of Palm Sunday can still be misunderstood in that fragmented way mentioned above by making the blessed palms the center of attention. I once saw a pastor being set upon by angry parishioners complaining vehemently that the ushers at the side door of the church were distributing smaller pieces of palm than the ushers at the main door. This outrage would color or even define their whole experience of Holy Week that year!

Try to consider Palm Sunday from the original perspective in which the events of Holy Week including Easter were not seen as reenactments of a disjointed series of events but rather as the celebration of a single unity known as the “paschal event.” Here, too, the church since Vatican II has helped us to correct our vision by revising the rituals of Palm Sunday. First, note that its official name is no longer “Palm Sunday” but “Palm Sunday of The Lord's Passion.” The preceding Sunday, formerly called "Passion Sunday" has been given back its original name, “The Fifth Sunday of Lent.” Centuries ago the Church began emphasizing Christ's sufferings and so pushed "passiontide" further back into Lent, usurping the Fifth Sunday and naming it "Passion Sunday." The Sundays in Lent, however, are clearly intended to prepare us for the resurrection. This idea is obvious when you notice that the gospel for the Fifth Sunday (that we used to call "Passion Sunday") tells the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. Sounds like a resurrection theme to me!

Secondly, besides the name change, there are the various prayers, blessings and options for the procession that now help us to focus on the more important theme of the Palm Sunday ritual, the procession. The actual blessing of the palms is limited to a brief introduction and a short prayer of blessing, teaching us that “Palm Sunday” is not about the blessing and carrying of palms that are to be brought home as almost magical tokens disconnected from anything about the Paschal mystery.

The true perspective is reflected in the fact that the blessing of the palms should be held someplace besides the sanctuary, preferably outside the church building, so that there can be a procession. There are even a couple of options for the entry into the church so as to encourage the use of a procession even in less convenient circumstances. The emphasis is where it should be: we as the People of God are accompanying the Messiah on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he will suffer and die and RISE again.

Thirdly, the sacramentary helps us to focus on the paschal mystery as a whole by opening the ceremonies of Palm Sunday with the priest's saying these words:

“Dear friends in Christ, for five weeks of Lent we have been preparing, by works of charity and self-sacrifice, for the celebration of our Lord’s paschal mystery. Today we come together to begin this solemn celebration in union with the whole Church throughout the word, Christ entered in triumph into his own city, to complete his work as our Messiah: to suffer, to die, and to RISE AGAIN. Let us remember with devotion this entry which began his saving work and follow him with a lively faith. United with him in his suffering on the cross, may we share his resurrection and new life.”

Notice the various emphases:
1. We have been preparing to celebrate the “paschal mystery” (passion-death-resurrection as a single event).
2. We are doing this as a community, in union with the Church throughout the world.
3. Christ is about to complete his Messianic work “to suffer, to die, and to rise again.”

A fourth help to keeping focused on the unity of Holy Week and Easter is found in the mass readings. During the mass we will listen to the reading of the passion (this year it is Matthew’s account) but this is preceded by the second reading from Philippians that includes these lines that combine the passion and the resurrection:

“he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).


So when I preside at the Palm Sunday mass tomorrow morning in one of the seediest neighborhoods in Newark I will be conscious of marching up to Jerusalem with Jesus in company with the whole Church throughout the world. In our procession will be many Spanish-speaking immigrants, some suburban white folks who come to help the sisters serve Sunday dinner to the poor, and there will be some homeless and hungry people, too, along with AIDS patients and recovering addicts. It’s these last folks that will truly appreciate knowing that we are going with Jesus not just to SUFFER with him on Friday; no, we are very definitely walking with Jesus in order also to RISE again with him on Easter Sunday. And we’ll all join our voices in welcoming our Savior, singing

Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

.....Romare Bearden Palm Sunday Procession (1967-1968)

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with your title - It's not about the Palms - and I would like to suggest a companion topic which I will call "It's not about the Ashes". I'm a Eucharistic Minister in my parish and I have had the privilege of distributing ashes to my fellow parishoners on Ash Wednesday. I must admit, I do feel strangely out of place doing this because I grew up in the 1970s and the only person to receive ashes from on Ash Wednesday was from the priest at Mass (or special distribution service). But I do understand that there's a shortage in the vocation, and so I'm willing to serve my parish in any way I can.

    What bothers me is when people walk up to the altar BEFORE Mass and put the ashes on themselves and eachother. They behave as if the ashes possessed a magical power or some kind of special blessing and they desperately wanted to receive it.

    I don't know what to say except that human nature and rituals are quite interesting to observe. I just feel sad that these people are missing out on the true message behind this ritual of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday.