Palm Sunday - The Pain of Atonement

Source: District of Asia

Although the procession we witness this morning before Mass is supposed to remind us of the triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem, the custom really had its origin in the procession of the faithful to the church where the Palm Sunday Mass was to be sung. That church was the Cathedral of St. John Lateran in Rome; St. Peter's is the most important church in Christendom, but it is not the Cathedral of Rome.

The blessing of the palms grew out of an ancient custom of blessing the people who held the palms in their hands to remind them of Christ's triumph. Then the Pope seated himself on a throne erected before the closed doors of the church and, after the singers had finished the hymn Gloria Laus et Honor, the doors of the church. were opened and the procession went in for Mass. The prayers which are said at the time the palms are to be blessed are a memory of the ancient custom the faithful had of gathering for prayer and instruction at a time when Mass would not follow. Hence, we have orations and lessons and even a gospel and a preface, but these may not be remnants of a former Mass, as is sometimes suggested. At any rate, the procession to-day stresses the triumphant entry of Our Lord into Jerusalem, but it is a hollow triumph and a certain atmosphere of gloom hovers over it, for we cannot forget that this is the week in which Christ died.


If you had any doubt about the spirit of the procession of palms, you have only to read the words of the Introit to understand the deep affliction of Christ's soul. The Church uses the text uttered by Our Lord on the cross: "My God, My God, why hast Thou abandoned Me." There is a stirring lesson in this contrast of moods. If you were to know intimately some of the celebrities of this world, you might find out that there is a habitual sorrow and loneliness in them; it is strange that the praise of the world can give so little satisfaction; yet, it is sought after passionately by so many! When they are at the very pinnacle of grandeur, their heart often aches and they get a deep sense of abandonment: they seem to have lost their closest friends or they distrust them, and, after all, the heart was not made for praise but for love. Now, of course, the situation was not the same with Our Lord, first, because He could see through the emptiness of the world's praise and, secondly, His sense of abandonment was not the sense of frustration which a worldling suffers at times. He longed for souls and for their salvation, and His keenest misery came from His unrequited love of mankind: it was a part of His redeeming agony. And so in the Introit of to-day's Mass, He is not uttering words of self-pity so much as words of pity for those who will not profit by what He is doing for them. Expressions such as "the lion's mouth" and the "horns of oxen," which are used in this psalm, are often. intended to typify the loss of the soul in hell; so Our Lord pleads, as our Mediator, to deliver us from everlasting death; and the prospect that some will not let themselves be delivered throws Him into an agony which brought the very Blood from His pores as if it were sweat.


The beautiful prayer which is said by the priest after the Dominus Vobiscum has an inspiring plea that God, who caused Our Saviour to take our flesh and to suffer death on the cross, may grant all mankind the grace to imitate His humility and His patience and finally become partakers in His resurrection.

While Our Lord did suffer great agony for those who would not heed Him, He was no doubt consoled by the multitudes of believers who would finally be saved; this prayer begs God to place. us in that class and make us realize that our efforts to be religious and obedient are joined with the powerful redeeming grace which Christ obtained for us during this blessed Holy Week.

Another contrast between the procession of the palms and the Mass comes out sharply in the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians, part of which is quoted this morning. St. Paul says that, even though Christ was God, He put aside that glory in order to take our place and atone for sin. How little the Hosannas of the Palm Sunday procession would mean in comparison to this enormous sacrifice Christ is making for us! It is a mystery how He could possibly humble Himself as He did; yet, as St. Paul continues, for having done that God glorified Him to the very limits of glory. And finally every knee in heaven and on earth must bend at the very mention of the name of Jesus, and every tongue must confess, not as the Hebrews that He is merely the Son of David, but that He is the eternal Son of God. Only God could humble Himself as Christ did!


The Gradual and Tract are an unusual feature in to-day's liturgy. The Gradual verses from Psalm Ixii. foretell the triumph of Easter, but as Our Lord told the disciples on the road to Emmaus: "Did you not know that Christ must suffer first and then come into His glory?" So, the Tract goes back to Psalm xxi.. which is an amazing prophecy of all Our Saviour would have to go through in His passion and death; many of the verses read as if they had been written on Calvary; it is unusual to recite so many verses of a psalm at the Tract, but on a day like this every word is so full of meaning that none could be skipped.