Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday in England before the Reformation

The Catholic Church in England before the Reformation used some adaptations of the Latin or Roman Rite called the Sarum Use. These adaptations had developed at Salisbury Cathedral and took their name from the Latin for Salisbury. During Holy Week, these Sarum Use adaptations of the ritual demonstrated the great devotion of the English people to the Eucharist and the Passion of Our Lord. Eamon Duffy’s great work, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 offers us many details of these rituals.

At the beginning of Holy Week, Palm Sunday was celebrated with a procession from the parish church. As Duffy notes, these processions were one of the most elaborate rituals of the Sarum Use, focused on the Blessed Sacrament and the incarnational celebration of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Instead of a figure representing Jesus riding on a donkey, the Blessed Sacrament was carried in procession to the parish church. The Christians celebrating that day knew that Jesus was present in the Holy Eucharist, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity--that He was really there with them as they walked in procession with palms (willow branches) and kissed the ground before Him.

The choirs sang "Gloria, Laus et Honor" (All Glory, Laud and Honor) by Theodulph of Orleans and after the procession entered the church, the dramatic reading of the St. Matthew's Passion captured the congregation's attention. Duffy notes it was sometimes read from the Rood Loft next to the Crucifixion scene in front and above the Altar, with alternating voices of the Narrator, Jesus, and the other Speakers. The holiest week of the year had begun and the parishioners were prepared to celebrate the Holy Triduum and receive Holy Communion on Easter Sunday.

During the celebration of Palm Sunday, I always think of G.K. Chesterton's poem, "The Donkey":

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

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