The center of the church year

By | March 24, 2010

This Sunday we come to the culmination of our six-week Lenten observance. The season does not actually end today. It will conclude on Thursday when the Mass of the Lord’s Supper begins our celebration of Triduum. The liturgies for this weekend begin in a special way. The usual prayers of the gathering rite are replaced by the commemoration of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem.

Although it is still Lent, we note differences. The color of the vestments has changed from penitential red-purple to the blood-red of martyrdom. Everyone in the church is given a palm when they come in. The palm, held in the people’s hands, are blessed and sprinkled with holy water. Then the Gospel account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is proclaimed.

The priest then invites us to “go forth in peace praising Jesus our Messiah, as did the crowds who welcomed him to Jerusalem,” and the procession begins. The music differs from the sober, simple music we have heard throughout Lent. Most of us will use the familiar, “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” which has been sung on this day for hundreds of years.

The procession may be expanded to include more people (some parishioners, all the liturgical ministers or children). The path may also be extended to go all around the church, rather than down one aisle directly to the altar. At the principal Mass of the day everyone might gather outside or a space separate from the church. There the branches are blessed and the Procession Gospel is read. Then all proceed to the church. And so we enter into Holy Week, the center of our church year.

We use palm branches not only because the Gospel mentions them, but as symbols of life and resurrection. In warm climates, date palms (which can grow even in hot temperatures) are planted in cemeteries as a sign that life is stronger than death. Forsythia branches or pussy willows have been used in the northern climates (especially in the days when palms could not easily be brought in from where they grow). These branches are harbingers of spring, the season of new life.

Whenever a procession is used in liturgy, it symbolizes a journey. On Passion Sunday it symbolizes our entrance into our annual celebration of the Passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Within minutes, the mood becomes somber as the readings of the day are proclaimed. So begins our annual remembrance of the Paschal Mystery and how Christ won eternal life for us.


Johnston is the former director of worship at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Manitowoc.

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