Holy Week I: Palm Sunday

With Holy Week rapidly approaching, it seems only appropriate to offer some response to the many and repeated queries about the rites and ceremonies of Holy Week. Given the complexity of the subject and the unfinished state of our research, it would seem to be unwise to try and even give some sort of provisional rite. However, an outline of the various ceremonies of Palm Sunday and the Triduum Sacrum, along with a few collects and prayers may be a helpful guide to using those resources that are currently available.

Every year, there are murmurs of confusion and consternation at the unusual ceremonies of Palm Sunday, and they seem somewhat increased this year. The most frequent concerns are those regarding the Gospel: should the Gospel at the mass be that of Palm Sunday, or should the Passion be read?

Ancient and Medieval Origins

In two of the oldest extant western lectionaries, those of Würzburg (c. 700) and Murbach (c. 800), the Passion according to St. Matthew is prescribed, with no mention whatsoever of the Palm Sunday Gospel, or even a mention of palms in the name of the Sunday. In Würzburg, the Sunday is only known as the Sunday of the sixth week in Lent. The reading of the St. Matthew Passion on this Sunday is, then, quite old.

Like other Holy Week ceremonies, the Palm procession likely found its way into Western usage from the customs of the Church in Jerusalem, accounts of which were brought back home by pilgrims such as Egeria (see Pilgrimage of Egeria, V.1). By the late fifteenth century, the palm procession preceding the Sunday mass had essentially become a full mass in its own rite, save that the consecration of the Sacrament was replaced with the blessing and consecration of palms. While there was considerable variety, the basic structure was as follows. All orders began with the following collect:

O God, whom to love and cherish is true righteousness: multiply in our hearts the gifts of Thy holy grace; and as Thou hast, in the death of Thine only Son, made us to hope for those things which we believe, make us by His resurrection happily to arrive whither we now take our journey; through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.

Collect at the Palm Procession

Following this collect was a reading, usually Exodus 15:27-16:10, or some portion thereof, followed by the antiphon Collegerunt pontifices (John 11:47-49a, 50b, 53) as a sort of Tract between readings. Following the antiphon, the Palm Sunday account was read from one of the Gospels, with no great consensus as to exactly which one. After the reading of the Gospel, various prayers of blessing (and sometimes exorcism) were provided, followed by a very lengthy preface and more prayers of blessing, antiphons to be sung during the distribution and procession, the hymn Gloria, laus, et honor, quite familiar to all our readers. Sometimes a very unusual ceremony at an outdoor cross also took place, but it falls outside the purview of this ostensibly brief overview. All of this leads directly into the Introit, without Confession and Absolution.

Lutheran Adaptation

Lutheran usage on Palm Sunday following the Reformation was somewhat mixed. Ludecus (1589), dean of the Lutheran cathedral at Havelberg, criticizes the palm procession in an introductory note. Interestingly, as a result of our research, we also have the 1489 missal for Havelberg – precisely one century before the publication of Ludecus’ Missale – and it does, incidentally, have one of the more elaborate versions of the palm blessing and procession, including the peculiar ceremony at the cross. Following his criticism of the palm procession with its lessons and exorcisms and so on, Ludecus then goes on to provide the texts and music (in Latin – Ludecus’ Missale is almost exclusively in Latin) of several of the traditional antiphons sung during the ceremonies, followed by Gloria, laus, et honor. He also provides the Introit, Collect, and Epistle found in TLH and LSB, as well as the full historic tract from Psalm 22, abbreviated slightly in TLH and moreso in LSB. Following the tract, he notes that the Passion is introduced “The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew” without response, and then provides two (again, Latin) settings of the St. Matthew Passion for use. The first is sung by one voice, the second is sung between Deacon (Evangelist), Subdeacon (Jesus), unison choir (disciples, crowds, etc.), and Priest [Sacerdos] (Judas, Peter, etc.). At the words “He gave up His spirit,” the people are to kneel and silently pray the Our Father. Following the Passion in Latin, Ludecus also provides a German setting of the Passion, divided between various individuals and a choir in four-part harmony.

The Magdeburg Cathedral Book (1613), another Lutheran source primarily in Latin, makes no mention of a procession whatsoever, but proceeds with the customary Latin Introit, a different German collect, the Epistle from Philippians (in Latin), followed by Gloria, laus, et honor, the Gradual as found in TLH (and abbreviated in LSB), and the Latin tract as mentioned above. Rather than the St. Matthew Passion, the Magdeburg Cathedral Book simply appoints the Palm Sunday Gospel from Matthew to be read.

As a result, Lutheran tradition includes both the reading of the St. Matthew Passion (which Ludecus took great care to provide three times over) and the reading of Matthew 21:1ff. As recounted farther above, though, the overwhelming majority of the last 1300 years supports the reading (or, more properly, singing) of the St. Matthew Passion as the Gospel on Palm Sunday. While the Palm Sunday procession that Ludecus recalled was certainly lengthy and elaborate, there are medieval precedents that are much more subdued. Halberstadt 1511, for example, provides a quite simple order. It begins with the collect provided above, then continues with a reading from Zechariah, the antiphon Collegerunt pontifices, and then the Palm Sunday account from Luke. There is quite a lot of variety in medieval usage, and one wonders if Ludecus’ perspective might have been different had this simpler form been his received tradition. It may very well be the case that The Lutheran Missal will provide both a longer version of the rite and a more abbreviated form.

A Proposed Rite

If you are still concerned and planning what to do this Palm Sunday, I might suggest the following:

  • Have the congregation gather in the narthex or outdoors.
  • Begin with the Collect (as above)
  • Reading from Exodus 15:27-16:10 (with V: The Word of the Lord / R: Thanks be to God.)
  • Antiphon Collegerunt pontifices
  • Palm Sunday Gospel -whichever evangelist strikes your fancy (with “Glory be to Thee, O Lord” and “Praise be to Thee, O Christ.”)
  • Sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” (printed in the bulletin, so as to avoid making everyone remember to grab a hymnal beforehand) as the entire congregation walks into the church.
  • After the hymn, proceed directly into the Introit (without Gloria Patri), and the service continues as normal.
  • When the Passion is read, the introduction is “The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew” and neither “Glory be to Thee, O Lord,” nor “Praise be to Thee, O Christ” is said.
  • At the words “He gave up His spirit,” all are invited to kneel and pray the Our Father. If the church does not have kneelers or is not in the habit of kneeling, the pastor and his assistants should at least genuflect toward the altar and pray the Our Father.
  • Don’t forget to omit the Gloria Patri from the Nunc Dimittis during Passiontide. Better yet, just omit the Nunc Dimittis altogether during Passiontide. From Septuagesima onward, the parts of the liturgy omitted are generally those added later, and the Nunc Dimittis certainly fits in this category.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Maundy Thursday

For the other posts in this series, see below:

  • Good Friday
  • Vigil of Easter
  • 3 thoughts on “Holy Week I: Palm Sunday

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