Some years ago Palm Sunday was renamed Passion Sunday, a title that is more adequately descriptive of the meaning of that day’s liturgy. The 2011 Missal has renamed it “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord,” although palms are but one detail of the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This Sunday also marks the opening of Holy Week, as the Church begins its solemn meditation on the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord. Whatever the official name of this day, the familiar name Palm Sunday will surely persist. Likewise it may be more accurate to refer to the sacrament of reconciliation instead of the familiar “confession,” because confession of our sins is but one step in the process of sacramental reconciliation, but people will still call it “confession.”
The liturgy of Palm Sunday is, of course, notable for its procession, which may include everyone in the assembly. This procession takes place outside, if possible, and at the principal Sunday Mass. At the other liturgies a procession including a representative number of worshipers may take place inside the church, or else the priest and ministers enter in the usual way. This procession is first reported in third century Jerusalem, where people would hear the story of the Lord’s triumphal entry, and then leading the bishop into the city, they would process with branches and singing to the church built over the place where Jesus was buried, and there celebrate evening prayer.
The idea of a procession on this day spread quickly. It was celebrated throughout the Eastern world by the sixth century, spread to Africa and Gaul by the seventh century, and to Rome by the tenth century. In the middle ages, this solemn procession often went through each city. People carried candles, banners and incense, with prayerful stops at important places along the way. Leading the procession was the processional cross, a reminder to everyone that Christ was present among his followers. In some places the book of gospels was carried in procession as a reminder of Christ’s presence; in other places the blessed Sacrament was a part of the procession. The color of the vestments and other decorations on this day was usually red.
The other unusual element of the liturgy of Palm Sunday, a part of the rite since the fifth century, is the reading of the story of Jesus’ passion and death. This reading was divided into three parts in the twelfth or thirteenth century, a practice that was eventually adopted by the churches of Rome during the fifteenth century. Today many parishes will have three readers read scenes or chapters of the passion narrative, rather than dividing the story into characters, e.g., the role of Jesus, or Peter, the guards, the disciples or the crowd. This method of proclaiming the story of Jesus’ suffering and death helps avoid the suggestion that the liturgy is presenting a passion play, with various cast members given their proper scripts. The passion is not a play or an historical enactment, but a proclamation. We participate fully and actively in this proclamation, not by assuming the voice of the bloodthirsty crowd or any other particular person, but by simply listening, as the words of the gospel take hold of us.