Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

The Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem. A fresco from Bulgaria.

On Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, the church gathers throughout the whole world to recall the entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem to proclaim Hosanna to the Son Of David! After we hear the proclamation of the Gospel of the Lord’s entrance from the Gospel of Matthew [Mt. 21], we unite our voices with jubilant voices of the children of the Hebrews who spread garments on the road.

As we wave our branches in the air and proclaim Jesus is Lord, we recognize that we are called to, in the words of St. Andrew of Crete, “spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.”

This Sunday marks in the words of the exhortation of the Liturgy, we have since Ash Wednesday prepared our hearts for a fruitful celebration of the paschal mystery, this:

Therefore, with all faith and devotion,
let us commemorate
the Lord’s entry into the city for our salvation,
following his footsteps,
so that, being made by his grace partakers of the Cross,
we may also have a share also in his Resurrection and in his life.

Our simple and bold procession affirms the unity of faith in that we learn from the diary of Egeria, a nun and a pilgrim of the late 4th century, that “Christians in Jerusalem used to gather in the early afternoon on the Mount of Olives for a lengthy liturgy of the word. Then, toward evening, they would go in procession into Jerusalem, carrying palm branches or olive branches.” As for the hymn we sing, Bishop Theodulph of Orleans (d. 821) composed Gloria Laus et Honor, which we sing in translation today, “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” which has this beautiful verse, “To Thee, before Thy passion, They sang their hymns of praise; To Thee, now high exalted, Our melody we raise.”

The hymn commemorates joy, and we have the jubilant incensation of the altar; but the tone quickly changes from jubilation to sober reality: the Messiah must suffer and die. We go straightaway into the first reading from Isaiah, one of the Songs of the Suffering Servant, “I gave my back to those who beat me.” [Isaiah 50:4-7] The suffering servant songs can be the core of our Holy Week meditation: Palm Sunday: Isaiah 50:4-7, Monday: Isaiah 42:1-7, Tuesday: Isaiah 49:1-6, Wednesday: Isaiah 50:4-9, culminating with the final Servant Song on Good Friday, Isaiah 52:13-53:12. The ancient prophecies set forth that the Messiah must suffer and die, a Messiah who in words of the second reading from Philippians, “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Christus Factus est, as the cantor chants before the proclamation of the Passion, a proclamation with neither candles nor incense, only setting forth that our salvation has been purchased with the costly shedding of the blood of Christ. When Jesus cries out in a loud voice and hands over his spirit we kneel to humble ourselves before so great a mystery.

As we leave we take palms home. James Monti in his book, “The Week of Salvation,” says the palms are “a tangible reminder of the mysteries they [the people] have commemorated in union with the whole Church on this day. Throughout the upcoming week these palms will serve to direct their hearts and minds to the unfolding of the Paschal Mystery, from the Last Supper to the cross and onward to the empty tomb of Easter morning.”

The palms you carried today are now sacramentals. You may wish to place them behind a crucifix on the wall, or weave them into a small cross. As you see them this holy week, remember that we must follow our Lord’s footsteps. Let us pray in the words of the prayer after Communion today, “so by his Resurrection you may lead us to where you call.”