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Saturday, 24 March 2018

On the Traditional Rite of Palm Sunday

 
As we enter into Holy Week, it is good for traditionalists to reflect upon the liturgical reforms that have transpired in the 20th century, especially in light of the recent permission granted from Rome for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter to celebrate the ancient pre-1955 rites during the next three years, in certain locations. Accordingly, I post the following essay on Palm Sunday, which is a repost from my previous blog, with some minor modifications. During the week I will also post my old articles on the Paschal Vigil. For some years I have intended to write on the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified of Good Friday, but I have not yet gotten around to it, alas. Perhaps next year I will write on Good Friday, and perhaps write a more extensive commentary on Holy Week in general, as well. In the meantime, some excellent resources on the pre-55 rites have been compiled here.
Many traditionalists are not aware of the extensive reforms to the liturgy of Holy Week which were carried out under the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. Most traditionalists who are aware of those reforms are of the opinion that they were either insignificant or could not be compared to the later reforms which followed the Second Vatican Council. Traditionalists associated with the SSPX generally have this view. But I think a closer look indicates very much otherwise. I have come to the conclusion that the reforms of Pius XII were a real precedent to those of Paul VI - nay, the very process of reform which produced the Novus Ordo actually began under Pius XII. (I have written elsewhere that Vatican II was only a stage in the liturgical reform, not its ultimate first cause.) This is evident first from history, but also in the effects which these reforms had on the rites themselves. I think it would not be a stretch to say that the essential problems with the Novus Ordo also exist in the reformed Holy Week of Pius XII, which is found in the 1962 Missal. 

I do not have the time or space just yet to devote to a very detailed study of the reforms; others have done so before me, in some degree or another. But I would like to say a few things in this post about the reform of Palm Sunday. 

Prior to 1955, the rite for Palm Sunday was much more elaborate than it is in the 1962 Missal, and it was filled with theological and symbolical content pertaining to the mysteries of the entire week. Palm Sunday begins to anticipate the mysteries of the Triduum and of Easter. The greatest changes, in 1955, occurred in the ceremonies prior to the Mass, in the rite for the blessing of the palms and the procession of the cross. The rite of blessing was closely structured after the order of Mass itself, with an Introit, Collect, Epistle, Gradual, Gospel, another oration corresponding to the Secret, a Preface and Sanctus, a kind of "Canon" for the rite of blessing, the distribution of the palms (corresponding to communion), and a final oration corresponding to the Postcommunion. This structure is noteworthy for what it says about the order of Mass itself, manifesting a certain continuity between the Mass and other rites of blessing. The Mass is traditionally considered as an elaborate rite of blessing, the blessing par excellence in which consecration involves transubstantiation. This is manifested by its similarity in form to other liturgical blessings, especially today's blessing of the palm branches. The structure of this blessing was totally lost in the reform of 1955.

The texts of these prayers and readings contained a vast amount of symbolic meaning, to put the mind in the frame of thought for contemplation of the sacred mysteries. The liturgy for this day provides a complete theological interpretation of Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem, which is a figure of His triumph over sin and death, to be definitively accomplished by His death and resurrection in just a few days. The Christian people participate in this victory of Christ, entering with  Him into the eternal Jerusalem. The first Collect is an expression of hope, enabled by Christ's death, and fulfilled by His resurrection, which is also our own. The liturgy of today thus begins showing its focus to be profoundly eschatological, a symbol of our entrance into heaven with Christ. The story of salvation is prefigured by events in the Old Testament, brought to our attention in the readings. The text of the Epistle is from the book of Exodus, chapters 15 and 16, which recounts the story of the Israelites after they had triumphantly emerged from the bondage of Egypt. "In those days, the children of Israel came unto Elim, where there were twelve fountains of water, and seventy palm-trees; and they encamped by the waters..." The Israelites, led by Moses and Aaron, are the figure of the people who are saved in Christ, through His own triumph over the bondage of sin. They also prefigure the Jews who welcomed Christ into Jerusalem with palm branches. Moreover, "all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said to them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat over the flesh-pots, and ate bread to the full. Why have you brought us into this desert, that you might destroy all the multitude with famine?" Just as these Israelites here rebelled against Moses and Aaron, their leaders, so would the Jews rebel against Christ and crucify Him, whom they had first welcomed as a prophet and their King. In response to the complaints of the Israelites, "the Lord said to Moses, Behold I will rain bread from heaven for you." Likewise, God would give to His people the Bread of Life, come down from heaven, Christ Himself, who would be offered as a sacrifice and consumed by His people for their sanctification. The mystery of Christ's sacrifice will be celebrated in a special way on Holy Thursday, the feast of the Institution of the Eucharist, and in an even greater way on Good Friday, the celebration of the sacrifice itself. This text thus shows itself essential to understanding the mystery of Palm Sunday in the Roman tradition. It also introduces an unmistakable connection to the Eucharist, which is so integral to the mystery of Holy Week as a whole (See below, on the reading of the Passion).

Another text in the rite, prayed immediately after the Gospel reading, introduces another instance of Old Testament typology alongside that recounted in the Epistle, namely the story of Noah and the flood. This prayer, corresponding in position to the Secret of the Mass, explicitly refers to both the stories Noah and Moses as antetypes (ante- as in "before," not "against") of present realities: "Let these branches, whether of palm or of olive, be blessed +, and, as in the antetype of the Church, Thou didst multiply Noe, when he went forth from the ark, and Moses, when he went out of Egypt with the children of Israel, so may we, who bear palms and olive branches, go forth with good works to meet Christ, and, through Him, may we enter into everlasting joy."  This prayer shows us that through our participation in the liturgy of today, we mystically enter into the events of Palm Sunday and everything they represent, that we might be saved by our union with Christ. The relevance of the story of Noah is explicated more clearly in the proper rite of blessing - the "Canon" of the blessing of the palms - in the prayer Deus, qui per olivae. The text is as follows: "O God, Who didst appoint a dove to bring its message of peace to the earth by means of an olive branch, grant, we beseech Thee, that Thou mayest sanctify with heavenly benediction these branches of olive and of other trees, so that they may profit all Thy people unto salvation. Through Christ our Lord. Amen." The olive branch is thus a sign of the peace foreshadowed by the subsiding of the great flood, when the world had been cleansed of all sin, and Noah and his family could step out onto the "new earth" to begin a new life, which signifies eternal life itself. This eternal life is won for us by none other than Christ Himself and His triumph over death, which He announced upon His entry into Jerusalem. In the prayer immediately preceding, Deus, qui miro, we learn that "the palm branches, therefore, look to His triumph over the prince of death, but the sprigs of olive proclaim that in a certain manner the spiritual unction is already come."

All of the texts just cited were suppressed from the rite in 1955. The typology of Exodus no longer appears, nor the typology of Noah and the flood, nor the collects and orations; likewise all but one of the prayers that constituted the "Canon" of blessing have been abolished. Of these last there were originally six, all of which overflowed in eloquence and beauty, some which were even explicitly didactic in their manner of expression. Only the fifth of these prayers, Benedic, quaesumus, was retained, and it is placed near the very beginning of the rite. These rich texts could form the basis of a treatise on liturgical theology and the nature of liturgical signs and symbolism, which so closely resembles the nature of the sacraments themselves. In fact, it is notable that the first of these prayers, Petimus, Domine, explicitly refers to the olive branches as a sacramentum - obviously the same word which refers to the seven sacraments. Traditionalists are often stingy about using this word for anything other than the seven sacraments, and yet it is significant that the tradition itself does precisely this, in the ancient liturgy. 
FSSP in Rome

In the traditional rite, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem is itself celebrated - even re-enacted - later in the rite, in a supremely vivid manner, at the end of the procession of the cross which follows the distribution of the palms. After a long procession outside the church, accompanied by the singing of antiphons recalling the entry to Jerusalem, the clergy and faithful stop outside the doors of the church, which are now shut. A few cantors within the church alternate with the choir outside singing the hymn Gloria, Laus, et Honor, in acknowledgment of Christ's triumphal majesty. At the end of this hymn, the subdeacon who has been carrying the cross strikes the doors of the church with the staff, and the doors are then opened, clearly signifying Christ's opening the gates of the New Jerusalem by His death upon the cross, foreshadowed by His entry into the earthly Jerusalem. This profoundly vivid rite is again no longer contained in the liturgy of Palm Sunday after the reforms of 1955. 

Following the procession, the actual Mass of Palm Sunday begins. Traditionally, the recitation of the Passion, from St. Matthew, included in it the account of the institution of the Eucharist. The same is true for the Passion readings on Spy Wednesday and Good Friday. Again the essential connection of the mysteries of Holy Week to that of the Eucharist is thus made unmistakably clear. The entire Christian faith centers around the mystery of the Eucharist, which is the selfsame mystery as that of Christ's passion and death upon the cross - the culmination of Holy Week, and the ultimate source of meaning for every rite that is celebrated during this week. Hence it is eminently fitting that the account of the institution of the Eucharist be included in the Passion readings for these days. It is simply astonishing that the reform of Pope Pius XII removed these accounts from all of the Passion readings during Holy Week, with the result that not even once in the entire liturgical year do we hear the institution of the Eucharist recited, in the "Extraordinary Form" of 1962. This is no small loss. This connection to the Eucharist is also diminished in other aspects of the reform of Holy Week, specifically that of the Good Friday "Mass of the Pre-Sanctified" - a rite which also strongly paralleled the rite of an actual Mass, in a way that made abundantly clear that those rites were the re-presentation and re-visitation of the sacrifice of Christ, albeit the consecration of the host does not take place that day. This rite too was quite destroyed in 1955.

The effect of all of these changes is that the rites no longer foster so intensely the concrete acts of contemplation and participation in the mysteries of the liturgy during Holy Week. There is no longer the symbolic awareness of our progression with the triumphant Christ towards the heavenly Jerusalem, fostered by the typological and symbolical content which permeated the ancient rite. The traditional liturgy revealed itself to be the means by which we unite ourselves with Christ in all His mysteries, so that we might be united ultimately to His divinity through contemplation. This purpose is no longer perfectly clear in the new rites, which consist more of arbitrarily constructed prayers - however pious - than sacramental acts of participation. The same effect would later result from the changes that followed the Second Vatican Council. 

For a long time, most traditionalists have evaluated the post-conciliar reforms merely on the basis of their doctrinal clarity (or orthodoxy) or lack thereof. The standard argument is that the Pauline reforms were an ecumenical attempt to make concessions in the liturgy to the false doctrines of Protestantism. There may well be truth to this argument. But I would strongly propose that it is only a small part of the story, and the damage done is more than mere doctrinal and formulaic ambiguity. Doctrinal expression is one means that the liturgy employs for the sake of contemplation; right formulation of doctrine is not an end in itself, but an aid to the right perception of the symbolism of liturgical poetry and ritual. But this end can be hindered also through other means than doctrinal-formulaic, such as the attack on symbolism itself; and this is what seems to have taken place in the reforms of 1955.

There is more that could be said. For a detailed summary and analysis of the reform, I would recommend the excellent series written by Gregory DiPippo here. There is also this article by Fr. Steven Carusi, providing some valuable liturgical and theological commentary on the reform. Others, such as The Rad TradRubricarius at St. Lawrence Press (search the relevant topics), and Fr. Hunwicke have also had some things to say about Holy Week on their own blogs. It is my hope that  mainstream traditionalists will grow more aware of these issues, and more action be taken in parishes around the world.

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