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Sunday, March 28th, 2021

‘Clamabant dicentes’: a Homily for Palm Sunday

And the multitudes that went before and that followed cried, saying: Hosanna to the son of David (Matthew 21, 9)! 

Today is the first of the four times this week that Our Lord’s Passion will be sung—not just recited, but sung: today, we sing St Matthew’s Passion; Tuesday, St Mark’s; Wednesday, St Luke’s; and finally, on Friday, St John’s. Even the pagans knew that heroic deeds, narratives of danger and sorrow and sacrifice, had to be sung about. And before there were statesmen and philosophers, there were poets. The Odyssey and The Iliad of Homer begin with evocations to the singing Muses; The Aeneid, too: Arma virumque cano.

It is absolutely the case that Jesus Christ is more than a mythic hero; far more than the archetype of the innocent man made to suffer. But he does heroic things; and I do not see why we cannot begin Great Week with a conception of Christ’s perfect heroism. Which is why the Church sings about it.   

Sacred Scripture itself gives us warrant to do this: ‘and the multitudes that went before and that followed cried out, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.”’[1] That is the triumph of a hero. They sang to him that day, especially the little children: we have two processional antiphons that begin with the phrase: Pueri Hebræorum; the little ones of the Hebrews. And this throws light on that mysterious Christian doctrine: ‘Amen I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’[2] 

Perhaps our Lord had Palm Sunday mysteriously in mind when he first uttered these words. Perhaps it is the case that a childlike vision of reality is more able to see and understand heroic things. Perhaps this is the reason we rightfully tell our children the stories we do. And furthermore, note well that our Lord says ‘you will not enter the kingdom of heaven,’ as if we go there by procession—which indeed we do.

And it was for a procession that the Passiontide hymn Pange Lingua was first composed (a hymn not to be confused with one of the same title composed by St Thomas Aquinas for Corpus Christi.) The Pange Lingua of Passiontide was composed by the illustrious Latin hymnodist, Venantius Fortunatus (530-609), and the occasion was the reception of a relic of the True Cross at Poitiers in 570. Thirteen centuries later, the illustrious English hymnodist Fr Edward Caswall (1814-1878) would translate the opening stanza of Pange Lingua in this way: 

Sing, my tongue,

The Saviour’s glory;

Tell His triumph far and wide;

Tell aloud the famous story

Of His body crucified;

How upon the cross a victim,

Vanquishing in death, He died.

Thus we sing the Passion. In an age bereft of heroes—at least in any public sense—we sing of Christ’s heroic Passion. But it is only the childlike who are able to do this. Days after Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Hebrew children were forgotten and their voices silenced by Christ’s enemies, who had to be about the very grownup business of hatred and murder. I imagine we will see a day when Catholic voices will be silenced by Christ’s enemies. But the children of the Church will always sing the Passion. By holiness of life, her children sing the Passion. They do not simply tell it; they sing it. They sing it because the Catholic people are strong and happy to the extent that they rejoice in Christ’s Passion. That is our loving duty always, but especially during these days that are sacred beyond measure. Yes, they will someday silence our voices; but they will never be able to silence our singing.  

 


[1] Matthew 21, 9.

[2] Matthew 18, 3.

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