It’s Palm Sunday! And Holy Week kicks off, my favorite week in the whole year. During the Triduum (Holy Thursday evening to Easter Sunday), I have been known to spend upwards of ten hours in church services. Yep. And I love it! I’ll try and explain a little of what goes on, for those of you who haven’t been to Catholic (or Anglican, or Lutheran?) services during Holy Week.
This morning I went to church at Alter Peter in the center of Munich, which is the church I attend most regularly here. For big feasts I also like to go to the Frauenkirche, the Archbishop’s church, and I’ll probably end up going there for a few services during Holy Week, where I’ll take pictures if I can remember to…
We started outside the church, surrounding a figure of Christ mounted on the donkey. Palm Sunday is when Christians celebrate the Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, and even the least liturgically inclined of churches (like my childhood church, which I love very much) can’t resist that image of children singing and processing down the aisles with palm fronds.
These don’t look like the palms you saw in pictures because (hold on this might give you a shock) there are no palm trees or other Middle Eastern-y plants in northern Europe. But thankfully, as they’ve been doing this here for around 1500 years, there are various other traditional European fauna for this use, and these are pussywillows.
This custom of processing with palms comes down to us from the first few centuries after Christ, and in the middle ages the clergy and people would begin at some chapel or shrine outside the town, where the palms were blessed, and then process into the center to celebrate Mass at the main church. At first Jesus was represented by a crucifix or the Blessed Sacrament, but later they made carvings of him seated on a donkey, attached to a little cart, which they could roll at the front of the procession.
The priest blesses the palms and then reads from the Gospels one of the passages with the Triumphal Entry.
Then we processed around the outside of the church…
And people around on the streets came to watch, because who doesn’t like a procession?
There are several different “Hosanna”-type songs to be sung at this point, but one of the oldest, from the 9th century, goes:
Glory, praise and honour to Thee, O King Christ, the Redeemer:
to whom children poured their glad and sweet hosanna’s song.
And at that point in the medieval liturgies, there would be a mini-Passion Play outside the doors of the church. By the end of the 10th century, in some places, it was set to music and costumes were even used — but today it is more like a dramatic reading, and the priests and deacons are vested as usual. It takes place inside the church, in the place of the Gospel reading. Whichever priest is celebrating the Mass reads the part of Jesus, and usually there is another priest or deacon reading the narrator’s part, and another reading for other single parts, and finally the congregation speaks for multiple voices. I did a terrible job of explaining that. Basically what this means is that whenever the congregation speaks, we are accusing, condemning, mocking, or saying, “Crucify him!” At the point when Jesus dies, the congregation and all the priests turn to the altar and kneel in silence.
The rest of the Mass continues from there like normal. Today at Alter Peter, an a capella Mass setting by Steffano Bernardi was sung. Though it’s not observed everywhere, traditionally musical instruments are not used during Lent. Also, the Gloria is not sung during Lent (this is always observed), and because there wasn’t a sermon this morning (yay! Sermons in German are the worst), the whole service only lasted an hour and forty-five minutes. Lent I think officially ends after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy/Maundy Thursday, and the Gloria is sung there for the first time, but since all services between then and the Easter Vigil are penitential/mournful, it goes away again for Friday and Saturday, and it’s only at the start of the Easter Vigil, after the Easter candle has been lit, and everyone has come into the darkened church to hear the Exsultet, that the Gloria breaks out with all the lights and flowers and bells and instruments.
This is after Mass — for a while during the middle, that shaft of light was shining directly on the cross with palms, and it looked so beautiful. But I still got a nice picture:
You can also see here all the crucifixes veiled in purple cloth (sometimes, all images are covered, but that would be a bit difficult in a church like this). They will also come off at the Easter Vigil, and the whole place will be decorated with flowers.
Here is the Tabernacle. A red candle (you can see it on the left) will always tell you if the Blessed Sacrament is or is not reserved inside. After the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Sacrament will be taken out of all the churches (and sometimes, kept in a kind of pretend sepulcher or tomb). The altar is stripped of candles and altar cloths, all the holy water is removed from the fonts, and no bells are rung until the Easter Vigil.
Then Good Friday is the only day of the year when Mass is not celebrated in a Catholic church — at the Good Friday service there is (often) communion distributed (saved from an earlier Mass), but the liturgy is different. The Good Friday service is actually very unique and (I think) difficult to pull off, because the pacing is different than normal, and it can be emotionally intense and very long. It always starts at 3pm, the hour that Jesus was hung on the cross. Unfortunately, I won’t get to attend it this year, because my host parents are going to a concert, and I have to watch the kids all afternoon…
Here’s a better view of the “Palmesel.”
During the blessing of the palms, I was eyeing this young guy who had the same (English) missal that I have — I am always on the lookout for fellow English speakers at Mass, but I rarely talk to them. But I ran into him again on my way out, and I found out that he and his two friends were from the University of St Thomas in Minnesota, studying in Rome for a semester, and visiting here for Easter break. They gushed a little bit about the music (how quickly I forget what’s it’s like to hear this kind of music in church for the first time!) and then they went on sightseeing. I’ve had several different chance encounters with cool Americans visiting Munich (for instance: the grad student in classical architecture, the grad student in medieval history who was going up north to study an old convent (!!!)) but I never remember to get their names or anything so we can be Facebook friends or something. Normally I wouldn’t Facebook friend some random person I met, but it feels different when you meet in another country!
Anyway, I started home. I often see nuns in habit riding the S-Bahn, but I haven’t talked to them or figured out which community they belong to. These women were riding my train, which goes to Dachau, so it’s possible they’re some of the Carmelites from Heilig Blut, the convent behind the concentration camp.
My pictures aren’t great, but you can see their hats, and a little bit of the second one’s walking stick.
Then I came home to the wonderfully quiet and empty house (the family is out of town for the weekend!) and sang along to my iPod while I made myself pancakes! Ahhh, it’s wonderful being home alone. They left yesterday morning, and so I met up with Language Exchange Friend Peter for the whole afternoon, when we went and saw a bunch of little churches, another part of the Roman road, several huge Celtic ring forts, even older barrow mounds, and also the place where Sophie and Hans Scholl and other members of the White Rose are buried. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera at home, so there will be no pictorial evidence. I could go on a longer daytrip tomorrow, but I haven’t planned anything yet. Fun!