Sunday, February 24, 2019

Holy Week, Part 2: Palm Sunday

Click here for Part 1: Introduction to Septuagesima, Lent, and Holy Week.

Booklet of Palm Sunday liturgy.

Photos from Palm Sunday 2018 by Michael Curtis.

Our celebration of Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday. This day is one of the most complex of the whole year, and has the second longest liturgy (only the Easter Vigil is longer). Today, we celebrate Jesus's triumphant entrance into Jerusalem a week before his death. All four Gospels describe this event (Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, John 12:12-19). Jesus came down from the Mount of Olives and sent two disciples to fetch a donkey. He rode into Jerusalem while the Jews adored him, throwing their garments and palm branches before him and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Hosanna is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “save.” It is first found in Psalm 117:25: “O Lord, save me.” (“Domine, salvum me fac.”) This psalm was sung by the priest during the Feast of Tabernacles, an exceedingly joyous feast at which the Jewish people waved palm branches (Leviticus 23:40). On Palm Sunday, the Jews welcomed their Savior riding on a donkey with great jubilation, festivity, and adoration. In the words of the Prophet Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion, shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem: Behold thy King will come to thee, the just and saviour: he is poor, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Zechariah 9:9). The joyful cheers of the Jews on Palm Sunday are sung at every Mass in the Sanctus.

However, these cheers have a tragic element of irony to them. Just a few days later, the same multitude of the Jews shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21). The same Savior whom they welcomed with such jubilation and adoration, they subsequently reviled and demanded to be tortured and killed. In Jesus's parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-9), the Jews can be compared to the seed that fell amongst the thorns. As joyfully as they received the Lord, their love of worldly things was stronger than their faith, so as soon as it became unpopular to worship the true King, they immediately turned against him and called for his crucifixion. St. Luke notes that, as Jesus was approaching Jerusalem, he wept over the holy city and said (Luke 19:42-44):

If thou also hadst known, and that in this thy day, the things that are to thy peace; but now they are hidden from thy eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, and thy enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and straiten thee on every side, and beat thee flat to the ground, and thy children who are in thee: and they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone: because thou hast not known the time of thy visitation.

In these prophetic words, Jesus foretold the Jews turning against God and calling for his Crucifixion. Furthermore, he foretold the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 by the Romans. As discussed in the previous article, Jerusalem and the First Temple were destroyed in 605 BC by the Babylonians. Nearly seven centuries later, after Jerusalem and the Jewish people had turned against God and rejected their Messiah, the holy city was destroyed again by the Romans. This event happened decades after the events of the Gospels and Acts, while St. Linus was Pope. It was prophesied by Jesus himself in AD 33 the week before his Crucifixion.

Palm Sunday thus has two distinct natures to it: the joyful celebration with palms, and the sorrowful remembrance of our Lord's Crucifixion. The liturgy is almost like two separate Masses. The first part, the Blessing of Palms, has the structure of a Mass. The Holy Mass is the highest prayer that exists, as it is the re-creation of the true and ultimate sacrifice of the New Covenant. The Church's most solemn blessings occur during the Mass, such as ordinations of clergy, coronations of Catholic monarchs, and the blessing of holy oils on Holy Thursday. For the blessed palm branches on Palm Sunday, the Church provides them with a quasi-Mass of their own. The joyful palm branches are so sacred to the Church that she feels it appropriate for the honor given to them to mirror that given to God himself.

As with the rest of Lent, the liturgical color is violet, the color of royalty and of penitence – the perfect color for our shouts of “Hosanna!” The altar crucifix is veiled in violet. Palm branches may adorn the altar, but not flowers. The deacon and subdeacon wear folded chasubles. The palms to be blessed are placed on a table on the Epistle side of the altar. If palm branches cannot be acquired, olive branches may be used.

The Blessing of Palms
As with any other Sunday, the liturgy begins with the Asperges (page 4 of the attached PDF booklet). Afterwards, the choir sings the antiphon Hosanna filio David (page 5), which serves as the Introit for the quasi-Mass of the Blessing of the Palms. It is taken from the shouts of the Jews in Matthew 21:9.

Meanwhile, the three ministers put on their maniples. The maniple is a vestment only worn for the Mass, but it is worn now as part of the Blessing of Palm's mirroring of the Mass. The celebrant remains in his cope; he does not put on the chasuble. The priest ascends to the altar with the ministers and honors the relics of martyrs with a kiss, just like at the beginning of Mass. They go to the Epistle side of the altar, where the priest sings a collect, like the collect of the Mass. He does not turn to the people when he sings, “Dominus vobiscum.”

The deacon and subdeacon remove their folded chasubles while performing the duties proper to their offices. For the subdeacon, this consists only of singing the Epistle. The deacon, who has the first degree of the ordained priesthood, has a proper duty from the Gospel until after Communion. Thus, while the priest is singing the collect, the subdeacon removes his folded chasuble and prepares to sing the Epistle.

The Epistle for the Blessing of Palms is Exodus 15:27, 16:1-7 (pages 5-6). In this passage, after God delivers the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, he leads them into a place with twelve fountains of water and seventy palm trees. The Israelites rebel against Moses and distrust God, saying, “Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat over the fleshpots and ate bread to the full.” However, God promises to feed the Israelites with manna. The sacred manna from heaven foreshadows the Holy Eucharist. Thus, like the week of Christ's Passion, God provides for the Israelites, but they still turn against him and against his Word. After the Epistle, the subdeacon puts back on his folded chasuble.

Following the Epistle, there are two options given for a Gradual (pages 6-9). (This is a rare case of options given to the priest in the traditional liturgy.) Both are long, elaborate chants, in the form of a responsory, and both concern the Death of Jesus. The first option is from John 11:47-50, 53, describing the chief priests and Pharisees conspiring to put Jesus to death. The second is from Matthew 26:39, 41, Jesus's prayer to his Father in his Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, along with his admonition to his disciples, “The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.”

The deacon removes his folded chasuble and puts on the broad stole, a vestment resembling a very wide stole. It was originally a chasuble folded in half, and it represents a soldier's coat. The Gospel is sung with the same ceremonies as at Mass. The deacon places the Book of Gospels on the altar, says the prayer Munda cor meum, and receives the priest's blessing (page 9). Like at Mass, candles are held at the Gospel, and incense is used. The Gospel reading for the Blessing of Palms is Matthew 21:1-9, the story of Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem (pages 9-10).

After the Gospel, the deacon puts back on his folded chasuble. The ministers lay aside their maniples, as they only wore them for the readings in imitation of a Mass. The priest sings one “Offertory” prayer aloud, perhaps analogous to the Secret at Mass. The Offertory prayer mentions two Old Testament archetypes of Jesus's entry into Jerusalem: Noah exiting the ark, and Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. This is followed by a Preface unique to the Blessing of the Palms (pages 11-12). The Preface gives praise and thanksgiving to God, joining our sentiments with those of the Jewish people receiving Jesus into Jerusalem.

Just like at Mass, the Preface leads to the Sanctus. This is perhaps the strongest link between the Blessing of Palms and the Mass. Whereas readings, responsories, and prayers all occur elsewhere in sacred liturgy, the Sanctus is only sung at Mass. Furthermore, the Sanctus is especially relevant on Palm Sunday, as we celebrate the joyful greetings, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

Next in the order of the Mass would be the Canon. In this case, the priest sings five prayers to bless the palms, in the course of which he makes four signs of the Cross over the palm branches (pages 13-15). These five beautiful prayers further expound on the significance of the palm branches. The first prayer refers to them as a “sacred sign,” using the Latin word sacramentum, which normally means “sacrament.” The Canon of prayers also discusses the Old Testament events of the flood and the exodus from Egypt as predecessors to Christ's triumphal entry, as well as the joyful symbolism of the palm and olive branches. In the words of the third of the five prayers: “The branches of palms, therefore, represent his triumphs over the prince of death; and the branches of olive proclaim, in a manner, the coming of a spiritual unction.” This third prayer also prays that we, the faithful, may by divine wisdom truly understand our salvation. If we had perfect faith and understanding of Jesus's sacrifice on the Cross, we would never sin. The fourth prayer refers to the olive branch brought back by the dove to Noah's ark as a sign of divine peace. Thus, through these five prayers, we join the multitudes of God's chosen people welcoming our Lord and Savior with sacred branches of palms and olives.

After the five prayers, the priest blesses incense and puts it into the thurible. He sprinkles the palms with holy water, saying the antiphon Asperges me, and then incenses the palms (pages 15-16). The priest sings a sixth prayer adoring Jesus Christ and acknowledging his sacrifice on the Cross.

Next, the palms are distributed at the Communion rail, analogous to the distribution of Communion at Mass. Each person kneels at the altar rail and kisses first the blessed palm and then the priest's hand. (A liturgical kiss consists simply of touching your lips to something. As our pastor says, “Sound effects are not necessary.”) During the distribution of palms, the choir sings two short antiphons that paraphrase St. Matthew's account of Palm Sunday (pages 16-17). After the distribution, the priest sings one more prayer, like a Postcommunion. This prayer once again unites our sentiments of praise and adoration with those of the people of Jerusalem.

Then comes the procession. As at Mass, the deacon turns to the people and sings the dismissal. (page 18). The subdeacon leads the procession with the processional cross. All carry their palms. The procession should go outside and may go a considerable distance. The blessing of palms may even be held in a different church than the Mass, with the procession proceeding from one church to the other. This procession imitates our Lord's procession into Jerusalem. All carry their blessed palm branches. Chants are sung during the procession. The first two chants are from Matthew 21:1-3, 7-9 and John 12:12-13, both from accounts of Jesus's entry into Jerusalem (pages 18-21). Other chants paraphrase and elaborate on the Gospels' accounts. The chants are long and melismatic, in the style of a Gradual, because the procession with palms is a festive and joyful occasion. In addition, the Gradual of Mass comes from the Jewish Gradual Psalms sung while ascending to the Temple in Jerusalem, so the procession recalling Jesus's arriving in Jerusalem has a special connection to the Gradual of the Mass.

When the procession arrives back at the door of the church, two cantors go inside and close the door. The following ceremony at the door of the church represents Jesus's arrival at the Temple (Matthew 21:12-13). The two cantors inside the church sing the refrain of the hymn Gloria laus et honor, composed in 810 by St. Theodulph of Orleans for the Palm Sunday procession (pages 24-25). All outside then repeat the refrain. The cantors sing the verses, with everyone singing the refrain each time. The hymn gives praise and adoration to Jesus Christ, our King and Redeemer. At the end of the hymn, the subdeacon strikes the door with the foot of the processional cross. The cantors open the door, and all enter. In addition to the symbolism of Jesus's arrival at the Temple, this also imitates what is done at the ceremony of Dedication of a Church (Psalm 23:7-10). While entering the church, the choir sings the chant Ingrediente Domino (page 26).

Mass of Palm Sunday
After the procession, Mass is begun. When finished with the chant Ingrediente Domino, the choir begins the Introit Domine, ne longe facias (page 28-29). This marks a considerable shift from the festive and joyful celebration of Jesus's arrival in Jerusalem to the sorrowful remembrance of Jesus's Crucifixion. In the Introit, we sing the words of King David that foreshadowed the words of our Lord on the Cross: “My God, my God, look upon me: why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 21, from which the Introit is taken, is a prophecy of our Lord's Passion.

Meanwhile, the priest and ministers prepare for Mass. The priest takes off his cope and dons the chasuble, and all three ministers put on their maniples. They go before the altar and begin Mass with the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. Since it is Passiontide, Psalm 42 is omitted. The altar is incensed as usual. As with the rest of Lent, there is no Gloria.

The Epistle for the Mass of Palm Sunday is taken from St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians (page 30). In this reading, St. Paul writes, “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross. Therefore God also has exalted him and has bestowed upon him the name that is above every name.” During the Paschal Triduum, this excerpt is read at the end of each hour of the Divine Office. At the next verse, we all genuflect, joining with every soul in heaven, on earth, and under the earth in adoring the holy name of Jesus. (“Under the earth” refers to the souls in purgatory, who, though suffering, still love and adore the name of Jesus.) This is the sacred name that St. Gabriel the Archangel gave to him at his conception (Luke 1:31). The name “Jesus” comes from the Hebrew name “Yeshua,” which means “Savior.” It is the successor to the sacred name for God in the Old Testament, roughly YHWH in Latin script, which was never pronounced. Every time the holy name of Jesus is spoken in the liturgy, we bow our heads in adoration.

The Gradual from Psalm 72 is followed by a long Tract from Psalm 21, foretelling in great detail the events of our Lord's Passion. Due to their length, the Gradual and Tract are usually sung to a psalm tone rather than the full, elaborate Gregorian chant (which is five pages long).

Just like any other Mass, the Gospel follows. However, today's Gospel is the story of the Passion and Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, as told by St. Matthew. Due to the significance of this reading, it is sung in a very peculiar manner. The Passion Gospel is sung by three deacons. The first, known as the Christus, sings the words of Christ. The second, known as the Chronicler, sings the part of the narrator. The third, known as the Synagoga, sings the parts of all other people. In some parishes, the choir sings the part of the multitudes, known as the Turba. (Otherwise these parts are sung by the Synagoga.) The three deacons wear amice, alb, cincture, violet maniple, and violet stole. They do not wear broad stoles. They do not say Munda cor meum or receive the priest's blessing, but go directly to the place where the Gospel is usually sung. If three deacons are not available, then three ministers of the Mass may sing the Passion. In this case, the deacon and subdeacon change into the aforementioned vestments, but the priest stays at the altar in his Mass vestments and sings the Christus. Everyone except the three deacons holds up their palms during the Passion.

This ceremony of having multiple deacons or lectors singing the Passion dates to at least the thirteenth century, possibly earlier. However, since the seventh century, a special tone has been used to sing the Passion, with the Christus, Chronicler, and Synagoga all sung at different pitches (pages 32-60). The Chronicler sings a tone somewhat similar to the usual tone for the readings at Mass. The Christus sings at a lower pitch in a minor mode, representing our Lord's sorrow and suffering. Finally, the Synagogue sings at the highest pitch, an octave above the Christus. The Synagoga is dissonant with the other two parts, because among the most notable characters sung by the Synagoga are Pontius Pilate, who condemned our Lord to death, and Judas Iscariot, who sought from the beginning to betray our Lord.

The Chronicler begins the Passion directly with the title, “Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Matthaeum.” He does not sing “Dominus vobiscum,” nor is the response “Gloria tibi Domine” made. The missal remains on the Epistle side of the altar for now.

On Palm Sunday, the three deacons sing the first Passion, the Passion according to St. Matthew. The Gospel begins with the anointing of Jesus at Bethania and Judas's agreement to betray our Lord for thirty pieces of silver. Thirty pieces of silver is about USD$400 in today's currency. Thus, Judas Iscariot chose $400 over his loving and merciful Savior. The Gospel continues with the story of the Last Supper and the institution of the Holy Eucharist. During the most important Gospel readings of the year, not only do we hear the story of our Lord's Crucifixion, but we also hear the story of the institution of the Mass itself. Next is Jesus's trial before Pilate, Judas's despair and suicide, our Lord's condemnation, the mockery of the Roman soldiers, and finally our Lord's death on the Cross. At the moment when our Lord dies, all kneel for a moment of silent contemplation (page 57).

After the passage concerning Jesus's burial and the stone laid before the tomb, the three deacons leave. The subdeacon moves the missal to the Gospel side of the altar. The last part of the Passion is sung with the usual ceremony of the Gospel at Mass. The deacon, wearing broad stole, lays the Book of Gospels on the altar, says the prayer Munda cor meum, and receives the priest's blessing, as at any other Mass. There is neither Dominus vobiscum nor a title, nor are the usual Signs of the Cross made. The deacon sings the final part of the Passion, in which the Jews recall our Lord's foretelling of his Resurrection. In their faithlessness and hardness of hearts, they suppose that a disciple would steal the body and claim that he had risen, and thus they demand that the tomb be guarded.

The Credo is sung, and the rest of the Mass is as usual. The Preface of the Holy Cross is sung. The deacon remains in broad stole until after Communion, when he changes back to folded chasuble. At the end, the deacon sings Benedicamus Domino in place of Ite Missa est. Mass concludes as always with the Last Gospel.

New terms
  • Blessing of Palms – The liturgy before Mass on Palm Sunday in which palm or olive branches are blessed, following the structure of a Mass.
  • broad stole – A vestment resembling a very wide stole, originally a chasuble folded in half, worn by the deacon from the Gospel until after Communion during Lent.
  • Christus – The words of Christ, sung to a lower pitch during the Passion.
  • Chronicler – The words of the narrator, sung to a medium pitch during the Passion.
  • Synagoga – The words of all other people, sung to a high, dissonant pitch during the Passion.
  • Turba – The words of the multitudes, which may be sung by the choir during the Passion, otherwise they are sung by the Synagoga.

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