Palm or Passion Sunday and its psalm(s)

Two complete services for Palm/Passion Sunday?

Ideally, there would be two different masses on Palm or Passion Sunday, one for the Palm bit and one for the Passion bit, with different psalms. It was always called Palm Sunday when I was little, and certainly that was what you remembered from year to year, the handing out of strange yellow papery things (it was years before I actually realised they were meant to be leaves) and the (slightly embarrassing) mini-procession into the church, singing a hymn with joyful words but usually a dirge-like tune, and the people in church getting out of sync with those still outside, so that you had to do a quick change on crossing the threshold, like when you move from a room with a digital radio into one with an analogue playing the same programme.  Since then, I’ve lived in countries where people bring green branches from their gardens to have them blessed and then wave them in the procession.  This can be difficult in a long winter like this one, but probably gives more of the correct feel.  Blossom branches are uncanonical but very pretty.

Some of these branches are more like mushrooms…
Music to walk in with -Palm Sunday

For the procession, of course you can use Psalm 23/ 24, with its glorious appeal to the gates to grow higher so that the king of glory can come in and not bang his head.  This is a wonderful psalm which appears also during Advent, and especially at the Feast of the Presentation.  It is tremendously exciting to write a tune for, although it’s difficult not to be intimidated by the fact that Handel has already done it better than anyone else.  But most parishes don’t get to sing it, as the liturgy has added an unwieldy antiphon which slows it down, and it’s easier to sing in procession a hymn that the congregation already knows.  I’d be tempted to sing it straight through as a Responsorial Psalm if you want to process to it, because then the rhythm doesn’t keep being interrupted.  The 4 Advent A version or the Presentation one both have good short responses (the antiphon is three lines long).

Everybody loves a good procession
A sudden change of mood

However, most parishes use a hymn for the procession, for good reason, so that psalm may not be used at all (though it gets quoted in the Entrance Antiphon of the Simple Entrance).  But whatever music you have before Mass, once it gets under way, there is an instant change of mood, like a screech of brakes or possibly more accurately a grinding of the gears as the atmosphere changes completely.  This is entirely appropriate, as the crowd does indeed reverse its behaviour between the entrance into Jerusalem and the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but it happens shockingly fast on Sunday morning this week.

Abrupt change to Passion Sunday, and a new psalm

We have to have the Passion read out this Sunday because next Sunday is already Easter.  Many places don’t have Holy Week services, and many people can’t get to them if they do exist, so in order to follow the correct sequence for as many people as possible, the Church has to include the rest of the events of Holy Week in the same day as Christ’s triumphant arrival into Jerusalem.  This is why it feels like two Sundays’-worth of readings, and the psalms to match.

Illuminated initial for Ps 22
Initial consonant for Ps 21/22, showing the dogs besetting the victim.
Problems with Psalm 21/22

The first reading is from Isaiah and immediately plunges us into the pain of the Suffering Servant.  The psalm now has to reflect and answer this reading, so we have Psalm 21/22, one of the upsetting psalms to sing.  The Response is the first line, but the verses start a few lines further in, and they are hard to read and even harder to sing.  As Christians, we read the words of the psalm as a faithful sequential narration of the Passion; we don’t even think of it as an earlier prediction fulfilled, although of course the early Christians of Jewish background would have done.

From that…to this
Mixed moods, mixed messages

But even in the short version we have in the Missal for this Sunday (four strophes out of sixteen in the whole psalm), the mood is not unrelieved.  Notice in the initial consonant in the picture above, that God is visibly there (the little hand just above the big D to the right).  Even as the words say,’My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, we can see that he has not forsaken us.  The first three strophes of the psalm (I’m not calling them ‘verses’, because of possible confusion with the verse-numbering) are appalling.  The third ends with another cry for help (similar to v1, the Response), and then moves forward, in the fourth strophe, to an affirmation of God’s goodness, which is very significantly in the future tense.  There are holes in the hands and feet of the Suffering Servant; he can count every bone, but he looks forward to a time when he will talk about God’s goodness to his friends and praise him in the assembly.  The awfulness is not the end.

The joys of modal (and the pathos too)

This makes it difficult to put it to music which won’t seem totally inappropriate either at the beginning or at the end, but thank God for modal tunes, which are more elastic than standard major or minor  (Barbara Allen, The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies, O waly, waly, What shall we do with the drunken sailor? etc.).  The abiding characteristic of a modal tune is its plaintive and (hopefully) haunting quality.   It is very good for pathos, but not without lightness (lots of folk songs, especially old ones, exploit this), and there is room for the gleams of sunshine after the storm.

One psalm, two tunes (Good Friday psalm)

When there are very different moods within the same psalm, it’s always difficult to work out what to do.  For Good Friday, the Response stays the same, but the mood of the different strophes is so different that I had to have two separate tunes (this is Psalm 30/31, four strophes US, five everyone else); but that works because the terrible verse(s) are in the middle of the psalm, so the congregation can cope with a bit of the unexpected, and then feel safely back on track as you come to the last Response.

Palm Sunday : not alternation but progression

Here in Psalm 21/22 on the other hand, I would have had to make the last verse different from all the others, and that would have undermined confidence just at the point where I need people to come in strongly.

Crucifixion with angels and saints
Serene but heart-breaking

Significantly, Jesus’ words from the cross (and our Response) are only the first line of this long psalm, and the commentators emphasize that he must have continued the psalm in his mind even if he could not utter any more of it.  It is a cry of anguish but not of despair.  Our last strophe this Sunday is at the beginning of the positive last third of the psalm,  so positive that we will be singing it on the fifth Sunday of Easter this year, probably without even remembering that the words come from this same psalm.  The selection of verses for the fifth Sunday of Easter is completely positive even though part of this same psalm,  with a serene confidence in the goodness of God and a call to go out and tell everyone, all the ends of the earth and all the families of nations.

There is even more encouragement in the verses which are not included in either Sunday version of the psalm : ‘For he (God) has never despised nor scorned the poverty of the poor.  From him he has not hidden his face, but he heard the poor man when he cried’ (v 25).  This is a hard psalm to sing, especially in the Palm Sunday version, but if you read the whole psalm, it is clear that the psalmist’s and Jesus’ feet are very firmly planted. ‘In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you set them free. […] In you they trusted and never in vain’ (vv 5-6).  It is a psalm for the darkness, but joy is coming in the morning.

Beautiful dawn


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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.