Parsch on Palm Sunday: the sermon preached by the palms

Fr Pius Parsch (1884 – 1954), an Augustinian canon of Klosterneuberg in Austria, was one of the great figures of the authentic Liturgical Movement. Much of his body of writing is devoted to breaking open the treasures of the liturgy for the benefit of the faithful, and not a few clergy! Much of what is found in the conciliar document on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, is an affirmation of his work, though I suspect much of the later reform in practice would not have cheered him.

For your spiritual reading today here is an excerpt from “Palm Sunday”, found in his Seasons of Grace: New Meditations for Sundays and Feastdays (London, 1963):

Today we enter Holy Week, the great week of the Christian year, a week so rich in associations for all Christians who take the Church’s year seriously. It is nothing less than the celebration of Easter, the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. At this point perhaps, we will need to revise some of our ideas. The celebration of Easter does not begin with Easter Sunday and does not conists merely of Christ’s resurrection. It begins on Palm Sunday – or rather on Passion Sunday – and consists of the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. We cannot separate the Cross from the resurrection; they belong together. They belong together, too, in the life of the Christian, a life of grace which consists in conforming to “the likeness of Christ’s death and resurrection”.

… The Church our Mother, therefore, puts a symbol into our hands, a sign to show that we are Christ’s fellow-warriors, that we die with Christ and with Him gain the victory. She gives us these branches of palm and olive.

If up to now we have looked upon palms as symbols of martyrdom, that is quite true, as we know from the tradition and liturgy of the Church. When, however, we read carefully the prayer with which the Church blesses the these palms, we find she gives them a much richer symbolism. These branches are signs of our readiness to die and rise again with Christ, to fight at His side and to conquer with Him. By taking them in our hands we show that we want “to live in the likeness of Christ’s death and resurrection”. And that means living in union with Christ, which, as St Paul said, involves dying with Christ and rising again with Christ.

… By taking these branches into our hands we announce our firm resolve to take up the struggle against our sinfulness and to receive the gift of grace with joy; for that is what is meant by the work of divine mercy. When therefore we take these branches from the hand of the Church, we say to ourselves: “Thus may I receive grace from the hands of God”. Grace is the greatest possession of our lives, to be carried by us in our procession through life. We take these palms home with us and put them somewhere where we can always see them, to remind us that we are God’s children of grace.

Boughs of palm and olive – see, then, what they mean. We are warriors and victors, and friends and brides of God. We must die daily with Christ, struggle against our sinful nature and love the mercy of God. We must be strong, valiant, steeled against sin; but grace, the olive, steals mildly, softly, mercifully, gently into our souls.

Often, then, during this year let us listen to the sermon which these bough of palm and olive preach us. But now we want to carry them in our hands with pride and joy, as we accompany Christ the Warrior, the Conqueror, our Brother, Friend, and Bridegroom, through death to resurrection.

It can be a little startling to accept that in a sense our Easter celebration has already begun. Yet our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem on a kingly colt is more than a piece of dramatic irony for we who know what is to come but a few days later on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It reminds us that as he processes to his death, Christ processes also to his resurrection and to his coronation as eternal King. How fitting that his crown be of thorns, for his power is found in self-sacrifice for our sake, and not in the pomp that is his right. It gives us heart for the days that are to come, to know that Christ has already won the victory, as he promised. It reminds us what rich reward will crown our own sufferings as we battle the power of sin with the weapons of love, as He did.

Ironically, the liturgy that Parsch expounded is not quite the same as we have today. Many of the prayers are changed, or indeed removed. The prayer of blessing for the palms he refers to is gone, and the reformed liturgy’s prayer has none of the resonance of the previous. Until the post-conciliar reforms the prayer of blessing (translated) was:

Bless, we beseech Thee, O Lord, these branches of palm; and grant that what Thy people today bodily perform for Thy honour, they may perfect spiritually with the utmost devotion, by gaining the victory over the enemy, and ardently loving every work of mercy. Through our Lord…

However, there is something of this meaning lingering in the introduction before the blessing in the new Missal, which also gathers into it the emphasis Parsch placed on Palm Sunday as the beginning of the Easter celebration:

Dear brothers and sisters, since the beginning of Lent until now we have prepared our hearts by penance and charitable works. Today we gather together to herald with the whole Church the beginning of the celebration of our Lord’s Paschal Mystery, that is to say, of his Passion and Resurrection. For it was to accomplish this mystery that he entered his own city of Jerusalem. Therefore, with all faith and devotion, let us commemorate the Lord’s entry into the city for our salvation, following in his footsteps, so that, being made by his grace partakers of the Cross, we may have a share also in his Resurrection and in his life.

Hosanna to the Son of David!

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