In today’s liturgy the twofold point of view from which the Church regards the Cross is expressed in two ceremonies, one marked by joy and the other by sadness. First comes the Blessing and Procession of Palms in which everything overflows with a holy joy that enables us after twenty centuries to revive the spirit of the magnificent scene of our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then follows the Mass whose chants and lessons relate exclusively to the sorrowful memory of our Redeemer’s Passion.
The Blessing and Procession of Palms
At Jerusalem, in the fourth century, on the very spot where the event took place, was read the Gospel narrative in which we see Christ, hailed as King of Israel and taking possession of His capital, Jerusalem, which is really no more than the type of Jerusalem above. After this, a Bishop, mounted on an ass, rode up to the Church of the Resurrection on the summit of the Mount of Olives, surrounded by a multitude carrying palms and singing anthems and hymns. This ceremony was preceded by the solemn reading of the passage from Exodus in which the Flight from Egypt is related. God’s people, encamped under the shadow of the palm trees, near the twelve fountains where Moses promised them the manna is a type of the Christian people, who, breaking off branches from the trees, bear witness that God’s Son Jesus comes to deliver souls from sin, leading them to the baptismal font and nourishing them with the Manna of the Eucharist.
The Church of Rome adopted this practice about the ninth century and added to it the rite for the Blessing of the Palms, which has given to this Sunday the name of the Easter of flowers. In this benediction, the Church prays for the health of mind and body of those who dwell in houses where the palms are preserved. The Church adds that “God… by a wonderful order and disposition has been pleased to avail Himself of things sensible whereby to manifest the dispensation of our salvation”, “since the branches of palms signify His triumphs over the prince of death and the branches of olive proclaim, in a manner, the coming of spiritual unction”. Indeed the dove “by an olive branch proclaims peace to the world”, and the graces which God multiplied upon Noah, going forth from the ark and Moses going out of Egypt with the children of Israel are a figure of the Church going forth to meet Christ with good words, “works which bring forth branches of justice”.
This procession of Christians, who with palm in hand and songs of Hosanna on their lips, proclaim Christ’s Kingship every year, throughout the whole world and in all generations, is composed of all catechumens, of public penitents and of the faithful, who at the Easter Feast will be united to this glorious Victor though the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Penance. “We… with full faith, retaining this as done and signifies, humbly beseech Thee, Eternal God… that what Thy people this day bodily perform… they may perfect spiritually… by gaining a victory over the enemy.”
It is this that is represented by the procession when it stops at the door of the church, into which some members of the choir have already found their way. They chant alternately with the clergy; on the one side “the angelic choir”, and on the other Christ’s soldiers, still plunged in the strife of battle, hailing the King of Glory each in this turn. Soon the door opens after the subdeacon has knocked on it three times with the foot of the cross and the procession enters the church; so does the Cross of Christ open heaven to us and so will the elect one day enter with their Lord into eternal glory.
We should keep a blessed palm carefully in our homes. It is a sacramental which will obtain for us graces in virtue of the Church’s prayer and strengthen our faith in Christ, who full of mercy, symbolized by the olive branch whose oil soothes our wounds, has conquered sin, death, and the devil in a victory of which these sacred palms are the type.
Mass for Palm Sunday
The Blessing of palms takes place at St. Mary Major which in Rome represents Bethlehem, the birthplace of Him whom the Magi hailed as “King of the Jews.” Thence the procession goes to St. John Lateran, in which church in former times the Station took place since, by its dedication to St. Savior, it calls up memories of the Passion which is the subject of today’s Mass.
The Redeemer’s triumph must be preceded by His humiliation “even to the death of the cross” (Ep.), which is to serve as a model for us, that “instructed by His patience”, we may “partake in His Resurrection”.