The Sunday of the Passion

Palm Sunday

When Jesus left His Father’s throne,
     He chose a humble birth;
Like us, unhonored and unknown,
     He came to dwell on earth.
Like Him may we be found below,
     In wisdom’s path of peace;
Like Him in grace and knowledge grow,
     As years and strength increase.

Sweet were His words and kind His look,
     When mothers round Him pressed;
Their infants in His arms He took,
     And on His bosom blessed.
Safe from the world’s alluring harms,
     Beneath His watchful eye,
Thus in the circle of His arms
     May we forever lie.

When Jesus into Zion rode,
     The children sang around;
For joy they plucked the palms and strewed
     Their garments on the ground.
Hosanna our glad voices raise,
     Hosanna to our King!
Should we forget our Savior’s praise,
     The stones themselves would sing. 

     James Montgomery

This fine hymn rarely finds an obvious occasion on which to be sung because it covers such a large swath of Our Lord’s life. It was written as a children’s hymn, childhood and children being the thread running through the text: Our Lord’s own childhood, during which He ‘increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man’ [Lk 2.40,52]; His blessing of children who were brought to him during His ministry; and the participation of children in the events of Palm Sunday.

Children, despite their traditional association with the Palm Sunday Procession and appearance in several of the anthems (Pueri Hebraeorum portantes, Pueri Hebraeorum vestimenta, Cum angelis et pueris), the hymn (Gloria, laus, et honor), and the responsory (Ingrediente Domino) sung during it, are not mentioned specifically in that connection in the Gospels, but according to the fourth-century pilgrim Egeria’s eyewitness account, they were a part of Holy Week processions as celebrated at Jerusalem. These associations may be explained by either the mention, just after the Triumphal Entry narrative, of ‘children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David” ’ [Mt 21.15], and/or the account in the fourth-century Gospel of Nicodemus, or Acts of Pilate, which places ‘the children of the Hebrews’ at the scene of the Triumphal Entry:

Then Pilate called for the messenger and said unto him: Wherefore hast thou done this, and hast spread thy kerchief upon the ground and made Jesus to walk upon it? The messenger saith unto him: Lord governor, when thou sentest me to Jerusalem unto Alexander, I saw Jesus sitting upon an ass, and the children of the Hebrews held branches in their hands and cried out, and others spread their garments beneath him, saying: Save now, thou that art in the highest: blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

The Jews cried out and said unto the messenger: The children of the Hebrews cried out in Hebrew: how then hast thou it in the Greek? The messenger saith to them: I did ask one of the Jews and said: What is it that they cry out in Hebrew? and he interpreted it unto me.

Pilate saith unto them: And how cried they in Hebrew? The Jews say unto him: Hosanna membrome barouchamma adonai. Pilate saith unto them: And the Hosanna and the rest, how is it interpreted? The Jews say unto him: Save now, thou that art in the highest: blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Pilate saith unto them: If you yourselves bear witness of the words which were said of the children, wherein hath the messenger sinned? and they held their peace. [I.3–4]

Some versions of this Gospel of Nicodemus also include an extended narrative of the Harrowing of Hell,* in which the souls in the underworld quote Psalm 24, inviting the gates of Hell to open and admit the conquering Christ:

While Satan and Hades were thus speaking to each other, there was a great voice like thunder, saying: Lift up your gates, O ye rulers; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates; and the King of glory shall come in. When Hades heard, he said to Satan: Go forth, if thou art able, and withstand him. Satan therefore went forth to the outside. Then Hades says to his demons: Secure well and strongly the gates of brass and the bars of iron, and attend to my bolts, and stand in order, and see to everything; for if he come in here, woe will seize us.

The forefathers having heard this, began all to revile him, saying: O all-devouring and insatiable! open, that the King of glory may come in. David the prophet says: Dost thou not know, O blind, that I when living in the world prophesied this saying: Lift up your gates, O ye rulers? Hesaias [Isaiah] said: I, foreseeing this by the Holy Spirit, wrote: The dead shall rise up, and those in their tombs shall be raised, and those in the earth shall rejoice. And where, O death, is thy sting? where, O Hades, is thy victory?

There came, then, again a voice saying: Lift up the gates. Hades, hearing the voice the second time, answered as if forsooth he did not know, and says: Who is this King of glory? The angels of the Lord say: The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. And immediately with these words the brazen gates were shattered, and the iron bars broken, and all the dead who had been bound came out of the prisons, and we with them. And the King of glory came in in the form of a man, and all the dark places of Hades were lighted up.

Lest we seem to be getting ahead of ourselves this Holy Week, this psalm is also more directly associated with Palm Sunday, being appointed for Morning Prayer (bcp1979) and also being sung with the first anthem at the Procession, where the gates in question are imagined to be those of the city of Jerusalem (symbolized by the door of the church house during the Procession). This understanding of the gates is also connected with Advent, when the Triumphal Entry is recalled as Christ comes once more to His holy city to wed His Bride, the Church. This connection is made particularly strongly in the Advent hymn ‘Blest be the King whose coming’ [74], in which each stanza begins with the acclamation from Ps 118 repeated on Palm Sunday, and the parallels are strengthened by the use of the tune, ‘Valet will ich dir geben’, often used for the English translation of the Palm Sunday processional hymn, ‘All glory, laud, and honor’.†

To return to Psalm 24: as Hymn 436, a paraphrase of this psalm written for Advent Sunday, reminds us, these gates are also the doors of our heart –

Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates;
behold the King of glory waits!
The King of kings is drawing near;
the Savior of the world is here.

O blest the land, the city blest,
where Christ the ruler is confessed!
O happy hearts and happy homes
to whom this king in triumph comes!

Fling wide the portals of your heart;
make it a temple set apart
from earthly use for heaven’s employ,
adorned with prayer and love and joy;

Redeemer, come! I open wide
my heart to thee: here, Lord, abide!
Let me thy inner presence feel:
thy grace and love in me reveal.

So come, my Sovereign; enter in!
Let new and nobler life begin;
thy Holy Spirit guide us on
until the glorious crown be won.

     George Weissel, tr. Catherine Winkworth

– which one can see variously as the gates of Heaven or Hell, with Christ and our (true, redeemed) selves coming out of prison or into paradise, as the case may be.

*  The Harrowing of Hell is also prefigured at the end of the First Lesson for Morning Prayer (bcp1979) on Palm Sunday –

     As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
     I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
     today I declare that I will restore to you double.

     Zc 9.11–12

– a Lesson that also contains the verses prefiguring the Triumphal Entry, quoted in Mt 21.5 and Jn 12.15 and alluded to in the other Gospel accounts:

     Lo, your king comes to you;
     triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
     on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 
     Zc 9.9bc

†  In the Orthodox Churches, this connection is made explicit in that the evening service for the first four days of Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday, is called ‘Bridegroom Matins’ (see the icon above, in which Christ the Bridegroom is pictured as the soldiers dressed Him in mockery); at this service on Holy Tuesday, the Parable of the Ten Virgins [Mt 25.1–13], which in bcp1979 appears at Mass in pre-Advent (Proper 27a) and the Office in Advent (Advent Sunday, Year II), is read.