Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday were joined as a single liturgical date in 1969-70. Prior to that, the 5th Sunday in Lent initiated Passiontide, a two-week period preceding Easter, with a reading of the Passion. Then on the 6th Sunday, the Church celebrated Palm Sunday, remembering Christ’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. Many have been critical of the conflation of the two occasions into one. And I sympathize. The dual thematic focus can be difficult to hold in mind. The foreboding mood set by a preparatory proclamation of the sacrifice on Calvary, then the Passiontide practices of veiling of statues, removing of Holy Water stoops (and in some communities, replacing the water with sand), and other traditions that set a somber tone for the week preceding made the Palm Sunday procession richly ironic. The Palm Sunday procession was done against the backdrop of the Passion explicitly even as this wasn’t chronologically correct. The Church now keeps the natural sequence, and the procession is seen as poignant in retrospect, at the liturgy’s end.
This year, however, I would say that the poignancy of the triumphal parade is in great evidence even as we are kept, in even greater irony, from the traditional procession by the ban on public gatherings. This Passiontide, as we read the scriptures for the Masses we cannot attend, or listen to them via television broadcast or internet stream, they are heard and registered within the looming shade of the cross, under the shadow of death. This year we are profoundly aware of our lives being lived in that dark valley where fear is combated by our Lord’s presence; that we are not afraid, for he is with us, “his rod and staff” are a comfort.
However, as much as I pray that we are comforted by our Lord as shepherd and guide, I hope that the deprivations of recent weeks have deepened awareness of other matters of importance. I can’t say as there are many who would have ever proposed a Lenten discipline such as we are involuntarily experiencing. Like the abstention from certain foods is to raise our appreciation of the richness of life, how the fasting is to sharpen our hunger for spiritual nourishment; the forced fasting from society, the imposed abstaining from civil life, these things should make us aware of both the great gift of these things we have enjoyed, and how tenuous our grip is on civilization and its many benefits.
It has long been the intellectual fashion, especially in the academic realm, to dismiss the accomplishments of our civilization. In contrast, there are those who arrogantly presume the permanence of our collective achievement: so rich and powerful are we that no manner of abuse of traditions or neglect of the necessary virtues, can cause our downfall.
Now, a virus, a most primitive and simple form of life has shown us that we live according to a system of such dazzling complexity that while it has hitherto provided us with every need, and want, at a modest material cost, it is so very vulnerable to dissolution. How worrying to consider where our food is to come from without the fleets of transports and their drivers, the network of grocery stores and their staffs of clerks and cashiers. How prompting to introspection has the revelation that the world is not so much a neighbourhood of friends on a global scale, but a cosmos of very different worlds where democracy and responsible government is a phenomenon in only a minority of nation-states. At our peril do we trust that others share in our valuation of human life, its dignity and its sanctity. To our shame we have shirked our evangelical duty to proclaim the transformative truths of the Gospel to the world: it is the axis of Jerusalem and Athens upon which Christian civilization turned that gave rise to all that we enjoy. Instead of luxuriating in its legacy, we ought to be firm in our resolve to renew this faith among ourselves and spread it to others, both here and abroad, within our own households, and in our community as well.
We could not wave our palm branches this year, and so have missed the annual collective exercise in compunction; but I think the larger events in which we now find ourselves a part should be more than enough to prompt us to that prayerful consideration of who we are as individual disciples and as a community of faith. I know from personal interactions with parishioners and others that many are practicing a more intentional humanness toward their neighbours; the kindnesses are thoughtful, and not simply habitual politeness in a world marked by impersonal encounters with our fellow human beings.
Those who waved palms at that first parade of our Saviour through the streets of Jerusalem, doubtless thought themselves sincere in their adulation, and only later felt the embarrassment of their hypocrisy. The faithful Christian who takes up the palm branch waves it in acknowledgment of personal failings, but also with a resolve to be someone who not only welcomes Christ in His triumph, but also will follow Him without reservation to Calvary, to stand at the foot of the cross and acknowledge the debt owed by us and paid by Him. We owe so much to the sacrifices of others; we owe everything to Him who did not hesitate to give all.