|From the Benedictional of Saint Aethelwold.|
Yesterday was Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. For most people, the most memorable aspect is the blessing and distribution of palms. It commemorates Christ's entry into Jerusalem a week prior to the Resurrection, with the faithful laying palm branches; a symbol of victory (and of sacrifice); at His feet. It's a powerful message that even many mainstream Protestant churches have either maintained or, perhaps, revived after several centuries of suppression on the basis of it being seen as idolatrous pomp. When the English Reformation began under Henry VIII, even though pilgrimages were suppressed and saints' shrines destroyed, the lusty king did not feel he could go so far as to take the palms away from the people:
"On Palme Sunday it shall be declared that bearing of palmes renueth the memorie of the receivinge of Christe in lyke manner into Jerusalem before his deathe"
So widespread and cherished was the custom of bearing palms that it was said in England, "he who hath not a palm in his hand on Palm Sunday must have his hand cut off".
For me, though, the first thing that always comes to mind first on Palm Sunday is not the vegetation, but the reading of the Passion. You're always going to be in for a long day at church because, even if the procession is omitted, the entire account of the Passion will be read (traditionally, that of Saint Matthew). The custom of reading the Passion on Palm Sunday goes back at least as far as Saint Augustine, so we're talking about a tradition that precedes even the fall of the western Roman Empire!
The first Palm Sunday Mass I ever attended was at my neighborhood Catholic parish church, shortly after my conversion to Catholicism. One of my very best friends was considering converting, too, but I felt that I had to be honest with him and take him to church at an "average" suburban parish where Mass is offered as it is in about 99% of Catholic churches in this country today, rather than one of the few preserves of liturgical sanity that I had hitherto showed him exclusively. The reading was divided between the celebrating priest, a couple of laypeople, and the congregation reciting the parts of the crowd. This arrangement was pretty tame compared to some other wacky configurations I've heard, though since the Passion at this church was recited and not sung, the entire thing felt like it just went on and on unto the ages of ages, amen. (It was also a little unnerving for the entire congregation to say "crucify Him! Crucify Him!" But that's another story.)
Later, I found out that the Passion is traditionally sung in three voices: the Chronista (narrator) in a middle voice, the Christus (all the words of Christ) in a bass, and the Synagoga (the "synagogue", but truly, all the dialogue lines other than Christ's) in a tenor. Hearing them together, at once we see a glimpse of the medieval Church's flair for the dramatic, for it was around the 12th century that the Passion began to be divided among several voices, in the same period that mystery plays and other religious dramas were coming to the fore. The deep voice of the Christus shows forth the sheer masculinity of a God-man ready to sacrifice Himself without complaint, like all dutiful fathers who go endure the travails of daily life to provide for their loved ones without once complaining of their lot or seeking thanks. It contrasts with the whiny trill of the Synagoga: the cowardly shrieks of Peter denying any association with his master, the fickleness of the crowd, a governor's meek surrender to injustice. Not to mention, the variety of voices also makes a very long text go by faster in an already-prolonged Mass.
|The Palm Sunday Passion with three deacons at Saint Peter's Square, in the Benedict XVI era.|
The Roman Missal supposes that three deacons are present to sing the Passion (and sometimes, the schola cantorum would sing the parts of the turba, the crowd). Even at the height of clerical vocations in medieval Europe, it's hard to imagine that this arrangement was ever possible save for the great basilicas of the eternal city. The Sarum Missal, as in Rome, held the three-deacon arrangement. The rubric goes:
"Then followeth the Passion. And it is to be noticed that it is to be sung or recited in three tones—high, low, and middle. Because all the contents of the Passion are either the words of the Jews, or the disciples, or the words of Christ ; or the words of the Evangelist who tells the story. Therefore know that where you find the letter (a) prefixed, the words following are the words either of the Jews or the disciples which are to be recited in a high [alto] tone. Where you find the letter (b) prefixed, the words following are the words of Christ, which are to be recited in a low [bass] tone. Where you find the letter (m) prefixed, the words following are the words of the evangelist, which are to be read or sung by a middle [tenor] voice. This rule is to be observed in all the recitations of the Passion."
The Sarum tradition adds another dramatic touch. At the words "yielded up the ghost", the Roman Rite only has everyone kneel for a moment. In Sarum, the chronista prostrated before the altar at that point and was directed to pray the Pasternoster, Ave Maria, and the words, "Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit ; Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, Thou God of truth".
What other peculiarities can we see in the Sarum observance of Palm Sunday? First of all, there were no palms as far north as England. This isn't to say that the English didn't know what palms were; for, especially in pre-Reformation times, they were a well-travelled people and made pilgrimages to Rome, Spain, or Jerusalem, where the traditional leaf abounded. Still, back home, provisions for alternate flora had to be made, so the Sarum Missal instructs the priest to bless "flowers and leaves". (The Roman Missal liberally phrased the blessings as palmarum [seu olivarum aut aliarum arborum] ("palms [or olives or other trees]".) So for the English, the day was also sometimes called Willow, Yew, or Blossom Sunday.
Many folks in the traditional Catholic community lament Pope Pius XII's revisions of the Holy Week services in 1955, which cut out a tremendous number of prayers, antiphons, readings, and other ceremonies. With the exception of the revised times (like having the Mass of the Last Supper and the Easter Vigil at night), I too share their laments. I can't imagine, for instance, why anyone would think it was a good idea to strike out the rite whereby the procession would end upon arriving at the door of the church by knocking upon it with the foot of the processional cross. But the Sarum order of Palm Sunday was even richer than its Roman counterpart. The blessing of palms began with an exorcism:
"I exorcise thee, O creature of flowers and leaves, in the name of God the Father almighty, and in the name of Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, and in the power of the Holy Ghost. Henceforth all power of the adversary, all the host of the devil, all the strength of the enemy, all assaults of demons, be uprooted and transplanted from this creature of flowers and leaves, that thou pursue not by subtlety the footsteps of those who hasten to the grace of God. Through Him who shall come to judge the quick and dead, and the world by fire. R. Amen."
|From the Hours of the Duc de Berry.|
The processional order could clearly only be used in full at Salisbury Cathedral itself, since it describes a detailed path through the cloisters and a total of four stations where readings pertaining would be proclaimed. I'm unsure of how lesser churches would have adapted them for their own use. Nonetheless, the Missal calls for two processions at the start. The first, larger procession was led by the celebrating priest and his ministers, and a large, red cross. The bulk of the congregation would follow this path. The second procession was made up of a smaller band of clerks, lifting high a pyx carrying the Blessed Sacrament. Thus, the first procession represented the crowd awaiting Christ in Jerusalem, and the second stood for Christ Himself, surrounded by His small group of disciples. The two processions began going in opposite directions, but then met together at the first station. The two processions then joined together, as the first escorted the second in triumph through the other three stations around and within the church. A special scaffold or platform was erected over the great portal of the cathedral so that choir of boys could sing the hymn Gloria laus (as in the Roman Mass) as the procession came to the door, with the crowd responding in turn.
In the last few editions of the Sarum books, we see a curious new addition: a boy designated to play the part of a prophet, complete with sackcloth robes, fake beard, and wig, to signal to the larger procession that the smaller procession, bearing Christ in Eucharistic form, was in sight. He sang, "O Jerusalem, look to the East and see; lift up thine eyes, O Jerusalem, and see the power of thy King". This was really the culmination of a century-old tradition, not sanctioned by the liturgy but prevalent nonetheless, of adult men playing the parts of prophets to herald the arrival of the Eucharistic procession. Many records survive of churches hiring these men for the part, and furnishing them with costumes. What's fascinating is how these prophets, which would surely be considered bizarre and condemned as a liturgical abuse today, were actually the product of a surge in devotion to the Eucharist. The prophets first cropped up in the 1400's in response to the Lollards, who accused the Catholics of committing idolatry by worshipping the Eucharist, treating the elements as though they were God Himself. And here we have the prophets, ordinary men rising up to emphasize that worship, directing the people to turn east and acclaim the Lord in triumph: Hosanna in the highest.
|The Lenten array in action: the veil falling from the great rood of the Anglican Saint Mary's, Primrose Hill. See more here.|
One last bit of dramatic flair. From the beginning of Lent, the people's view of the high altar and sanctuary has been further obscured by the curtain hanging over the rood screen. This formed part of the "Lenten array" where all images in the church were covered not only from the start of Passiontide (beginning the week before Palm Sunday) but the entire period of Lent. On Palm Sunday, the great rood, the cross suspended over the screen separating the choir and the people, was to be unveiled. The procession stopped at the entrance to the choir, under the rood. The priest began the hymn Ave, Rex noster ("Hail, our king") by singing "Hail" three times. Each time was louder than the last, and at the last, the veil, suspended by hooks, would suddenly be tugged down to the astonishment of the people, revealing the cross which had been hidden away for so many weeks. The choir would then resume the rest of the hymn:
"our King, Son of David, Redeemer of the world, whom the prophets have proclaimed to be the Saviour of the house of Israel that is to come. For thee the Father sent into the world to be the saving victim, whom all the saints expected from the beginning of the world, and now expect. Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest."
All articles in my Holy Week 2015 series, short and long
The kiss of peace (for Spy Wednesday)
A medieval defense of the nocturnal Vigil of Easter
The Exultet and "Lucifer"
The Exultet scroll: the Powerpoint of medieval Italy
The Exultet and "Lucifer"
The Exultet scroll: the Powerpoint of medieval Italy
Terra tremuit! (the Offertory antiphon of Easter Sunday)