Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday (repost with new material)

Today is one of the great days in the Church's year, Palm Sunday. Today we re-live and commemorate both the Lord's entrance into Jerusalem and His Passion and death. It is also a day which highlights our personal ignorance of God, in spite of what seems obvious in retrospect. Two millennia later, we safely judge this concatenation of events. At the time their meaning was not so obvious, and would not be until Pentecost. Are we ignorant of the truth of God's actions?

Jouvenet's Raising of Lazarus
Just a few days before, on his way to Jerusalem, our Lord Jesus stopped in Bethany at the news that Lazarus, one of his beloved followers, had fallen ill. By the time Christ arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days. Yet Christ took pity upon him and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Jesus here reveals Himself to be more than a prophet, more than a healer, more than a local mystic or anti-establishment rabbi. he has dominion over death.

Christ asks Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live: And every one that liveth, and believeth in me, shall not die for ever. Believest thou this?" (John 11:25-26). She responds that she does believe. Christ turns to the tomb where Lazarus has resided in decay and rot for days and yells "Lazarus, come out!" And the man who was not near death, but dead, was now alive.

Not quite understanding the gravity of what transpired, but still chocked and interested (John ch. 12), the people came to see and greet our Lord when he finally arrived in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was not a city with a temple, but a temple with a city. It was the center of the Jewish religion and the only place on earth where a meaningful sacrifice could be offered to God. Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire often sent money to have an offering made at the Temple for their intentions if they were unable to be in Jerusalem. And this is where Christ went, not to make a legal sacrifice on stone foundations, as St. Ambrose reminds us today in Mattins, but to make a sacrifice that would established foundations of faith.

As Benedict XVI pointed out in his second Jesus of Nazareth book, Jesus sent two Apostles ahead to acquire a donkey and a horse, meaning He already had a following in Jerusalem. Other places in the Gospel indicate that outside the Apostles, Christ had a significant entourage, several hundred people or more. These were those who greeted  Him with palms and enthusiasm. The rest of the crowd sought a thrill or novelty. Actually, did not the Apostles and other disciples? They knew more than the people of Jerusalem, but they comprehended practically nothing. In my moments of cynicism I cannot help but interpret certain words of Jesus's like "How much longer must I endure this generation?" as "These people are ridiculous." The Church has understood this frustration over the years. St. Leo the Great remarks in a sermon "Let man's weakness, then, fall down before the glory of God, and acknowledge herself ever too feeble to unfold all the works of His mercy."
Reading from Exodus at the dry Mass at the Institute of Christ the King
seminary in Gricigliano, 2003
What was the purpose of the palms? I've always wondered. At some level there is a practical and honorific element to the placing of palms in the path of the Lord, almost saying that the ground on which Christ's donkey walks is unworthy to support the Lord. Yet we ought to recall some typology from Exodus. During the Mass today there is actually a "dry Mass" (Missa sicca) to bless the palms, a ceremony with an introit, reading, gradual, Gospel, preface, Sanctus, and blessing prayers, much like a Mass. the reading from the "dry Mass" is from the book of Exodus, at the moment when Moses and the Israelites arrive at an oasis of twelve fountains and seventy palm trees. The Israelites had left their bondage but would not have made their way out of Egypt without rest, a place of shade, and some water. In short, the palms provided that. As those palms and water provided the Israelites the means of leaving the bondage of slavery, so Christ provides His people with the means of leaving the bondage of death. The third of the five collect prayers to bless the palms contains not a few didactic lines:
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. For that pious multitude understood that these things were then prefigured; that our Redeemer, compassionating human miseries, was about to fight with the prince of death for the life of the whole world, and, by dying, to triumph. For which cause they dutifully ministered such things as signified in Him the triumphs of victory and the richness of mercy.
The procession from the aforementioned celebration of Palm
Sunday by the Institute of Christ the King in 2003
Recall also that in Rome palms are not always used. Often the Roman Church substitutes olive branches given their greater availability in Italy. The olive branch is no less significant. After the Great Flood a dove brought an olive branch to Moses. To he who survived the Flood the olive branch was not a peace-offering, but rather a sign that death had ended and life had begun anew.

Olives branches are especially prevalent throughout the Mediterranean world. It is not unthinkable that the Cross was made from from the wood of an olive tree, making olive branches and palms both types and anti-types of Christ's redemptive work.

In the first millennium there would be two Masses in Rome. The first would be celebrated in the presence of the Pope at St. Mary Major, where palms would be blessed and distributed. The focus of this Mass would be Palm Sunday. There would then be a procession to St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, where the Pope would celebrate a Mass of the Passion of the Lord. The current arrangement of a "dry Mass" followed by a procession and a Mass of the Passion is a remnant of that, unless one uses the reduced newer rite.

A procession of clergy and laity, holding their palms and preceded by a veiled cross—as the mystery of the Cross is hidden!—leaves the church and takes a path eventually leading back to the front door, which is sealed, a representation of the resistance of the people of Jerusalem to our Lord. A small choir still within the Church sing the hymn Gloria, Laus, et Honor Tibi Sit in alternation with those outside. The entrance of Christ, the unease of the Jewish people, the laud of Christ's followers, and the Lord's lament for Jerusalem are not simply re-enacted, but re-visited! At the end the subdeacon knocks on the door of the Church with the cross, opening it. From here the Mass of the Passion begins.
Glory, praise and honor to Thee, O King Christ, the Redeemer: to whom children poured their glad and sweet hosanna's song.
Glory, praise and honor to Thee, O King Christ, the Redeemer: to whom children poured their glad and sweet hosanna's song.
Hail, King of Israel! David's Son of royal fame! Who comest in the Name of the Lord, O Blessed King.
Glory, praise and honor to Thee, O King Christ, the Redeemer: to whom children poured their glad and sweet hosanna's song.
The Angel host laud Thee on high, On earth mankind, with all created things.
Glory, praise and honor to Thee, O King Christ, the Redeemer: to whom children poured their glad and sweet hosanna's song.
With palms the Jews went forth to meet Thee. We greet Thee now with prayers and hymns.
Glory, praise and honor to Thee, O King Christ, the Redeemer: to whom children poured their glad and sweet hosanna's song.
On Thy way to die, they crowned Thee with praise; We raise our song to Thee, now King on high.
Glory, praise and honor to Thee, O King Christ, the Redeemer: to whom children poured their glad and sweet hosanna's song.
Their poor homage pleased Thee, O gracious King! O clement King, accept too ours, the best that we can bring.
Glory, praise and honor to Thee, O King Christ, the Redeemer: to whom children poured their glad and sweet hosanna's song.
A short clip of the door knocking ceremony

Subdeacon opens the door with the processional cross
at the FSSP church in Rome, 2012
 The Mass is one of the most beautiful of the year, and especially notable for its music, including the singing of psalm 21 as the tract, the full Passion according to St. Matthew, and the Gospel in the "haunting" tone.

The prayers at the foot of the altar are the reduced form used in Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent. This form omits the Iudica me psalm and the Gloria Patri.... doxology, which is also omitted in other parts of the Mass as at a requiem Mass. As Fr. Andrew Southwell, OSB once said, Mother Church "is in mourning."

The Epistle is from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians, in which the Apostle writes that at the "name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth." Christ's sacrifice on the Cross for man gives Him primacy over all things in God's creation.

The gradual today, as in very ancient days, is a full psalm and not just an excerpt. It is psalm 21, which Christ quoted from the Cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The Father did not desert the Son, but today the psalm functions as an allusion, as the psalm describes the pains of a man suffering for the sins of the world.

Deacons reading the Passion according to St. Matthew
Then three deacons enter the sanctuary and begin to sing St. Matthew's account of the Passion of our Lord, beginning with the events leading up to the Last Supper and ending just after Christ's death on the Cross, for which there is silence and all present kneel.

The three deacons then leave and the deacon of the Mass asks for the blessing, incenses the Gospel book, and sings in a special chant-tone the burial of Christ. The separation from the Passion reading may not be intuitive, but it is instructive: this is the Gospel reading of the Mass, not the Passion—which is an interpolation into Mass. Christ's death and burial are the point of this Mass, which should clear up confusion for us, as opposed to those who watched these events two thousand years ago with little or no break, and who were left in bewilderment as to what to make of the drear they had just witnessed.

In the video to the right, Fr. Tim Finigan sings the Gospel of Holy Tuesday in the same tone used for the Gospel of today. It is sublime.

The Mass continues as normal, with no extra "frills."

At Vespers the hymn Vexilla Regis is sung, which beings with the words:
Abroad the regal banners fly,
Now shines the cross’s mystery;
Upon it Life did death endure, 
And yet by death did life procure.
The hymn makes a conclusive elucidation of the mystery of Palm Sunday, that the Cross is slowly unveiled before our eyes. We do not merely read about it in the Scripture or hear some analysis in the sermon, but we enter these mystical events which are so monumental that they do not know the limits of time. Perhaps one of the great tragedies in the Roman rite in the last century or so is that with the endless stream of reforms begun by St. Pius X, furthered by Pius XII, and concluded by Paul VI, we have lost the notion that the liturgy reveals mystery to us, that it is a method of worshiping God, but also a tool God gives us to understand Him.  The raising of Lazarus, the veiling of the Cross, the Old Testament significance of the palms, the restless and lamenting entrance into Jerusalem, and the Cross itself make "sense" to us here. Through the lessons, the Mass, the hymns, and procession today God lifts the veil of ignorance the people of Jerusalem had when they went to see the One who raised a man from the dead and, in their own understanding, turned Him over for death, not realizing His dominion over it.

A blessed Palm Sunday to all.

1 comment:

  1. Just a small note, the beautiful videos from the post have been lost in the re-posting.

    I wish you a good Holy Week!