Entering the Mystery
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
On Palm Sunday (also called Passion Sunday) we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem before His passion. In this celebration, we ourselves begin to enter into the great Paschal Mystery of our Lord — something we do every time Mass is celebrated, but which we do in a very rich and extended way during the great liturgies that will unfold over the next several days.
We refer to the time between Palm Sunday and Easter as “Holy Week,” and it includes the three-day liturgy called the Easter Triduum (a word that means “three days”), consisting of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil on Saturday night. As students have Wednesday through Friday off from classes, I encourage you to participate in these Triduum liturgies, whether at home or here at St. Mary’s.
Before looking at the Triduum, however, we need to consider the Palm Sunday liturgy. It’s a bit different than an ordinary Sunday Mass. In many churches, the liturgy begins outside with the blessing of palms and a procession into the church building. By carrying palm branches and singing “Hosanna” (a Hebrew exclamation used to express adoration, praise or joy), we identify ourselves with those who sang Jesus’ praise in the gospel account:
When the great crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel” (Jn 12:12-13).
A short while later, we are reminded that these are the same people who would call for our Lord’s crucifixion. We look around the church and note the color for the day is not Lenten purple, but red — the color of martyrdom. The gospel reading at Mass is the long account of the Last Supper, and Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Our triumphant king is put to death. In many churches, the congregation is assigned the voice of the people who shout out “Crucify Him!”
This can be emotionally challenging for many Christians. I have known some to weep. But this is the dynamic of our human relationship with the divine. The Old Testament, over and over again, tells of the Jewish people praising and adoring God, only to betray Him. We can no doubt recognize this pattern in our own lives. Yet God remains always faithful to us, even to the point of death. No matter how many times we turn away from Him, He is always there with His offer of mercy and forgiveness.
Palm Sunday is in many ways a foretaste of the mystery to be revealed more fully in the great Triduum liturgy, the highest liturgy of the Church year, beginning with Holy Thursday.
On the Thursday before Easter, we celebrate the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The gospel reading for this Mass recounts the events of the Passover meal Jesus shared with the Apostles before He was betrayed by Judas and arrested.
The Passover was the annual memorial meal that Jewish people celebrated to remind themselves of how God liberated them from slavery in Egypt. Jesus now uses it to establish His new covenant, liberating us from our slavery to sin.
On Holy Thursday, Jesus celebrates the first Eucharist, the great sacrament of His Body and Blood, which we believe not only “calls to mind” Christ’s sacrifice for us, but actually makes it present, so that we may participate in the one sacrifice of Christ at each and every Mass. Holy Thursday also recalls the establishment of the priesthood through which the great sacrament of Christ’s presence will be given to us.
At this Mass, the priest reenacts the washing of the disciples’ feet in humble service, showing us how we are to love and serve one another. This is how Jesus leads. This is how Jesus serves. He tells Peter, “If I do not wash your feet, you can have no part with me” (Jn 13:8). What Jesus does for us, we must do for each other.
At the end of Mass, the priest and ministers process out, carrying the Eucharist with them, to an altar of repose. Often it is decorated with flowers, like a garden. It represents the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus waits in agony for His arrest and coming trial; where He prays for the Father to take this cup from Him, if it be possible. We are asked, as Jesus asked His disciples, to keep watch with Him there.
The astute observer will note that this liturgy is not brought to a close. There is no “The Mass is ended. Go in peace.” It is not ended. We are not dismissed. We wait with our Lord.
This is the one day of the year when no Mass is celebrated in the Catholic Church. Instead of Mass, we have a Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion and Veneration of the Cross. We enter into a bare church. The sanctuary is empty. The tabernacle is empty. The absence of His sacramental presence is palpable. The priest and other ministers process in silence. Once before the altar the priest lies prostrate on the ground. There is no greeting, no welcoming remarks. This is the day our Savior dies. We come to meet Him on the cross.
The long passion narrative is once again read. We venerate the cross on which Jesus hung with a kiss, recalling that our sins put Him there. We pray for the conversion of the world.
Good Friday is a day of obligatory fasting for Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59, and abstinence from meat for all age 14 and over. If possible, the Church asks us to extend this fast through Holy Saturday, until after the Easter Vigil.
Saturday night, after dark, we once more gather outside of the church. A fire is kindled and blessed. From its flames a large candle is lit. It is our paschal candle. We proceed with it into the church, and from its light we each light our own candles, slowly illuminating the darkness within, while the priest proclaims, “Christ our Light!”
The Exsultet is sung, that ancient hymn singing the praises of the candle which brings Christ’s light to us on this dark night — the night on which sin and death were conquered once and for all. We are reminded that our faith, like the light of the candle, is not diminished when we share it, but increases.
The several readings from the Old Testament recount the history of salvation, reminding us of all God has done to reconcile His people to Himself. The Gloria is sung. Once more we hear the ringing of the bells. And we the words of an angel proclaimed in the gospel: “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him… ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you'” (Mk 16:6-7). Our long Lent is over.
This is the night when new Christians are baptized, reborn into new life in Christ. This is the night when those seeking the fullness of the faith are confirmed into the Church. This is the night when the entire Christian community renews its baptismal promises. This is the night on which Jesus rose from the dead, inaugurating a new dawn for us all. This is the night!
Finally, at the end of the Easter Vigil Mass, we hear the familiar words drawing to a conclusion what started on Thursday evening; “Go, the Mass is ended,” or in Latin, Ite, missa est, meaning, “it is sent.” What is sent? The Church — you and I — are sent out into the world to proclaim the good news. Christ is Risen, Alleluia! The world will never be the same.
. . . . .
I encourage all my students, in the strongest possible way, to participate in the great mystery the Church puts before us during Holy Week. Pray with the liturgies. Read along with the scripture readings. Immerse yourself in the mystery. Christ is our Pasch. This is our faith. This is our life.