As we enter into Holy Week, those who frequent the Extraordinary Form are always in for a treat. I would dare say that one has not really experienced the beauty of the Latin Mass until one goes through the Holy Week ceremonies started off by Palm Sunday. If you can find a Church that celebrates all of the Masses with full ceremony, consider yourself blessed and attend, for there are far too few of them today.
To the newcomer, a lot of this ceremonial stuff can be confusing. Why is the priest doing this? Why is the congregation doing that? If you’d like a more in-depth explanation, there are many great resources, but of special mention should be Fr. Adrian Fortescue’s Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described or Dom Prosper Gueranger’s masterpiece The Liturgical Year. These works should be required reading not just for traditionalists, but all Catholics. Due to the importance of these ceremonies, today seems as good of a time as any to explain why we Catholics hold them so dear.
The Palm Sunday services begin with the blessing of the palms, where the priest prays that “what Thy people today bodily perform for Thy honor, they may perfect spiritually with the utmost devotion.” The Jews gathered outside of Jerusalem with palms to welcome their King, their Anointed One (Messiah) into the city, his rightful home as King of the Jews. We Catholics join this ceremony to reflect a deeper spiritual reality: we are welcoming Christ into our hearts, his rightful home as our King and Savior. All of the ceremonies of the traditional Roman liturgy exist as a way for Catholics to welcome Christ into His rightful throne in our hearts.
Often when people see our ceremonies (this goes for all Catholics but especially traditionalists) , we are accused (sometimes by even high ranking Church authorities) of espousing a Pharisaical mindset of a hyper-emphasis on rules and empty rituals. They see our emphasis on ritual as a hindrance to devotion towards Our Lord. To traditionalists this objection makes little sense. Like the Jews of old, the laws and rituals of tradition are not a hindrance, but how we practice our devotion to God. Furthermore, the existence of these things is a sign of God’s favor towards the Christian people, because God gave us, through time, a way to worship him with all of our mind, body and soul.
So while we rightly reject the idea that our rituals and traditions are empty, the temptation is real they can become empty. The rest of today’s liturgy provides some helpful tips to avoid this. The blessing of the palms asks that we be given the grace to “overcome the enemy and ardently loving every work of mercy” done in the name of Christ. He shows the way to overcome the enemy via the first reading, where he “empties himself”, taking on the form of a servant. There’s no word in the English language that can easily describe the greek concept of kenosis this verse implies. A brief explanation is that kenosis entails shedding all of your wants and desires, and replacing them with only the betterment of another in your desire and actions.
The rituals and traditions of the liturgy do not exist in a vacuum, and the Palm Sunday service is a perfect example of that. While the liturgy starts with a triumphant tone of Christ entering Jerusalem, midway through the Mass she moves towards reflecting on the death of Christ. At this point we should see the truth: whether or not they realized it, the Jews celebrated Christ being faithful to His purpose. They were celebrating His decision to die of his own free-will for our sins. Right after we receive communion, the communion verse makes this explicitly clear when they recite the words of Christ asking for the cup to pass, but in the end, thy will be done.
One of the chief lessons of Holy Week is that doing the will of God can be a lonely venture. The Offertory reminds us of this when it speaks of there being nobody around to comfort the one doing God’s will. The Tract speaks of one who is so lonely he feels almost as if God himself has forsaken him. During Good Friday we will sing The Reproaches, where instead of comfort, Jesus Christ is subject to the jeers and torment of the mob. As we enter deeper and deeper into the Passion of Christ in our own age, we should expect no different.
During these difficult times, fidelity to tradition and the deposit of faith can seem like a lonely endeavor. Not only is it mocked by the world, it is often held in contempt even by leaders in the Church. When we have that feeling of despair, we should be able to find solace in the ceremonies of the liturgy described today. God gave them to us as a sign of his love, that if we follow them, if we truly take them into our heart, we will find the path towards him. Through the Eucharist we receive at every Mass (even spiritually) we find this path possible thanks to the grace God has given us. As rough as that path may be (and it will only get rougher on Good Friday), the triumph of the Resurrection is only 7 days away. Like Christ, let us not turn away, but enter to where God wants us to go.