April 10, 2022 –
Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord
… he humbled himself, / becoming obedient to the point of death, / even death on a cross.
The Roman Missal is the book from which Father offers most of the prayers at Holy Mass. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, it rests upon the altar of sacrifice. Within this book, in the header for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, it states: “In the Dioceses of the United States, the practice of covering crosses and images throughout the church from this Sunday may be observed.”
The verb used is “may be observed”. That begs the question: ought this practice be observed? We might also question why this practice may be observed from that particular Sunday of Lent onwards. Those two questions are related.
The latter question is partly answered by the prayer that the priest prays before the ancient hymn known as the Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”). This prayer is called the Preface because it introduces the Eucharistic Prayer. The Preface changes throughout the Church year, relating the day’s season or feast to the Eucharistic Prayer.
On the weekdays following the Fifth Sunday of Lent—that is, this past week—the Roman Missal directs the priest to pray “Preface I of the Passion of the Lord”. On the weekdays between Palm Sunday and the start of the Sacred Triduum, the priest prays “Preface II of the Passion of the Lord”. This focus upon the Passion of the Christ is why these two weeks are traditionally called “Passiontide”.
Passiontide is part of Lent. We might even say that it’s a gradation of Lent. Consider: when you climb an imposing mountain, you ascend in stages. At the mountain’s base, the climb is easier. Higher up, the difficulty increases as rock formations and other obstacles present themselves. But when you reach the mountain’s tree line, an even more serious approach is required, as you cope with rarified air.
To apply that analogy to the Church’s preparation for Easter, the peak of the mountain—the goal of the climb—is the Sacred Triduum: the three days during which the Church celebrates Jesus’ Last Supper, Death, and Resurrection. The prior week and a half—Passiontide—is the last stretch of climb in rarified air. Prior to Passiontide, the majority of the climb stretches from Ash Wednesday until the Sunday before Palm Sunday. What’s more, in the calendar of the Extraordinary Form of Holy Mass, there is a period of preparation for the Sacred Triduum even before Ash Wednesday: this period starts on the ninth Sunday before Easter, and is called Septuagesima.
On Palm Sunday, two Gospel passages are proclaimed: one at the start of Mass and the other at the usual time of the Gospel. The first Gospel passage this Sunday is easy to hear. The crowds praise Jesus. They hail Jesus as their Messiah. All along, however, Jesus knows that their praise is hollow. He hears their words, but He knows their hearts. He knows the climb that stretches out before Him in the week to come.
The events proclaimed in the Passion narrative are the events of Good Friday, the summit of the mount. Upon Mount Calvary, God the Father sacrifices His Son, Mary sacrifices her Son, and Jesus sacrifices His whole self: Body and Blood, soul and divinity. Few of Jesus’ disciples were both able and willing to ascend and remain with Jesus at the top of this mountain. Few of them had pure faith.
While the Passion narrative is proclaimed on Palm Sunday at the usual time of the Gospel Reading, the Church proclaims the Passion narrative a second time during Holy Week, as part of the Good Friday Liturgy. There is a difference between these two proclamations, however. On Good Friday, it is always the Passion narrative from St. John’s Gospel account that’s proclaimed. On Palm Sunday, the Passion narrative comes from one of the other three Gospel accounts. These narratives complement each other and focus our attention on different aspects of Jesus’ suffering for us.
Jesus invites you to spend this week with Him as He makes His ascent. It’s easier for you to praise Jesus this Palm Sunday. It’s more difficult to share in His self-offering on Mount Calvary, as it demands a more pure faith. God is calling us to rely solely upon the sight that comes from faith, and to keep the eyes of the soul fixed upon the glory of Christ crucified.