Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Liturgy Reflections
Passion (Palm) Sunday

by Father Jan Larson

(From the March 22, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Jan Larson Some years ago, Palm Sunday was renamed Passion Sunday, a title that is more adequately descriptive of the meaning of that day’s liturgy.

Palms are but one detail of the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and this Sunday also marks the opening of Holy Week, as the church begins its solemn meditation on the suffering, death and Resurrection of the Lord. Though Passion Sunday is probably a better name, the former name will continue to persist. Likewise, it may be more accurate to refer to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, instead of the familiar “Confession,” because confessing our sins is but one step in the process of sacramental reconciliation, but people will still call it “Confession.”

The liturgy of Palm Sunday is, of course, notable for its procession, which may include everyone in the assembly. This procession takes place outside, if possible, and at the principal Sunday Mass. At the other liturgies, a procession including a representative number of worshippers may take place outside the church, or else the priest and ministers enter in the usual way. This procession is first reported in third century Jerusalem, where people would hear the story of the Lord’s triumphal entry, and then leading the bishop into the city, they would process with branches and singing to the church built over the place where Jesus was buried, and there celebrate Evening Prayer.

The idea of a procession on this day spread quickly. It was celebrated throughout the Eastern world by the sixth century, spread to Africa and Gaul by the seventh century, and to Rome by the 10th century. In the Middle Ages, this solemn procession often went through each city. People carried candles, banners and incense, with prayerful stops at important places along the way. Leading the procession was the processional cross, a reminder to everyone that Christ was present among his followers. In some places, the Book of Gospels was the reminder of Christ’s presence; in other places, the Blessed Sacrament was a part of the procession. The color of the vestments and other decorations on this day was usually red.

The other unusual element of the liturgy of Palm Sunday, a part of the rite since the fifth century, is the reading of the story of Jesus’ Passion and Death. This reading was divided into three parts in the 12th or 13th century, a practice that was eventually adopted by the churches of Rome during the 15th century. Today many parishes will have three readers read scenes or chapters of the Passion narrative, rather than dividing the story into characters – e.g., the role of Jesus, or Peter, the guards, the disciples, or the crowd. This method of proclaiming the story of Jesus’ suffering and death helps avoid the suggestion that the liturgy is presenting a Passion play, with various cast members given their proper script. The Passion is not a play or an historical enactment, but a proclamation. We participate fully and actively in this proclamation, not by pretending to be the bloodthirsty crowd or any other particular person, but by simply listening, as the words of the Gospel take hold of us.

(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)

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