Slightly more than a stone’s throw from my family home in Woonsocket are two parishes of Ukrainian heritage. St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church is located on Blackstone Street, and, just yards away, St. Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church stands on Harris Avenue. The two parishes have an intertwined history of property disagreements and court settlements. But one facet of happy and ancient agreement between the two ethnic communities is distributing on Passion Sunday not palms but pussy willows. No doubt the custom goes back to the “old country,” where a cold climate made palms a rarity, but the approach of Spring made pussy willows plentiful. Either way, the Paschal symbolism remains the same. The ancient throngs welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem by waving celebratory palm fronds as crowds today wave flags and banners to herald the approach of a modern hero. Palms and pussy willows are to the Christian world what ticker tape is to the secular world. A superstar has come to town!
There is no doubt that, even after two thousand years of heresy and schism within the Church and even after two recent centuries of materialism and secularism in the Western world, Jesus remains a hero, a celebrity, a superstar. Christ was a great preacher, a wondrous miracle worker, a clever story teller, a kindly conversationalist, a dedicated Jew and a prayerful son of his heavenly Father. There is much about him to celebrate. Yet down deep, as Jesus rode into Israel’s capital city, the Savior must have known in his heart that preaching, healing and piety would not be his ultimate claim to fame. And had the crowds known what would eventually distinguish Jesus as Savior of the world, they would certainly have thrown down their palm branches and fled Jerusalem’s streets.
There would be no cheering hordes, no waving twiglets, and no encouraging shouts on Good Friday. Frankly there would be scandal, disbelief and discouragement on that fateful day. A week before, Jesus, seated upon a humble donkey, recognized that his fans were celebrating him for the wrong reason. Jesus knew that the heart of his overall message would not be that he was a celebrity, but rather that he was a casualty. Christ’s greatest contribution to salvation history would not be his eloquence but his sacrifice, not his cures but his death, not his prayers but his obedience. Jesus sadly understood that down through history believers would hope that the Gospel message would be more comforting than challenging. Passion Sunday would always have more popular appeal than Good Friday. Palm branches and pussy willows are much more cheering than the wood of the Cross.
In the former rite for Passion (Palm) Sunday, the celebrant approached the sanctuary wearing a red cope. The Gospel of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem was proclaimed, palms were blessed and distributed and a procession took place. Upon returning to the sanctuary, the celebrant shed his red cope and vested in a purple chasuble in anticipation of the solemn reading of the Passion account during Mass. The visual exchange of colors was instructive. Red vestments are usually worn in commemoration of martyrs and on festivities pertaining to the Holy Spirit. Red is a serious color within the Catholic perspective but there is an assurance of victory, of “mission accomplished,” in recalling the martyrs or the arrival of the Spirit. But on Palm Sunday, the older liturgy did not want the faithful to get too far ahead of Holy Week’s time frame. Victory would come; but this week, worshippers should concentrate on the sufferings that Jesus Christ would undergo for the salvation of the world. Betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, abandoned by his disciples, tried before Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod, scourged, crowned with thorns, ridiculed carrying his Cross, crucified, and dead, Christ would finally be buried in a borrowed tomb. Such is the stuff of Holy Week. The current liturgy much more subtly accomplishes the same point by re-naming the Sunday before Easter as Passion Sunday rather than Palm Sunday. The world was saved on Calvary, not along the avenues and boulevards of Jerusalem.
The dramatic reading of the Passion account on this Sunday is of course graphically and powerfully and sacramentally re-enforced at the consecration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. On the altar, as all may now see in the current rite, the Sacred Body and the Precious Blood are separate as they were at the moment of Christ’s death. The Body is given; the Blood is poured out. “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.” Christ’s sacrificial death is the heart of Holy Week and fundamental to the Christian life.