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Next Sunday many people will arrive for Mass only to discover that they are expected to take part in a procession with palms. The Sacramentary calls for a procession or solemn entrance before the principal Mass on Passion (Palm) Sunday. Blessing palms as a commemoration of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, when people spread palm branches on the road before him, makes sense. But why have a procession?
A procession with palms on the Sunday before Easter is mentioned by Egeria in her account of Holy Week in Jerusalem in the 4th century. In the Middle Ages the procession usually moved from one church to another and included a representation of Christ seated on a wooden donkey. The well known “All glory, laud and honour” was written especially for the Palm Sunday procession by Bishop Theodulph of Orleans around the year 800.
The procession with palms is the first of several processions in Holy Week and the Easter Triduum. On Holy Thursday night the Blessed Sacrament is solemnly carried through the Church to a special place of reservation. Many parishes will have a procession for everyone at the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. At the Easter Vigil we process from the sacred fire into the church and from the word to the baptismal font.
These ritual processions give expression to our faith. They offer the whole assembly the opportunity to participate in public acts of worship. When all the people join in the processions on Passion Sunday or at the Easter Vigil, we see the Church on the move, acting as a single unit, acclaiming Christ with shouts of Hosanna or Alleluia.
These processions are the Church at prayer. When people carry branches (not just little sprigs!) and wave them, they acclaim Christ with “Hosanna” in action. When they carry lighted candles in the darkness, “Alleluia” is not only on their lips but also in their hands and feet.
Processions start somewhere and go somewhere; they are essentially movement. The procession of palms leads people to the proclamation of the Passion of the Lord; it takes them from joyful acclamation to sober reflection. The procession of light at the Easter Vigil leads people to the great Easter Proclamation (the Exsultet) and to the unfolding story of the Scriptures. The physical moment of the procession reflects the movement of the liturgy itself as it builds towards its climaxes.
A well-planned liturgical procession will make an impact upon the gathering because it encourages active participation. The proper combination of people, movement, ritual action, music and song will ensure the procession is a true expression of the Church as people on pilgrimage towards God’s kingdom. At the end of all our liturgical celebrations we process as pilgrim people out into the world which we serve as followers of Christ.