For those of you who don’t know, today was Palm Sunday. I attended the evening mass tonight and was reminded of how beautiful the liturgy of the church is during this period of the church year. For those of you unfamiliar with the Catholic faith, today marks the beginning of Holy Week, the week prior to Easter. Growing up, Easter was a one Sunday out of the year event, but of course, us Catholics, we have to make a big deal out of everything. 😉
So Easter kind of “kick-starts” with Palm (or Passion) Sunday, then we have a special mass for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil (Sat night) and then of course, Easter Sunday. But don’t think we’re done there. Oh no, then we have another 7 weeks of Easter liturgy, stretching until Pentecost. I know, I know. Overachievers, the lot of us. 🙂
Tonight’s mass began with the congregation gathered outside. The priest said an opening prayer and then blessed a stack of palm leaves for each of the congregants to take inside as part of the procession. The procession was lead by “liturgical dancers”, women dressed in white robes with red sashes, who twirled and waved large, green palm branches as they proceeded throughout the sanctuary. It might sound odd, but they were incredibly elegant in their movements and the opening music that accompanied it was lovely.
Here’s a picture of liturgical dancers (not from my parish) to give you an idea of what they look like:
After the procession, the mass began as usual. In a Catholic mass, there are a series of readings from the scriptures with scripted responses from the congregants. Usually it’s an “amen” or “thanks be to God” or something basic like that. However, tonight they read a passage from the book of Matthew, starting with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem through to His crucifixion. We had a “narrator” read the bulk of the passage, with our priest reading the words of Jesus and one of our deacons reading the role of Pontius Pilate. The powerful part, for me, was that the congregation “played” the role of the crowds that cried out for the crucifixion of Christ. Being asked to speak the words, “Let Him be crucified” truly brought the reality of it home to me.
The rest of the mass then proceeded as usual with a short homily (sermon) and partaking of the Eucharist (communion). Usually, after communion, the mass is ended with the priest saying such words as “Go in peace” and there is a parting song – often uplifting, joyful music. However, tonight the priest and deacon remained seated and the musicians began playing a hauntingly beautiful melody. A young woman came from behind the altar, again wearing white robes, but this time with a blue mantle covering her head and flowing down to the floor. (The blue mantle, I learned early on in my Catholic education, is a classic identifier of Mary, mother of Jesus). She spoke about holding her son’s body for the last time and the terrible grief that she felt as a mother – to have held her son at birth and again at his death. The young woman portraying Mary was wonderful – I found myself moved to tears as I listened to her soliloquy. When she was finished, the priest said a short closing prayer and the recessional was done in silence, no joyful music, no parting blessing. A fitting preparation for the week to come.
I don’t know why I felt compelled to share all this information with you, my faithful readers. It just struck me tonight that for so much of my life, I have spent Easter focusing solely on the positive aspects of the holiday – you know, the joy of the Resurrection and Ascension (ok, ok, and the Easter Bunny, baskets of candy and all things pastel) while somewhat glossing over/avoiding the pain and betrayal of the actual crucifixion. It is uncomfortable to be reminded of the devastation of that moment in time, to be reminded of my own role in it, as I spoke the words, “Let Him be crucified”. It’s much more comforting to focus on the warm-fuzzy side of religion. You know, the whole “God is Love” and “Love your Neighbor” and “Can’t We All Just Get Along” (Ok, so that last one isn’t strictly scriptural..) However, to fully understand and appreciate the miracle of the Resurrection of Christ, we must first be willing/able to acknowledge our role in the tragedy of His death. That is what Holy Week is all about. Walking us through the final week of Christ’s life – reminding us about the core element of our faith.
So there you have it. A little peek into Palm Sunday and Holy Week as a Catholic. Not my usual foray into snarky humor, but what can I say, everyone has to have a serious moment at least once in their lives, right?