Why does Mass begin outside on Palm Sunday?
I was rolling in from my first Mass of the day. After celebrating Mass with the Procession of Palms in El Centro, I arrived at Las Pilas, the larger of the two towns in the general area of Miramundo in the mountains near the Pital, the largest mountain in El Salvador.
Arriving at the starting place for the procession, I could see a lot of people. A larger crowd had gathered than in El Centro, a sign of a vibrant community I would come to love over the next six years. I would come here during Holy Week to be a missionary with young men from the city of San Salvador, over three hours away after a precarious descent down the mountain.
I could make out the men in charge of the liturgy. The choir would help guide the procession, aided by a sound system mounted in the back of a pickup truck. The missionaries stood off to one side, their clean white shirts and colorful bandanas setting them out among the crowd. Then I saw it. There was a horse.
I knew from stories that some towns had the tradition of re-enacting as much as possible the circumstances of the original Palm Sunday. Jesus had ridden in on a donkey, and they liked to involve their farm animals for the liturgy. I knew at least one priest who boasted of riding a donkey while fully vested for celebrating Mass.
There was no way I was getting up on the horse. It was my first time celebrating Palm Sunday Mass in Las Pilas, Chalatenango, in the mountains of El Salvador. Furthermore, This was my first time celebrating Holy Week as a priest. I had seen pictures from missions of how priests would sometimes ride a donkey while fully vested for Mass. It seemed like an exotic experience for a new priest, especially a chelito (Salvadorean term of endearment for someone as fair-skinned as myself). I appeared somewhat out of place among the hills around the Pital, El Salvador’s highest mountain.
Nevertheless, over six years, I would visit every year for Holy Week and often on some other occasions. To my relief, I saw that they had dressed up one of the missionaries as Jesus, and he would ride the horse in the procession. I was saved from that experience, at least.
Blessing of the Palms
When we have a Mass for Palm Sunday with procession, we begin with the blessing of the palms. We are commemorating the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Each of us takes some of the palm fronds and waves them in the air, recalling how the inhabitants of Jerusalem welcomed Jesus two thousand years ago.
The palm fronds become a sort of “sacramental.” A sacramental is not the same as a sacrament, but it does have a related meaning. A sacrament is a communication of divine grace that has a physical element. Each one of the seven sacraments has both divine and human factors. Having a physical component is familiar to most religions, though, in Christianity, it takes on a whole new power due to the Incarnation, the fact that Jesus became man.
A “sacramental” is another physical object that helps us in our living out of our faith. Statutes, rosary beads, and saints’ medals are all examples of sacramentals. They are not divine, but they signify the heavenly reality. Here is where we are different from the pagans. The pagan looks at his idol, and he sees his god, not merely a representation. When we see a statue of St. Jude, we do not see St. Jude himself, but a visual indication that helps us think of this man who is now a saint and intercedes for us to God. It is like having pictures of our family up in our house. They remind us of our loved ones without being the actual person.
The palm fronds “take us back” to Palestine. They help us participate actively in the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It is a holy moment, and so we begin with the blessing of the palms.
A joyful procession follows the blessing of the palm fronds. We read the Gospel of the entry into Jerusalem. Here, the liturgy allows the priest to preach the homily. The idea is that the homily is either here or after the Gospel of the Passion in the main church. Many priests, myself not excluded, fall into the temptation of giving at least a few words in both places, which could give the faithful an impression of having received two homilies.
As we process into the main church, there are many spiritual lessons to be lived. We are walking with the inhabitants of Jerusalem. We are entering into Holy Week. This procession wakes feelings of greater participation in the liturgy and invites us to join into the mystery of everything that Jesus lived as he was preparing for his supreme act of redemption, his death on the Cross. Everything in Holy Week is related to the central mystery of his death on the Cross and his glorious resurrection. We should remember that he came to die and that his resurrection from the dead destroyed death forever.
Palm Sunday is the only Mass throughout the liturgical year that prescribes two Gospels. It is a long liturgy today, and we should be thankful for the time given us to contemplate such a great mystery. The joyful procession provides a stark contrast to the somber proclamation of the Gospel of the Passion. This contrast helps us to see the true nature of our redemption. Christ comes back to Jerusalem to die. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of our contemplation of the mystery.
Various readers proclaim the Gospel of the Passion. The main celebrant typically reads the words spoken by Jesus. It becomes a bit of a Passion play. Sometimes, the faithful are invited to participate, reading the part of the crowd. This can all help deepen the sense of presence at the events that ushered in our salvation from sin.
Questions for reflection
1. How have I lived Lent? Am I ready to live Holy Week?
2. How well do I participate in the liturgy? Do I feel like a participant in the events that are being represented?
3. How am I deepening my appreciation for the mystery of Christ who died on the cross to save me from my sin?