“Palm” Sunday and the Sanctification of Creation

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski has shared some richly splendid thoughts on Facebook on his first pre-1955 Palm Sunday Mass:
The "missa sicca" or dry Mass at the beginning, with an Epistle, Gradual, and Gospel, then a Preface prior to the blessing of the palms -- all of this, prior to the procession with palms, leading into the actual Mass of the day -- was simply the most perfect exemplification of the Catholic principle of sacramentality I have ever seen. Authors like Schmemann, Kavanaugh, and Fagerberg like to talk about "the sacramental cosmos," but there are no texts anywhere that convey the idea of sanctified creation better than the ones in the old Palm Sunday liturgy. 
I share Dr. Kwasniewski's affection for the older ritual, and I'd like to expound on two main ideas drawn from his comments.

First, the dry Mass or missa sicca has been on my mind a great deal this year, as I have been preparing an English edition of the Carthusian Officium Missae, or Office of the Mass. As part of this preparation, I have been reading up on the dry Mass, and without having made an extensive scholarly study of the devotion, it seems there has not generally been uniform agreement on its propriety in the West (See Fortescue.) In the East there is a Reader’s Typika, a priestless service mirroring the Divine Liturgy; it seems this is generally not questioned, although with caveats that it cannot take the place of the Divine Liturgy.

With the recent rediscovery of the traditional Holy Week, a whole new light seems to fall on the missa sicca question for me. The immemorial Roman liturgy of Palm Sunday has already set an example of the dry Mass by using the Missal as a template for, as Dr. Kwasniewski says, a “sanctified creation” in which palms are distributed rather than Holy Communion. That is a plain liturgical fact, and indeed I think now that Palm Sunday can serve as a model ne plus ultra of what a dry Mass ought to look like—and then any discussion on propriety or potential abuses or confusion can flow from there.

Secondly, Dr. Kwasniewski's idea of the Palm Sunday liturgy sanctifying creation touches on an issue that particularly resonates with this amateur naturalist.

We can easily forget, in our era of far-flung globalized commerce, that for most of the Church’s long history, palm fronds and olive branches were not easily obtainable outside the regions where they naturally grew. And, particularly in cold northern climes, deciduous trees are often not even in leaf yet at this time of year. So throughout much of Christendom, if they wanted to keep Palm Sunday at all, many Catholics and Orthodox were compelled to substitute other more seasonably obtainable species of trees.

Eastern Catholics from the Slavic traditions seem to remember this history quite well, as they still often distribute pussy willows at Palm Sunday, and indeed even still call the day “Pussy Willow Sunday”. While the willow has also been used in Latin areas, other species were utilized as well. Yew (Taxus baccata) was especially popular among Catholics in England and Ireland, to the extent that the yew was even called a “palm” in common parlance. Other species such as sallow, laurel, box and broom are also attested in England.

Here in North America, the Catholic Indian tribes likewise adapted their own native species for use at Palm Sunday. The Abenaki at St. Francis in Odanak used arborvitae or whitecedar (Thuja occidentalis). The Flathead Indians used Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata); this species was commonly blessed and used throughout British Columbia.

Overall, without necessarily condemning the modern switch to palms proper, it seems an ancestral impiety to totally abandon these long-standing connections to natural local flora—particularly in this day and age where “locally-sourced” has become a badge of honor. Also, many of these alternate species offer extra symbolism of their own that complement those of Mediterranean olive and palm—in Slavic countries the pussy willow, the first to bud, is a symbol of the Resurrection.  The Canadian arborvitae, “tree of life”— earned that name when an Iroquoian tribe used it to save the lives of Jacques Cartier’s crew from scurvy; and it's an easy connection between that name and the Holy Cross.

Latin parishes would do well to learn from our Byzantine neighbors. Making an extra effort to include both the palm and its traditional local substitutes can help better incarnate the Gospel in our own regions of the world. And children can participate in Palm Sunday in a far more meaningful way by not just bringing home imported palms but also, where possible, cutting a few branches of yew or redcedar from their backyards to decorate the family home.

We could certainly leave the restoration of the pre-1955 Holy Week to the clergy if we wish, but we in the laity have our own traditions to restore and uphold as well. It is high time that we attended to them.

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