Editorial Note: This post is part of a series intended for Catholics who are unable to participate in public celebrations of the Eucharist because of restrictions around COVID-19. Through prayerful reflection on the proper texts of the Mass each Sunday, we may still receive the fruits of Eucharistic communion.
Six days before the Passover,
when the Lord came into the city of Jerusalem,
the children ran to meet him;
in their hands they carried palm branches
and with a loud voice cried out:
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed are you, who have come in your abundant mercy!
O gates, lift high your heads;
grow higher, ancient doors.
Let him enter, the king of glory!
Who is this king of glory?
He, the Lord of hosts, he is the king of glory.
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed are you, who have come in your abundant mercy.
(cf. John 12:1, 12–3; Psalm 24(23): 9–10)
Most of us have never heard the Entrance Antiphon for Palm Sunday. For a lot of us, it’s because we typically participate in the Solemn Procession for the feast. We assemble in some space apart from the sanctuary, holding in our hands fresh, green palms. The living quality of these palms provides a stark contrast to the palms we brought to our parish church before Ash Wednesday. It was these desiccated palms that became the ashes that marked our foreheads, a sign of our dustiness, a sign of our desire for conversion. In this solemn procession, we hear about our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem, how he was greeted by the crowds as king. We sing psalms or hymns of praise along the way, including the hymn All Glory, Laud, and Honor.
The Entrance Antiphon, used for the Simple Entrance, offers an iconic summation of this process, one that we take not with our feet but in our hearts. Six days before the Passover, a week before our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus comes to Jerusalem. The whole Gospel has prepared us for this moment. The Messiah, the great king, has come into his city. He is greeted as victor, adored by the crowds. They sing that hymn of praise that we ourselves sing at each Eucharistic liturgy, Hosanna in the highest!
And yet the narrative from the Gospel of John is interrupted by Psalm 24. This psalm describes an entrance of an unidentified holy one into the city of God, into the city of the Lord of hosts. The psalmist begins by professing that the all the earth, all of creation is from God. It is the very first Temple, the first space of holiness that we should dwell within.
The Temple of Jerusalem is set upon the hill of the Lord. And what mere mortal is worthy of entering that space? Only the one with clean hands and heart, who does not abide in falsehood, is worthy to enter.
The psalm concludes with the words that we proclaim at Mass this day. The one who enters the gates of the city is the King of glory. He is the Lord of hosts. God alone is worthy to climb that Temple; God alone is worthy to enter the city and sanctify it.
And yet, are we aware of the cost of possessing clean hands and a pure heart? We, who gather with palm branches, imagine that we are. After all, we are the ones who sing Hosanna to the Christ who comes, who enters, who dwells in our midst this day.
And yet, during the rest of this Holy Week, we’ll discover anew what it means to possess clean hands and a pure heart, to be the Lord of hosts who can enter the Temple of God. The righteousness of God will be revealed on the Cross, in the redemptive suffering of the King of glory.
So, let us lay down our palm branches this Sunday. Even if we don’t possess these branches (and because of the quarantine few of us do), let us lay down the palm branches of our heart. The King of glory has come. And he has come to rule not with the rod of chastisement, the power of the polis, but with the merciful love of his Passion.
Let him enter, the king of glory!
Almighty, ever-living God,
who as an example of humility for the human race to follow
caused our Savior to take flesh and submit to the Cross,
graciously grant that we may heed his lesson of patient suffering
and so merit a share in his Resurrection.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
The Collect, or Opening Prayer, has a structure particular to Latin prayer texts in the Roman Rite of the Mass. If we recognize this structure, we’re better able to attune ourselves to praying it. The Collect is addressed to God (You), remembers what God has accomplished in the past (Who), asks God to act in our day (Do), and locates our prayer in communion with the Blessed Trinity (Through).
The Collect for Palm Sunday is one of the oldest still in use within the Roman Rite of the Mass. It has been used since the eighth century as Christians have gathered to commemorate the Passion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text brings together two contrasting images: the omnipotence of God who possesses all power, and the Son who submits his very flesh to the wounds of the Cross. If we were philosophers, we might see this contrast as a logical contradiction. How can the one who is all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, succumb to death on a tree?
During this quarantine, which has inflicted suffering and death on so many, perhaps we have asked ourselves a similar question. How can God, who is almighty, allow this suffering to happen? Why has God not acted? Where are you, O Lord?
This Collect provides at least the beginning of an answer for us. As it turns out, we never possessed a proper understanding of what it means to proclaim God as almighty in the first place. God is almighty not because God is some puppet master, controlling the strings of the world. God’s almightiness is revealed in God’s willingness to suffer, to enter fully into the human condition, to exhibit merciful love.
A strange almightiness, an upside-down sense of power. Power, for us, is often our ability to do whatever we want. If I’m powerful, I can tell this person to come here or go there. If I’m powerful, I can escape any potential tragedy with a bit of cash and political influence.
But the Word made flesh depicts another form of power: the willingness to suffer, even when he doesn’t have to. To offer a sacrifice of love, of love unto the end.
This patient suffering is our path to redemption. Jesus Christ is the great sacramentum and exemplum. He is the sacrament of divine love, manifesting to us the glory of an omnipotence revealed in love unto the end. But he is also the image of comfort for the human race. To be fully human is not to run away from suffering, to be impatient with our contingency. It is instead to embrace it, to follow in the footsteps of the patient suffering of our God.
Right now, so many of us are engaging in this patient suffering. Couples have given up their wedding day, celebrating with but a few friends. Nurses, doctors, and other health care professionals are putting their lives on the line. Parents are patiently teaching their children at home while working. We’re enduring absence from the sacraments, absence from the Eucharistic presence of our Lord.
As creatures—women and men whose contingency has become rather obvious to us in the days of COVID-19—there’s no getting past this patient suffering. Patient suffering is inevitable for the one who loves, who loves unto the end.
And yet, this path of patient suffering is also the road to the Resurrection. The mystery of the Resurrection is already present on Palm Sunday. The Word made flesh suffered and was raised from the dead. Therefore, for those of us who share the same flesh and blood as Jesus, we should not be surprised that our suffering is the way to share in fellowship with Jesus. The mystery of the Resurrection is that the God who became human accepts our sacrificial offering of love, inviting us in the process to become divine.
Psalm 22:8–9, 17–18, 19–20, 23–24
Prayer Over the Offerings
Through the Passion of your Only Begotten Son, O Lord,
may our reconciliation with you be near at hand,
so that, though we do not merit it by our own deeds,
yet by this sacrifice made once for all,
we may feel already the effects of your mercy.
Through Christ our Lord.
Liturgical time is a funny thing. Each Holy Week, every Triduum, each Easter Sunday, we remember the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We enter a time where the events of the Paschal Mystery become so real for us, it’s as if they’re taking place before our very eyes.
And yet, this is not the case. Our Lord has died and risen. In this great sacrifice of love, of love unto the end, the reconciliation of men and women with God has been accomplished. He has offered the sacrifice that none of us could offer, a sacrifice of total and absolute love, that has changed what it means to exist as a human being. This sacrifice has been made once for all, flipping upside down the course of history. Death is not the ultimate meaning of life; it is not the final word. Love alone is.
In the liturgy, though, we turn our attention to but a facet of this mystery of love. In the coming week, we reflect on the Death of our Lord, on the reconciliation that he has offered.
The goal of this is not to earn our way to salvation, to “re-do” the Passion through the liturgy. It has been done. Rather, we turn our imagination to the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord, because we can “feel” the effects of divine mercy. This mercy is always available to us, but in this time, in this place, we turn our attention there.
That’s why the Church would never change the date of Easter because of a virus. The God-man has already died, he has already risen. Yes, the liturgy of the Church allows us to contemplate the gift of this love. It allows this love to bear fruit in our lives. But as we enter this week, this week where we won’t be present for the Washing of the Feet, for keeping vigil before the Blessed Sacrament, for kissing the wood of the Cross, for that night of nights where light conquers the darkness, we should know that our Lord has already done it all for us. And as we long to be present for this, as we long to contemplate the mystery of salvation that changed the course of human history, of my history, we already have access to this mystery of love. Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
For, though innocent, he suffered willingly for sinners
and accepted unjust condemnation to save the guilty.
His Death has washed away our sins,
and his Resurrection has purchased our justification.
And so, with all the Angels,
we praise you, as in joyful celebration we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy . . .
Since the reforms of Vatican II, the Roman Rite has expanded the number of Prefaces that take place immediately before the Eucharistic Prayer. These different Prefaces invite the one praying to focus on a specific dimension of salvation.
On Palm Sunday, the mystery of Christ’s saving Death is presented with dazzling clarity. Christ is the innocent one who suffered for sinners, the one who was condemned to save those who deserved condemnation. His Death cleansed us, his Resurrection redeemed us. We were slaves to fear and death, to power and prestige, and through the wood of the Cross, through the Resurrection of the Son of God, we are invited to take up a posture of freedom.
This claim seems especially strange this year! Most of us feel profoundly unfree because of COVID-19. We’re locked in our homes, sheltered in place, by an order of the government. School has been canceled, all public gatherings (including the Triduum itself) limited to no more than a few persons. We’re servants right now to fear, to social distancing, to a virus that threatens our most vulnerable. Where is the freedom, the redemption, the liberation made available through the Cross of Christ?
These questions are inevitable. They’re the very questions that Israel asked as the People of God sojourned in the desert of desolation and doubt. They had been liberated by God from slavery in Egypt, but they were not yet free. They doubted God’s goodness, longing to be back in Egypt where they at least had some stew to eat. They could not give over their whole control to the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, adoring a golden calf instead. They could not believe they were free. They could not recognize that freedom means total, absolute abandonment to God.
This is the task for each of us, as we enter Holy Week during the season of COVID-19. Are we willing to abandon everything to the mysterious, providential love of a God who loved his own, even to the very end? Death may be defeated, but death still has its weapons. Death possesses the weapon of totalizing fear, totalizing worry, totalizing hopelessness. Death sees in every action of the government nothing but control, an erasure of religious freedom. Death thinks about freedom exclusively in the terms of individual rights: “my individualized right to be out and about.”
The sacrifice of Christ reveals to us what true freedom consists of: it is self-emptying love, abandonment to the will of God.
We don’t know what tomorrow reveals, we don’t know when the curve will flatten, we just don’t know. But we know that during the uncertainly, the only thing that may redeem a time of anxiety, that may set us free from the slavery of death, is self-sacrificial love.
Christ loved us first. We may now love God and our neighbor with this kind of abandonment, this freedom to love even when it hurts.
Prayer After Communion
Nourished with these sacred gifts,
we humbly beseech you, O Lord,
that, just as through the death of your Son
you have brought us to hope for what we believe,
so by his Resurrection
you may lead us to where you call.
Through Christ our Lord.
The temptation of this Easter is to eschew the theological virtue of hope. To deny it! We may grow so accustomed to the darkness that we learn to love it rather than the light.
And yet, already on this Palm Sunday, the Church asks more of us. We contemplated the Passion of our Lord this Sunday, not because it’s an event of darkness. It’s because the Church invites us to hope in what this Death means—the redemption of the world.
So too, in the coming week, we turn our attention to the Resurrection. The event of the Resurrection is also, for us Christians, a promise. It is a promise that God will lead us to our ultimate vocation, where we are called. We are those meant to rise from the dead, to live in freedom as children of God.
It’s okay, even right now, to profess faith that the world has a meaning that is not reducible to death or darkness.
In fact, it’s the way to salvation.
Prayer Over the People
Look, we pray, O Lord, on this your family
for whom our Lord Jesus Christ
did not hesitate to be delivered into the hands of the wicked
and submit to the agony of the Cross.
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
We are God’s beloved ones. Even when we’re watching Palm Sunday from the safety of our homes, quarantined well past the days of Lent, we should never forget that God delights in us.
Yes, there’s darkness. Yes, there’s death. That’s why the Word became flesh in the first place, to save us from this death and darkness.
But God did this not because the Word loves the darkness. God did this because the human family is beloved. The Death of Jesus Christ on the Cross is because God never forgot that he created our first parents in the divine image and likeness.
So rejoice, you Christians. Rejoice in your sorrow, because the Word has become flesh, dwelt among us, died on the Cross, and has risen from the dead. The death is real, because the love is real.
Questions for Discussion
The questions below are intended to help you reflect on the texts for Palm Sunday. If you can’t discuss them in person with family or friends, talk about them with a loved one over the phone or through some other form of digital media.
- What are you going to miss most about the liturgies of Holy Week and the Triduum? Why do these liturgies matter so much to you?
- Right now, where are you experiencing the most fear or suffering? What are you learning about God from this suffering? What are you learning about yourself?
- During this week, we are all preparing to welcome the King of glory not only into the city of Jerusalem but into our lives. Whom do you need to forgive to welcome this King of glory? What do you need to do in order to prepare the city of your heart for our Lord Jesus Christ?
- At the beginning of each day, sit before a cross or crucifix. Offer to your God all of the sufferings that you might experience throughout the day. At the end of the day, return to this cross or crucifix. Stand before the image of Christ crucified and think through your day. Where have you been patient? Where have you not been patient? Give thanks to God for the gift of patience, and ask God for the gift of patience in those areas of your life where you need grace.
- As a family or group of friends, read through the Passion according to St. Matthew this week together (Matthew 26:14–27:66). What strikes you about reading this Gospel in this time? What can you learn from Jesus about bearing the wounds of humanity?
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Featured Image: Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio (1410–1449), Entry of Christ to Jerusalem (ca. 1435–1440); public domain.