Image: Reconstruction of the Temple of Herod, Southeast Corner, James Tissot [public domain]
I have a confession to make: as a parent, I somewhat dread Palm Sunday.
You other parents of younger children know what I’m talking about (at least I assume my children are not totally unique in this way). No matter how many warnings there are before Mass, or how many stern looks and whispered admonitions during the liturgy, they will inevitably end up whacking each other—and me—with their palms, and someone is bound to aim their palm like a gun. (For some reason they’re more trustworthy with the candles at the Easter Vigil; maybe it’s the fear of spilling hot wax all over their hands that makes them hold still.)
But despite the danger of Palm Sunday Mass, this begins my absolute favorite time of the liturgical year. The profound beauty and solemnity of the Triduum anchors me in reality every year in the midst of a busy life and a crazy world—the reality of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, which is more real, more substantial than my busy-ness or the world’s craziness.
Holy Week is a bit like a pilgrimage—both in time and in space. We travel like pilgrims to the church for these celebrations multiple times this week and have special processions within the liturgies on Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday. We are like pilgrims in time, too, as these liturgies make the mysteries of our Lord’s Passion present to us now (which happens at every Mass, of course, but we are conscious of it in a particular way during these solemn and holy days).
Therefore, it seems fitting to prepare for the pilgrimage of Holy Week—the pilgrimage of our Lord’s Passover—by praying the prayers that Jesus would have prayed as He approached Jerusalem for His final Passover.
Psalms 120-134 are known as the Songs of Ascents. These psalms tell the story of pilgrimage to the Temple, and they were traditionally sung by pilgrims as they physically ascended Mount Zion to enter the gates of Jerusalem and go into the Temple to worship for the great pilgrimage feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. And so these psalms offer a fitting prayer and reflection as we once again celebrate the end of our exile in sin and death and the New Exodus accomplished for us by Jesus, who leads us to the New Jerusalem where there is “no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22).
The Songs of Ascents begin with the lament of one who is far from God’s presence in exile: “In my distress I cry to the Lord… woe is me that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace” (Psalm 120:1, 5-6). In Psalms 121 and 122 we begin to look toward the hills of Jerusalem and put our trust in the Lord for our journey back to Him, and we find joy: “I lift up my eyes to the hills, From where does my help come My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (121:1-2) and “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (122:1).
The pilgrimage continues with a prayer for mercy (Psalm 123), thanksgiving for deliverance (124), and an affirmation of our total security when we trust in God (125). As the pilgrim gets closer the joy increases: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad” (Psalm 126:3).
Of course, the goal of the whole pilgrimage to Jerusalem is the Temple. Psalm 127 is attributed to Solomon and celebrates the building of the Temple. God’s blessings flow from His Temple to the family home (Psalm 128—one of my favorites because I get a kick out of picturing my kids as little olive plants around our dining room table… when they aren’t whacking each other palms, that is).
The Songs of Ascents now move to two prayers for mercy: that God would turn his enemies away from their evil ways (Psalm 129) and that he would “redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Psalm 130:8)—one of the seven major penitential psalms.
We are almost there! Psalm 131 is a prayer of humility and trust, resting in God with a calm and quiet soul even in the midst of the journey. Psalms 132 and 133 describe God choosing Zion for His dwelling place, and Psalm 134 closes the Songs of Ascent with a call to worship God in His holy Temple:
“Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand by night in the house of the Lord! Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord! May the Lord bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!”
How fitting as we begin Holy Week. We are invited, yet again, to come stand by night in the house of the Lord, keeping vigil with Christ through His Passion, awaiting His blessing.
Have a blessed Holy Week.