By Father John P. Cush, STD
As many of you reading this article might know, this liturgy which we celebrate today is a rather odd one. Prior to the reforms of the Sacred Liturgy called for by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholics around the world would have celebrated two separate Sundays — one which would have been “Passion Sunday,” in which we as a Church would have commemorated the dolorous Passion and life-giving death of our Savior Christ, and another one the following week in which we would have celebrated the Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of Holy Week. By 1960, with Pope St. John XXIII’s liturgical reforms, we would have had the Passion Sunday be known as “First Sunday of the Lord’s Passion” and Palm Sunday be called “Second Sunday of the Passion or Palm Sunday.”
Now, with this liturgical reform over the past fifty or so years since the liturgical reforms called by Pope St. Paul VI, we have these two separate Sundays, one filled with pain and sorrow (Passion Sunday) and the other with an abundance of hope, joy, and expectation (Palm Sunday) combined into one. The current sacred liturgy recognizes this well and allows for it with its two Gospels, one for the Procession of Palms and one (which is generally in most parish churches and chapels read as a dialogue) about the Passion of the Lord.
Although some may decry this joining together of these two Sundays as a quasi-manic emotional roller-coaster ride, I most certainly do not. I truly believe that this Sunday, this “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion” is the most proper representation of the Christian life which we could have presented to us liturgically. It is a Sunday of highs and lows, of joy and sorrows, of cheers and tears, and, if we are honest with ourselves, isn’t that the way our lives really are?
No one is happy 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year. We all have our crescendos (our highs) and our diminuendos (our lows.) We all have the moments where we feel like we’re on top of the world, living our best lives, and, in the next few moments, due to circumstance beyond our control (or even sometimes because of our own fault,) we have a crashing fall.
This Palm Sunday which we celebrate today is one of great joy. Jesus of Nazareth is rightly recognized as the one, true Christ, the long-awaited Messiah. This Passion Sunday which we celebrate today is one of great sorrow. The All-Beautiful One is scarred. He is broken, bloodied, beaten, struck down for our sins, his glorious countenance marred beyond all semblance of recognition. The only innocent one is unjustly condemned, bearing the weight of our sins. Yet, in all of this, there is no real contradiction in celebrating these two events on the same liturgical day.
For this is our life as human beings in this veil of tears. We live in a fallen world, one which suffers under the weight of the fall, of the original sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, as well as our own personal sin. Yet still, we can laugh, we can cheer, we can experience the love of another human being, the smile and the personal encounter in which we can know we are, in a limited, human way, the love of the transcendent God. Every day in the life of a Christian is Palm Sunday because every day is filled with the joy of the Lord. Every day in the life of a Christian is Passion Sunday because as the music group REM sang many years ago, “everybody hurts.”
However, the Palms and the Passion both lead to the glory of what we know is true above anything else — the Lord’s Resurrection, his triumph over sin and death. Thank God for the Church in her wisdom acknowledging the truth that each day for us in our lives is filled with passion and palms.
Readings for Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
Ps 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
Father Cush is the Academic Dean of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, and professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical University of Santa Croce, also in Rome.