Palm Sunday procession always moves at ‘just the right pace’
Q. Every year my pastor tries to get people to walk in the Palm Sunday procession from the school to the church but many are reluctant to do so. Can you say something to encourage more people to participate in the procession?
A. When the liturgy of Holy Week was reformed under Pope Pius XII in the 1950s, the procession on Palm Sunday was restored to the people. I remember how unusual it was to gather with fellow worshippers in the gym at Ascension Parish in north Minneapolis for the blessing of the palms and then cross the parking lot to church for the Mass.
Writing when the post-Vatican II liturgy was quite young, Mgr. J.D. Chrichton explained that the Palm Sunday procession is “an occasion when people can be helped to realize that they can worship God with their bodies, that their very walking in procession is a way of taking part in the liturgy of the day. We think we are not very good at the bodily expression of anything but perhaps that is because we have never tried it….” (‘The Liturgy of Holy Week,” p. 28.) And walking on Palm Sunday is good for the soul.
A walk with Jesus
We know the length of the first Palm Sunday procession: it’s something like two miles from the Mount of Olives to the city of Jerusalem. But we really don’t know the pace of that procession of Jesus, his disciples and the large crowd. Was it fast or slow? Solemn and stately, or rather disorganized? We can’t get into a time machine and go back to find out.
But wonder of wonders, the much shorter Palm Sunday procession in each parish will move at exactly the right pace, exactly the right pace for each of us:
• If you are sick or suffering from a chronic illness, the pace will be just right for you. It will be the pace that Jesus sets, the pace of the one who bore all our ills and infirmities.
• If you are elderly, the pace will be just right for you. It will be the pace that Jesus sets, the pace of the one who renews our spiritual youth through his powerful grace.
• If you are young, and would rather be running a marathon than walking in a sacred parade, the pace will be just right for you. It will be the pace that Jesus sets, the pace of the one who eagerly ran his race to win our salvation.
• If you feel that you sometimes, or often, don’t seem to know where you are headed, the pace will be just right for you. It will be the pace that Jesus sets, the one who leads us in our faith.
Follow the leader
The spiritual pace of our Palm Sunday procession will be perfect for each of us as we enter into another Holy Week. “If you would follow me,” a song by Bernadette Farrell, sings “follow where life would lead.” On Palm Sunday, we follow Christ our Life where he leads us: to death to self. But Jesus never turned back: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Sometime, somewhere, in some circumstance, each follower of Jesus will need to say and mean these words, the words that mean death to self but life in Christ. This is God’s paschal mystery, God’s Easter plan for our salvation in the dying and rising of Jesus, in which we share through baptism.
Many people carried palm branches that first Palm Sunday; only Jesus carried the cross on Good Friday. But because he did, we find strength to follow his way of the cross through our self-sacrifice. “Do not refuse the death which brings you life,” the song sings. For Christ our Life leads us, saves us, loves us, those he has redeemed by the wood of the cross.
Christians of the Eastern Churches have called Holy Week the “Great Week,” because in it we celebrate the great events of our salvation in Christ. Those events revealed his greatness as the Suffering Son of Man and the Divine Son of God. The last week of Christ’s life was marked by the greatest expressions of his love for God and others.
Holy Week can be a great week for us if we enter more deeply into the dying and rising of Christ. The greatness of this week comes from what Christ has done for us in the past and does for us now. “We do not live in ungrateful forgetfulness,” said St. Augustine, “but we celebrate in grateful memory.” Our “grateful memory” sets us on our “closer walk” with Jesus on Palm Sunday and during Holy Week.