The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

The day’s name indicates its dual focus.  The Reading of the Passion Narrative (the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion) is the most primitive feature and remained so after the revisions of the 16th century.  The pre-Reformation rites in England were full of movement and rich in poetry.  The Palm Sunday rites were particularly dramatic and involved.  In the Procession, the Gospel Book or the Blessed Sacrament was carried as a vivid image of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  The Procession involved a number of “stations” or stops at places in the Church or along the route to the Church for prayers, hymns, or responsories.

In the 19th century, the Oxford Movement within Anglicanism reclaimed (and simplified) many of the traditions that had been lost in the 16th century.  These included the Blessing of the Palms and the Procession with Palms.  The Book of Common Prayer provides a celebration of Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem as an Entrance Rite at the beginning of the Day’s Eucharist, but the central focus is the reading of the Passion.  That reading marked the formal beginning of Holy Week symbolized by a switch from the Lenten purple vestments to the red vestments of Holy Week at the conclusion of the Passion.

The liturgy here begins with that Blessing of the Palms with, at the 9:00 service, a Procession from Saint Philip’s Plaza.  The Palms are distributed to the people, blessed with a solemn prayer that echoes the Great Thanksgiving of the Eucharistic Prayer, and then the Procession continues.  Children are mentioned in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Triumphant Entry, and children seem particularly drawn to this part of the story.

The Procession includes the stirring hymn (the only hymn mandated in the Book of Common Prayer for any liturgy) “All Glory Laud and Honor.” Structurally, in relation to the rest of the Liturgy, all of this is essentially the equivalent of the opening hymn – it gets us into place and gathers us as a Body so we are prepared to respond to the opening invitation, “Let us Pray” that introduces the Collect (prayer) of the Day.

That prayer quickly and directly brings our focus to the mystery of the Incarnation (the coming of God as man in Jesus) and the Atonement (the reconciling of the people of God with God by Christ’s Life, Death, and Resurrection).  The Readings and the Psalm continue this theme and the Gospel is introduced without any acclamation.  For all of Lent, the alleluias which usually greet the Gospel have been silenced; now there is not so much as a “Glory be to thee, O Lord.” Through Holy Week the liturgies return to their most ancient forms and these later additions are eliminated – the forms of these liturgies are rooted in the most ancient patterns of worship for which we have evidence from the earliest centuries of the Church.

The Passion is read or sung from one of the first three Gospels each of which has its own particular insights and recounts the details that must have been most important and salient to each writer.  Two ceremonial notes:  palms are traditionally held as the Passion is sung or read; at the verse the mentions the death of Jesus all kneel as a period of silence follows.  On most Sundays a sermon immediately follows on the heels of the Gospel but to start talking after this story seems presumptuous so we follow the Passion Gospel with one of the great Passiontide hymns.

The Creed and the Confession are omitted as allowed by the rubrics (liturgical directions printed in the Book of Common Prayer).  Part of the motivation for this is the length of the service, but these are also later additions to the Liturgy (5th or 6th century for the Creed and much later for the Confession).  At several points during Holy Week the Liturgy takes on some of its most primitive and ancient aspect so these later additions are set aside in the movement toward the shape of the Liturgy as our earliest forebears of the faith engaged it.

The Prayers are an essential part of the Eucharistic action – and draw us into our work as the Body of Christ.  As He hung on the Cross, Jesus asks forgiveness for others (Luke’s Gospel) and commends His Blessed Mother and His Beloved Disciple (John’s Gospel).  At the foot of the Cross, the work of intercession and prayer is nothing less than Jesus’ own mission.

The rest of the Liturgy follows as usual with the Great Thanksgiving and Communion.  It is still a Sunday – and even though we have proclaimed the story of Christ’s death, in the Eucharist we proclaim the Resurrection and recognize the Living and True Presence which sustains the Church.  It is traditional to take the Palms home, and often it is placed behind a cross or an icon.  At any rate, it has been blessed, so treating it with respect is appropriate – either keeping it as a reminder of the Passion or burning it with others’ Palms on Shrove Tuesday the following year.

Next week we move into the interestingly named Spy Wednesday when we at Saint Philip’s will have a parish supper and a welcome into the Triduum (the three great days) followed by Tenebrae.  We will also review the Liturgy of Maundy Thursday next week.

–Fr. Robert

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