Saturday, 28 March 2015

Briefly, on the Traditional Rite of Palm Sunday

Many traditionalists are not aware of the extensive reforms to the liturgy of Holy Week which were carried out under the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. Most traditionalists who are aware of those reforms are of the opinion that they were either insignificant or could not be compared to the later reforms which followed the Second Vatican Council. Traditionalists associated with the SSPX generally have this view. However, I myself have come to the opinion that the reforms of Pius XII formed a definite precedent to those of Paul VI - nay, the process of reform which produced the Novus Ordo actually began by Pius XII and was continued by Paul VI. This is evident first from history, but also in the effects which these reforms had on the rites themselves. I think it would not be a stretch to say that the essential problems with the Novus Ordo also exist in the reformed Holy Week of Pius XII, which is found in the 1962 Missal. But most traditionalists will be very reluctant to accept this, due to a variety of factors - an attachment to the person of Pope Pius XII, an attachment to the person of Marcel Lefebvre, an urge to attribute all of our problems to Vatican II (which I have criticized here), and ultimately a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the liturgy in general.

I do not have the time or space just yet to devote to any detailed study of the reforms; others have done so before me, in some degree or another. But I would like to say a few things in this post about the reform of Palm Sunday. Prior to 1955, the rite for Palm Sunday was much more elaborate than it is in the 1962 Missal, and it was simply filled with theological and symbolical content pertaining to the mysteries of this entire week. The greatest changes occurred in the ceremonies prior to the Mass, in the rite for the blessing of the palms and the procession of the cross. The rite of blessing was closely structured after the order of Mass itself, with an Introit, Collect, Epistle, Gradual, Gospel, another collect corresponding to the Secret, a Preface and Sanctus, a kind of "Canon" for the rite of blessing, the distribution of the palms (corresponding to communion), and a final collect corresponding to the Postcommunion. This structure was completely lost in the reform of 1955.

The texts of these prayers and readings contained a vast amount of symbolic meaning, to put the mind in the frame of thought for contemplation of the sacred mysteries. The liturgy for this day provides a complete theological interpretation of Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem, which is a figure of His triumph over sin and death, to be definitively accomplished by His death and resurrection in just a few days. The Christian people participate in this victory of Christ, entering with Him into the eternal Jerusalem. The first Collect is an expression of hope, enabled by Christ's death, and fulfilled by His resurrection, which is also our own. The liturgy of today thus begins showing its focus to be profoundly eschatological, a symbol of our entrance into heaven with Christ. The story of salvation is prefigured by events in the Old Testament, brought to our attention today. The text of the Epistle is from the book of Exodus, chapters 15 and 16, which recounts the story of the Israelites after they had triumphantly emerged from the bondage of Egypt. "In those days, the children of Israel came unto Elim, where there were twelve fountains of water, and seventy palm-trees; and they encamped by the waters..." The Israelites, led by Moses and Aaron, are the figure of the people who are saved in Christ, through His own triumph over the bondage of sin. They also prefigure the Jews who welcomed Christ into Jerusalem with palm branches. Moreover, "all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said to them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat over the flesh-pots, and ate bread to the full. Why have you brought us into this desert, that you might destroy all the multitude with famine?" Just as these Israelites here rebelled against Moses and Aaron, their leaders, so would the Jews rebel against Christ and crucify Him, whom they had first welcomed as their King. In response to the complaints of the Israelites, "the Lord said to Moses, Behold I will rain bread from heaven for you." Likewise, God would give to His people the Bread of Life, come down from heaven, Christ Himself, who would be offered as a sacrifice and consumed by His people for their sanctification. The mystery of Christ's sacrifice will be celebrated in a special way on Holy Thursday, the feast of the Institution of the Eucharist, and in an even greater way on Good Friday, the celebration of the sacrifice itself. This text thus shows itself essential to understanding the mystery of Palm Sunday in the Roman tradition. It also introduces an unmistakable connection to the Eucharist, which is so integral to the mystery of Holy Week as a whole.

Another text in the rite, after the Gospel, introduces another instance of Old Testament typology alongside that recounted in the Epistle, namely the story of Noah and the flood. This prayer, corresponding in position to the Secret of the Mass, explicitly refers to both the stories Noah and Moses as antetypes of present realities: "Let these branches, whether of palm or of olive, be blessed +, and, as in the antetype of the Church, Thou didst multiply Noe, when he went forth from the ark, and Moses, when he went out of Egypt with the children of Israel, so may we, who bear palms and olive branches, go forth with good works to meet Christ, and, through Him, may we enter into everlasting joy."  This prayer shows us that through our participation in the liturgy of today, we mystically enter into the events of Palm Sunday and everything they represent, that we might be saved by our union with Christ. The relevance of the story of Noah is explicated more clearly in the proper rite of blessing - the "Canon" of the blessing of the palms - in the prayer Deus, qui per olivae. The text is as follows: "O God, Who didst appoint a dove to bring its message of peace to the earth by means of an olive branch, grant, we beseech Thee, that Thou mayest sanctify with heavenly benediction these branches of olive and of other trees, so that they may profit all Thy people unto salvation. Through Christ our Lord. Amen." The olive branch is thus a sign of the peace foreshadowed by the subsiding of the great flood, when the world had been cleansed of all sin, and Noah and his family could step out onto the "new earth" to begin a new life, which signifies eternal life itself. This eternal life is won for us by none other than Christ Himself and His triumph over death, which He announced upon His entry into Jerusalem. In the prayer immediately preceding, Deus, qui miro, we learn that "the palm branches, therefore, look to His triumph over the prince of death, but the sprigs of olive proclaim that in a certain manner the spiritual unction is already come."

All of the texts just cited were suppressed from the rite in 1955. The typology of Exodus no longer appears, nor the typology of Noah and the flood, nor the collects; likewise all but one of the prayers that constituted the "canon" of blessing have been abolished. Of these last there were originally six, all of which overflowed in eloquence and beauty, some which were even explicitly didactic in their manner of expression. Only the fifth of these prayers, Benedic, quaesumus, was retained, and it is placed near the very beginning of the rite. These texts could form the basis of a formulation of a treatise on liturgical theology and the nature of liturgical signs and symbolism, which so closely resembles the nature of the sacraments themselves. In fact, it is notable that the first of these prayers, Petimus, Domine, explicitly refers to the olive branches as a sacramentum, obviously the same word which refers to the seven sacraments. 
FSSP in Rome

In the traditional rite, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem is itself celebrated - or re-enacted - later in the rite in a supremely vivid manner, at the end of the procession of the cross which follows the distribution of the palms. After a long procession outside the church, accompanied by the singing of antiphons recalling the entry to Jerusalem, the clergy and faithful stop outside the doors of the church, which are now shut. A few cantors within the church alternate with the choir outside singing the hymn Gloria, Laus, et Honor, in acknowledgment of Christ's triumphal majesty. At the end of this hymn, the subdeacon who has been carrying the cross strikes the doors of the church with the staff, and the doors are opened, clearly signifying Christ's opening the gates of the New Jerusalem by His death upon the cross, which was foreshadowed by His entry into the earthly Jerusalem. This profoundly vivid rite too is no longer contained in the liturgy of Palm Sunday after the reforms of 1955. 

Following the procession, the actual Mass of Palm Sunday begins. Traditionally, the recitation of the Passion, from St. Matthew, included in it the account of the institution of the Eucharist. The same is true for the Passion readings on Spy Wednesday and Good Friday. Again the essential connection of the mysteries of Holy Week to that of the Eucharist is thus made unmistakably clear. The entire Christian faith centers around the mystery of the Eucharist, which is the selfsame mystery as that of Christ's passion and death upon the cross - the culmination of Holy Week, and the ultimate source of meaning for every rite that is celebrated during this week. Hence it is eminently fitting that the account of the institution of the Eucharist be included in the Passion readings for these days. It is simply astonishing that the reform of Pope Pius XII removed these accounts from all of the Passion readings during Holy Week, with the result that not even once in the entire liturgical year do we hear the institution of the Eucharist recited. This is not an easily forgivable loss, to speak mildly. This connection to the Eucharist is also diminished in other aspects of the reform of Holy Week, specifically that of the Good Friday "Mass of the Pre-Sanctified." This rite also strongly paralleled the rite of an actual Mass, in such a way that made abundantly clear that those rites were the re-presentation and re-visitation of the sacrifice of Christ, albeit the consecration of the host does not take place that day. This rite too was quite destroyed in 1955.

The effect of all of these changes is that the rites no longer foster in so perfect a degree the contemplation of and participation in the mysteries of Christ. There is no longer the strong awareness of our progression with the triumphant Christ towards the heavenly Jerusalem, fostered by the typological and symbolical content which permeated the ancient rite. The traditional liturgy revealed itself to be the means by which we unite ourselves with Christ in all His mysteries, so that we might be united ultimately to His divinity in heaven through contemplation. This purpose is no longer clear in the new rites. The same effect would later result from the changes that followed the Second Vatican Council. Most traditionalists evaluate the post-conciliar reforms merely on the basis of their doctrinal clarity (or orthodoxy) or lack thereof. The standard argument is that the Pauline reforms were an ecumenical attempt to make concessions in the liturgy to the false doctrines of Protestantism. There may well be truth to this argument. But I would strongly propose that it is only a small part of the story, and the damage done is greater than doctrinal ambiguity. Doctrinal expression is one means that the liturgy employs for the sake of contemplation; right doctrine is not an end in itself. Hence, doctrinal problems with the newer liturgies are not problems only because they appeal to Protestantism or any heresy, but even more importantly and primarily because they hinder the contemplative end of the liturgy. Doctrine alone is not enough to sanctify and save man; he must go further and be united to God in loving contemplation. Moreover, this end, contemplation, may be hindered or retarded even when one manages to persevere in right doctrine. Thomas Kempis, in the Imitation of Christ, famously wrote that theological knowledge of the Trinity is useless if one does not love and so please the Trinity. Contemplation, then, can fail to be achieved even while right doctrine is preserved; and this is why it is possible to say that the liturgy of Pius XII is quite simply bad liturgy, even if it contains no false or ambiguous doctrinal content, if indeed it does not. For in comparison to the traditional rites, these rites fail to attain the primary end and purpose for which the liturgy even exists, and hence, in this respect, they are just as bad as the Novus Ordo. 

This post has mainly only addressed the changes to Palm Sunday, and even so, only incompletely. Much more could be said about the novel elements introduced into the new rites, such as the points whereat the priest prays versus populum - something to become very popular after Vatican II - the abolition of the preface proclaiming the divine kingship, and other things. Moreover, the reforms of the rites for the Triduum, especially Friday and Saturday, were much greater than even those of Palm Sunday, and will have to be saved for a later treatment (maybe next year). Suffice it to say that they all had the same detrimental effect on liturgical contemplation, and hence formed a definite precedent and stepping stone to the Novus Ordo itself. In the meantime, for a detailed summary and analysis of the reform, I would recommend the excellent series written by Gregory DiPippo here. There is also this article by Fr. Steven Carusi, providing some valuable liturgical and theological commentary on the reform. Others, such as The Rad Trad, Rubricarius at St. Lawrence Press (search the relevant topics), and Fr. Hunwicke have also had some things to say about Holy Week on their own blogs. It is my hope that more mainstream traditionalists will grow more aware of these problems; but they are a very stubborn bunch, so, aside from the grace of God, my hopes are not too high... It will be a slow process.

Have a blessed Holy Week, inasmuch as is possible. Meanwhile, I am off to help some SSPXers sing for the Triduum! (Pray for me.) I will skip Good Friday though, and find a Byzantine rite somewhere...

1 comment:

  1. An excellent Article. Thank You.

    In the absence of being able to attend at the Divine Holy Week Ceremonies described in your Article, I recommend an in-depth, thorough, reading of the Holy Week Liturgy in The Liturgical Year, by Dom Gueranger, and, also, The Saint Andrew Daily Missal (Pre-1955).

    To do so is both contemplative, edifying and illuminative, and pre-empts this Divine Liturgy being lost in the mists of "Modernism".

    A Very Happy, Holy, and Peaceful Easter to all your Readers.