On the Sunday next before Easter: beginning the week of the Paschal Mystery

What are we to make of the absence of the term 'Palm Sunday' from the BCP 1662?  Is it another sign of an impoverished liturgical provision for Holy Week?

The Young Tractarians - linking to the entry for Palm Sunday in the Catholic Encylopedia - have highlighted that rather than being a rejection of liturgical tradition, the BCP here retrieves an earlier tradition which the liturgy of the Palms too easily overshadowed (my analysis, not that of the Young Tractarians!).  In the words of the entry:

In the three oldest Roman Sacramentaries no mention is found of either the benediction of the palms or the procession. The earliest notice is in the "Gregorianum" used in France in the ninth and tenth centuries. In it is found among the prayers of the day one that pronounces a blessing on the bearers of the palms but not on the palms. The name Dominica in palmis, De passione Domini occurs in the "Gelasianum", but only as a superscription and Probst ("Sacramentarien und Ordines", Münster, 1892, 202) is probably correct in suspecting the first part to be an addition, and the De passione Domini the original inscription. It seems certain that the bearing of palms during services was the earlier practice, then came the procession, and later the benediction of the palms. 

That this Sunday was originally De passione Domini is seen in, for example, Leo the Great's Sermon 54, delivered on the Sunday before Easter.  It contains no mentions of palms, but from its opening has an unrelenting focus on the Passion:

Among all the works of God's mercy, dearly-beloved, which from the beginning have been bestowed upon men's salvation, none is more wondrous, and none more sublime, than that Christ was crucified for the world.

Leo also refers to the defining characteristic of the Sunday - not palms and procession, but the reading of the Passion:

But because, dearly-beloved, the whole story is too long to go through today, let us put off the rest till Wednesday, when the reading of the Lord's Passion will be repeated.

And this, of course, is what we see in the BCP 1662 provision for this Sunday, with the Passion according to St Matthew being the appointed Gospel reading.  Rather than being an impoverishment, it is a retrieval of the venerable, older tradition of proclaiming the Lord's Passion on this Sunday.

Which brings us to the title given to the Sunday in 1662 - 'The Sunday next before Easter'.  This is actually a richer title than the rather functional 'Palm Sunday', as it orients us towards the fullness of the Paschal Mystery, what Leo in his sermon for the Sunday calls "the mystery of His Death and Resurrection".

Put simply, 'Palm Sunday' fails entirely to draw this into focus. It fails to declare that this is the Sunday which begins the week of the Lord's Passion.  The absence from the Prayer Book tradition of Palm Sunday and the liturgy of the Palms, then, is no impoverishment but an enrichment, ensuring that the Church enters into this week gazing without distraction upon the mystery of the Cross.


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