Today is Palm Sunday
(by Fr. Prosper Gueranger 1870)
Today, if ye shall hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts.
Early in the morning of this day, Jesus sets out for Jerusalem, leaving Mary His Mother, and the two sisters Martha and Mary Magdalene, and Lazarus, at Bethania. The Mother of sorrows trembles at seeing her Son thus expose Himself to danger, for His enemies are bent upon His destruction; but it is not death, it is triumph, that Jesus is to receive today in Jerusalem. The Messias, before being nailed to the cross, is to be proclaimed King by the people of the great city; the little children are to make her streets echo with their Hosannas to the Son of David; and this in presence of the soldiers of Rome’s emperor, and of the high priests and pharisees: the first standing under the banner of their eagles; the second, dumb with rage.
The prophet Zachary had foretold this triumph which the Son of Man was to receive a few days before His Passion, and which had been prepared for Him from all eternity. ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion! Shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold thy King will come to thee; the Just and the Saviour. He is poor, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass.’ [Zach. ix. 9]. Jesus, knowing that the hour has come for the fulfilment of this prophecy, singles out two from the rest of His disciples, and bids them lead to Him an ass and her colt, which they would find not far off. He has reached Bethphage, on Mount Olivet. The two disciples lose no time in executing the order given them by their divine Master; and the ass and the colt are soon brought to the place where He stands.
The holy fathers have explained to us the mystery of these two animals. The ass represents the Jewish people, which had been long under the yoke of the Law; the colt, upon which, as the evangelist says, no man yet hath sat [St. Mark xi. 2], is a figure of the Gentile world, which no one had ever yet brought into subjection. The future of these two peoples is to be decided a few days hence: the Jews will be rejected, for having refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Messias; the Gentiles will take their place, to be adopted as God’s people, and become docile and faithful.
The disciples spread their garments upon the colt; and our Saviour, that the prophetic figure might be fulfilled, sits upon him [Ibid. 7, and St. Luke xix. 35.], and advances towards Jerusalem. As soon as it is known that Jesus is near the city, the holy Spirit works in the hearts of those Jews, who have come from all parts to celebrate the feast of the Passover. They go out to meet our Lord, holding palm branches in their hands, and loudly proclaiming Him to be King [St. Luke xix. 38]. They that have accompanied Jesus from Bethania, join the enthusiastic crowd. Whilst some spread their garments on the way, others cut down boughs from the palm-trees, and strew them along the road. Hosanna is the triumphant cry, proclaiming to the whole city that Jesus, the Son of David, has made His entrance as her King.
Thus did God, in His power over men’s hearts, procure a triumph for His Son, and in the very city which, a few days later, was to clamour for His Blood. This day was one of glory to our Jesus, and the holy Church would have us renew, each year, the memory of this triumph of the Man-God. Shortly after the birth of our Emmanuel, we saw the Magi coming from the extreme east, and looking in Jerusalem for the King of the Jews, to whom they intended offering their gifts and their adorations: but it is Jerusalem herself that now goes forth to meet this King. Each of these events is an acknowledgment of the kingship of Jesus; the first, from the Gentiles; the second, from the Jews. Both were to pay Him this regal homage, before He suffered His Passion. The inscription to be put upon the cross, by Pilate’s order, will express the kingly character of the Crucified: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Pilate, the Roman governor, the pagan, the base coward, has been unwittingly the fulfiller of a prophecy; and when the enemies of Jesus insist on the inscription being altered, Pilate will not deign to give them any answer but this: ‘What I have written, I have written.’ Today, it is the Jews themselves that proclaim Jesus to be their King: they will soon be dispersed, in punishment for their revolt against the Son of David; but Jesus is King, and will be so for ever. Thus were literally verified the words spoken by the Archangel to Mary, when he announced to her the glories of the Child that was to be born of her: ‘The Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of David, His father; and He shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever.’ [St. Luke i. 32]. Jesus begins His reign upon the earth this very day; and though the first Israel is soon to disclaim His rule, a new Israel, formed from the faithful few of the old, shall rise up in every nation of the earth, and become the kingdom of Christ, a kingdom such as no mere earthly monarch ever coveted in his wildest fancies of ambition.
This is the glorious mystery which ushers in the great week, the week of dolours. Holy Church would have us give this momentary consolation to our heart, and hail our Jesus as our King. She has so arranged the service of today, that it should express both joy and sorrow; joy, by uniting herself with the loyal hosannas of the city of David; and sorrow, by compassionating the Passion of her divine Spouse. The whole function is divided into three parts, which we will now proceed to explain.
The first is the blessing of the palms; and we may have an idea of its importance from the solemnity used by the Church in this sacred rite. One would suppose that the holy Sacrifice has begun, and is going to be offered up in honour of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Introit, Collect, Epistle, Gradual, Gospel, even a Preface, are said, as though we were, as usual, preparing for the immolation of the spotless Lamb; but, after the triple Sanctus! Sanctus! Sanctus! the Church suspends these sacrificial formulas, and turns to the blessing of the palms. The prayers she uses for this blessing are eloquent and full of instruction; and, together with the sprinkling with holy water and the incensation, impart a virtue to these branches, which elevates them to the supernatural order, and makes them means for the sanctification of our souls and the protection of our persons and dwellings. The faithful should hold these palms in their hands during the procession, and during the reading of the Passion at Mass, and keep them in their homes as an outward expression of their faith, and as a pledge of God’s watchful love.
It is scarcely necessary to tell our reader that the palms or olive branches, thus blessed, are carried in memory of those wherewith the people of Jerusalem strewed the road, as our Saviour made His triumphant entry; but a word on the antiquity of our ceremony will not be superfluous. It began very early in the east. It is probable that, as far as Jerusalem itself is concerned, the custom was established immediately after the ages of persecution. St. Cyril, who was bishop of that city in the fourth century, tells us that the palm-tree, from which the people cut the branches when they went out to meet our Saviour, was still to be seen in the vale of Cedron [Cateches. x. versus fin.] Such a circumstance would naturally suggest an annual commemoration of the great event. In the following century, we find this ceremony established, not only in the churches of the east, but also in the monasteries of Egypt and Syria. At the beginning of Lent, many of the holy monks obtained permission from their abbots to retire into the desert, that they might spend the sacred season in strict seclusion; but they were obliged to return to their monasteries for Palm Sunday, as we learn from the life of Saint Euthymius, written by his disciple Cyril [Act. SS. Jan. 2O]. In the west, the introduction of this ceremony was more gradual; the first trace we find of it is in the sacramentary of St. Gregory, that is, at the end of the sixth, or the beginning of the seventh, century. When the faith had penetrated into the north, it was not possible to have palms or olive branches; they were supplied by branches from other trees. The beautiful prayers used in the blessing, and based on the mysteries expressed by the palm and olive trees, are still employed in the blessing of our willow, box, or other branches; and rightly, for these represent the symbolical ones which nature has denied us.
The second of today’s ceremonies is the procession, which comes immediately after the blessing of the palms. It represents our Saviour’s journey to Jerusalem, and His entry into the city. To make it the more expressive, the branches that have just been blessed are held in the hand during it. With the Jews, to hold a branch in one’s hand was a sign of joy. The divine law had sanctioned this practice, as we read in the following passage from Leviticus, where God commands His people to keep the feast of tabernacles: And you shall take to you, on the first day, the fruits of the fairest tree, and branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God [Lev. xxiii. 4O]. It was, therefore, to testify their delight at seeing Jesus enter within their walls, that the inhabitants, even the little children, of Jerusalem, went forth to meet Him with palms in their hands. Let us, also, go before our King, singing our hosannas to Him as the conqueror of death, and the liberator of His people.
During the middle ages, it was the custom, in many churches, to carry the book of the holy Gospels in this procession. The Gospel contains the words of Jesus Christ, and was considered to represent Him. The procession halted at an appointed place, or station: the deacon then opened the sacred volume, and sang from it the passage which describes our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem. This done, the cross which, up to this moment, was veiled, was uncovered; each of the clergy advanced towards it, venerated it, and placed at its foot a small portion of the palm he held in his hand. The procession then returned, preceded by the cross, which was left unveiled until all had re-entered the church. In England and Normandy, as far back as the eleventh century, there was practised a holy ceremony which represented, even more vividly than the one we have just been describing, the scene that was witnessed on this day at Jerusalem: the blessed Sacrament was carried in procession. The heresy of Berengarius, against the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, had been broached about that time; and the tribute of triumphant joy here shown to the sacred Host was a distant preparation for the feast and procession which were to be instituted at a later period.
A touching ceremony was also practised in Jerusalem during today’s procession, and, like those just mentioned, was intended to commemorate the event related by the Gospel. The whole community of the Franciscans (to whose keeping the holy places are entrusted) went in the morning to Bethphage. There, the father guardian of the holy Land, being vested in pontifical robes, mounted upon an ass, on which garments were laid. Accompanied by the friars and the Catholics of Jerusalem, all holding palms in their hands, he entered the city, and alighted at the church of the holy sepulchre where Mass was celebrated with all possible solemnity.
This beautiful ceremony, which dated from the period of the Latin kingdom in Jerusalem, has been forbidden, for now almost two hundred years, by the Turkish authorities of the city.
We have mentioned these different usages, as we have done others on similar occasions, in order to aid the faithful to the better understanding of the several mysteries of the liturgy. In the present instance, they will learn that, in today’s procession, the Church wishes us to honour Jesus Christ as though He were really among us, and were receiving the humble tribute of our loyalty. Let us lovingly go forth to meet this our King, our Saviour, who comes to visit the daughter of Sion, as the prophet has just told us. He is in our midst; it is to Him that we pay honour with our palms: let us give Him our hearts too. He comes that He may be our King; let us welcome Him as such, and fervently cry out to Him: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’
At the close of the procession a ceremony takes place, which is full of the sublimest symbolism. On returning to the church, the doors are found to be shut. The triumphant procession is stopped; but the songs of joy are continued. A hymn in honour of Christ our King is sung with its joyous chorus; and at length the subdeacon strikes the door with the staff of the cross; the door opens, and the people, preceded by the clergy, enter the church, proclaiming the praise of Him, who is our resurrection and our life.
This ceremony is intended to represent the entry of Jesus into that Jerusalem of which the earthly one was but the figure – the Jerusalem of heaven, which has been opened for us by our Saviour. The sin of our first parents had shut it against us; but Jesus, the King of glory, opened its gates by His cross, to which every resistance yields. Let us, then, continue to follow in the footsteps of the Son of David, for He is also the Son of God, and He invites us to share His kingdom with Him. Thus, by the procession, which is commemorative of what happened on this day, the Church raises up our thoughts to the glorious mystery of the Ascension, whereby heaven was made the close of Jesus’ mission on earth. Alas! the interval between these two triumphs of our Redeemer are not all days of joy; and no sooner is our procession over, than the Church, who had laid aside for a moment the weight of her grief, falls back into sorrow and mourning.
The third part of today’s service is the offering of the holy Sacrifice. The portions that are sung by the choir are expressive of the deepest desolation; and the history of our Lord’s Passion, which is now to be read by anticipation, gives to the rest of the day that character of sacred gloom, which we all know so well. For the last five or six centuries, the Church has adopted a special chant for this narrative of the holy Gospel. The historian, or the evangelist, relates the events in a tone that is at once grave and pathetic; the words of our Saviour are sung to a solemn yet sweet melody, which strikingly contrasts with the high dominant of the several other interlocutors and the Jewish populace. During the singing of the Passion, the faithful should hold their palms in their hands, and, by this emblem of triumph, protest against the insults offered to Jesus by His enemies. As we listen to each humiliation and suffering, all of which were endured out of love for us, let us offer Him our palm as to our dearest Lord and King. When should we be more adoring, than when He is most suffering?
These are the leading features of this great day. According to our usual plan, we will add to the prayers and lessons any instructions that seem to be needed.
This Sunday, besides its liturgical and popular appellation of Palm Sunday, has had several other names. Thus it was called Hosanna Sunday, in allusion to the acclamation wherewith the Jews greeted Jesus on His entry into Jerusalem. Our forefathers used also to call it Pascha Floridum, because the feast of the Pasch (or Easter), which is but eight days off, is today in bud, so to speak, and the faithful could begin from this Sunday to fulfil the precept of Easter Communion. It was in allusion to this name, that the Spaniards, having on the Palm Sunday of 1513, discovered the peninsula on the Gulf of Mexico, called it Florida. We also find the name of Capililavium given to this Sunday, because, during those times when it was the custom to defer till Holy Saturday the baptism of infants born during the preceding months (where such a delay entailed no danger), the parents used, on this day, to wash the heads of these children, out of respect to the holy chrism wherewith they were to be anointed. Later on, this Sunday was, at least in some churches, called the Pasch of the competents, that is, of the catechumens, who were admitted to Baptism; they assembled today in the church, and received a special instruction on the symbol, which had been given to them in the previous scrutiny. In the Gothic Church of Spain, the symbol was not given till today. The Greeks call this Sunday Baphoros, that is, Palm-bearing. (2,6)
INSTRUCTION FOR PALM-SUNDAY,
by Leonard Goffine, 1871
Why is this day called Palm-Sunday?
On account of the palms with which the people strewed the Saviour’s path before Him, as He entered Jerusalem; and because palms are on this day blessed before service, by the Church, which “are afterwards carried in solemn procession in commemoration of Christ’s solemn entrance into Jerusalem.
Why are palms blessed?
That those who bear them with devotion, may receive protection for soul and body, as prayed for in the blessing; that the inhabitants of the place in which they are kept, may be preserved from all evils; that those who carry the palms, may, by means of the Church’s prayers, adorn their souls with good works and thus, in spirit, meet the Saviour; that, through Christ whose members we are, we may conquer the kingdom of death and darkness, and be made worthy to share in His glorious resurrection and triumphant entrance into heaven. St. Augustine writes of the palms: “They are emblems of praise, and the signs of victory; because the Lord by death conquered death, and with the sign of victory, the cross, overcame the devil, the prince of death.” Therefore we go singing hymns of praise, with the cross in advance, in procession around the Church; when we come to the Church door, we find it locked, and the priest knocks at it with the cross, to show, how by Adam’s sin heaven was closed to us, and that only since Jesus has killed death, and only by the cross of reconciliation, are the Church doors and the gates of paradise open to men, who love the Lord.
To infuse us with compassion for the suffering Redeemer, the Church, in the person of Christ, cries at the Introit in lamenting tones: Lord, keep not thy help far from me; look to my defence; save me from the lion’s mouth, and rescue me in my distress, from the horns of unicorns. O God, my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me? They are my sins (that is, the sins of all men which I have taken upon me), that keep salvation far from me. (Ps. xxi.)
PRAYER OF THE CHURCH. O almighty and eternal God, who wouldst have our Saviour become man, and suffer on a cross, to give mankind an example of humility: mercifully grant, that we may improve by the example of His patience, and partake of His resurrection. Through, &c.
EPISTLE. (Phil. ii. 5 -11) Brethren: Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus; who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery, to be equal with God: but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death; even to the death of the cross. For which cause God also hath exalted him, and hath given him a name which is above all namas: that in the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. And that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of the Father.
INSTRUCTION. In this epistle, the apostle, as St. Chrysostom says, in a special manner urges us to humility by which we are made like to Christ, the Lord, who putting off the majesty of His divinity, became man, and obediently humbled Himself to the ignominious death of the cross. “Would that all might hear,” exclaims St. Gregory, “that God resists the proud, and gives His grace to the humble! Would that all might hear: Thou dust and ashes, why dost thou exalt thyself? Would that all might hear the words of the Lord: Learn of me, because I am humble of heart. Because for this the only begotten Son of God assumed the form of our weakness, suffered mockery, insults, and torments, for this that the humble God might teach man not to be proud.”
ASPIRATION. Ah, that my sentiments were as Thine, O my Lord Jesus! who so humbledst Thyself and wast obedient to the most ignominious death of the cross. Grant me, I beseech Thee, O my Redeemer, the grace to diligently follow Thee in humility.
In Mass instead of the gospel the Passion, as it is called, that is, the History of the Passion of our Lord, is read from Matthew chapters xxvi., xxvii., and xxviii.) And neither incense, nor lights are used, nor is the Dominus vobiscum said, thus signifying that Jesus, the Light of the world, was taken away by death, at which, as we know, the faith and devotion of the apostles shook and became almost extinct. When reading the History of the Passion, the priest, when he comes to the words: and bowing his head, he gave up the ghost, with all the congregation, falls on his knees to consider the great mystery of the death of Jesus, by which our redemption was effected, and to give God thanks for it from his inmost heart.
At the blessing of the palms, the priest reads the following
GOSPEL. (Matt. xxi. 1 – 9.) At That Time: Jesus drawing near to Jerusalem; and being come to Bethphage, at Mount Olivet, he sent two of his disciples, and said to them: Go ye into the village that is over against you, and immediately you shall find an ass tied and a colt with her: loose them and bring them to me: and if any man shall say any thing to you, say ye, that the Lord hath need of them: and forthwith he will let them go. Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “Tell ye the daughter of Sion: Behold, thy king cometh to thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass and a colt the foal of her that is used to the yoke.” And the disciples going, did as Jesus commanded them. And they brought the ass and the colt: and laid their garments upon them, and made him sit thereon. And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way: and others cut down boughs from the trees, and strewed them in the way: and the multitudes that went before and that followed, cried, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”‘
Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem so solemnly and yet so humble?
To show that He was the promised Messiah and King of the Jews, as foretold by the Prophet Zacliarias (ix. 9.), and that He had come to conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil, for which He used the weapons of meekness, humility, and poverty, and therefore came seated not on a proud steed, but on an ass’s weak colt, like a poor person, entering Jerusalem in all humility, thus teaching us that meekness and indifference to earthly goods, are our best weapons for victory over our enemies; to fill the type of the paschal lamb, for on this day the lambs who were to be sacrificed in the temple on the following Friday, were solemnly led into the city. Thus Jesus, like a meek lamb, entered the city of Jerusalem to be sacrificed for us.
Why did the people meet Christ with palm-branches?
This happened by the inspiration of God, to indicate that Christ, the conqueror of death, hell, and the devil, would reconcile man with God, and open the heavenly Jerusalem to him, for the palm is the emblem of victory and peace. By this we learn also the inconsistency and mutability of the world; for the very people who on this day met Christ with palm-branches shouting: “Hosanna to the Son of David,” a few days after shouted: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” — Learn from this to despise the world’s praise, and not to imitate the inconsistency of this people by receiving at Easter your Saviour with joy in holy Communion, and soon crucify Him anew by sin. (Hebr. vi. 6.)
How should we take part to-day in the procession of blessed palms?
With the pious intention of meeting Christ in spirit, with the devout people of Jerusalem, adoring Him, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David, Hosanna to Him who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna to the Highest!” and with the heartfelt prayer to Jesus for His grace, that by it we may become blooming, and with Him conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil, and thus merit to be received into the heavenly Jerusalem.
How and why did Christ defend Himself against the slanders of the Jews?
PETITION O Jesus, Thou always fresh and fruitful Tree of Life! grant, that we may by love be like palms ever green, and by the practice of good works blossom and bring forth fruit.
INSTRUCTION FOR HOLY WEEK
Why is this week called Holy Week?
This week is called Holy Week and also the Great Week, because during it Christ consummated the most holy mystery of our redemption, and gave us such unspeakable benefits. It is besides called the Quiet Week, because of the quietness of the Church services.
What remarkable things did Christ do during the first four days of this week?
After He had entered the temple at Jerusalem on Palm Sunday amidst the greatest rejoicings of the people, and was even saluted by the children with the joyous clamor of “Hosanna”, He drove the buyers and sellers out of the temple, and when He had spent the entire day in preaching and healing the sick, He went in the evening to Bethania, where He remained over night in Lazarus’ house, because in Jerusalem no one wished to receive Him for fear of His enemies. The three following days He spent in Jerusalem, teaching in the temple, and passing the night in prayer on Mount Olivet. In His sermons during these days, He especially strove to convince the Jewish priests, the lawyers and Pharisees, that He was really the Messiah, and that they would commit a terrible sin, bringing themselves and the whole Jewish nation to destruction by His death, which He foretold. This ruin of the people He illustrated to them most plainly by the withering of the fig-tree under His curse, and foretelling the destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem. He disputed with them, and confounded them, openly and by parables, that out of anger and hatred, they with one mind decreed to kill Him. To the execution of their design the impious Judas aided the most, for from avarice he betrayed Him for thirty pieces of silver (about fifteen dollars in our money) to the chief priests, and the next day, Thursday, became His betrayer and delivered Him over into their hands. (3)
Image: Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro_lorenzetti. Assisi, Lower Basilica, San Francesco, southern transept (9)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff