The last week of Lent has ever been observed by Christians as a time
of special solemnity; and from the awfully important events which occurred
in the last week of our Lord's life, which it represents to us, it has
been called, from primitive times, the Great Week and the Holy Week.
During this period there was, as early as the days of St. Chrysostom, a
general cessation of business among the Christian part of the people: fasting
was observed with greater strictness than in the other weeks of Lent, and
special acts of mercy and charity were engaged in by all, the Emperors
(when they had become Christian) setting an official example by ceremonies
of which our Royal Maundy is a relic.
The first day of the Holy Week is called Indulgence Sunday in the Lectionary
of St. Jerome, and in many other later writers. This name has been
explained by a custom of the Christian Emperors, who used to set prisoners
free and close all courts of law during Holy Week. But it seems to
have been in use before this practice originated, which was not earlier
than the end of the fourth century. It has also been supposed to
be connected with the reconciliation of penitents. In the Sacramentary
of St. Gregory there is the phrase, "Per Quem nobis indulgentia largitur,"
in the proper preface for this day, and "ut indulgentiam percipere mereamur,"
in the Collect for Tuesday; from which it may be inferred that the name
Indulgence Sunday (and Indulgence Week) originally pointed to our Lord's
work of redemption, and His great love in going forward willingly on this
day to meet His sufferings. The day is also called Hosanna Sunday
in some parts of Europe and the East.
But a far more common name is that by which it is familiarly known to
us, that of Palm Sunday. It is called Dominica in ramis palmarum in the Sacramentary of St. Gregory, and
Dominica in ramis olivarum
in that of St. Ambrose, and in the former there is a plain reference to
the ceremony of branch-bearing as one then in use, as well as to the act
of the Jews which originally gave the name to the Sunday. The words
are in the Benediction of the people: "May Almighty God grant unto you,
that as ye present yourselves before Him with branches of palms and of
other trees, so after your departure from this life ye may attain to appear
before Him with the fruit of good works and the palm of victory."
In the Ambrosian rite it is not so clear that the ceremony was then in
use; but St. Chrysostom mentions the shaking of the palm-branches [seiein
ta baia] as one of the customs of the day in one of his sermons
for the Great Week.
In the ancient English Church the Benediction of the Palms took place
before the beginning of the Holy Communion. First an Acolyte read
Exodus xv. 27 - xvi. 10, the narrative of Israel's encamping by the twelve
wells and threescore and ten palm-trees of Elim. Then a Deacon read
St. John xii. 12-19, the account of our Lord's triumphal entry. After
this the palm, yew, or willow branches being laid upon the Altar, the Priest
(vested in a red silk cope) pronounced an exorcism and a blessing over
them, which were followed by four Collects. A procession then passed
round the Church, singing Anthems, and distributing the branches; after
which began the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The custom is
still represented in some places by decking the Church with willow-branches
on Palm Sunday; and almost everywhere by the country-people bearing them
in their hands as they walk out in the afternoon.
On this day the Church has always begun to set before God and men the
Gospel account of the Passion of our Lord. In the Lectionary of St.
Jerome, and in the ancient Missals of the Church of England, St. Matthew's
narrative, or "The Passion according to St. Matthew," was fixed for the
Gospel on Palm Sunday, that of St. Mark on Tuesday, that of St. Luke on
Wednesday, and that of St. John on Good Friday.
[The Passion was said in a very remarkable manner, and
is printed accordingly in the Salisbury Missal. Instead of the whole
being said by the Gospeller, it was apportioned among three persons, apparently
choir-men. Those words which were spoken by the Jews or the disciples
had the letter 'a' prefixed, and were directed to be sung or said (cantariant
pronuntiari) by an alto voice; the words of our Lord were marked
"b," and to be sung by a bass voice; those of the Evangelist "m,"
to be sung by a tenor (media). This singular custom was observed
in reading the Passion from each of the four Evangelists; and is still
kept up abroad.]
Until 1661 the 26th and 27th chapters of St. Matthew were still read
for the Gospel on Palm Sunday, and the 18th and 19th of St. John on Good
Friday; but a marginal note in Sancroft's writing is appended to both these
days in the Durham book, directing the first chapter to be left out in
each case, because it is appointed to be read in the Second Lesson.
The distinguishing characteristic of this day in the last week of our
Lord's life is not represented in any of the Scriptures for the day, which
are altogether occupied with our Lord's Passion. This arises from
the change made in 1549, when the service for the Benediction of the Palms
was set aside (in which this characteristic of the day was fully commemorated),
and only the Ancient Mass of the day (which was commemorative of the Passion)
retained. This oversight is to be regretted, as there is clearly
a connection between the usage of palm-bearing and the Divine ritual, both
of Sinai and the New Jerusalem. One of God's commands to the Jews
was, "Ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches
of palm-trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook;
and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days." [Lev. xxiii.
40] And in the Revelation St. John writes, "After this I beheld,
and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations,
and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before
the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands." [Rev.