The Processions of Holy Week

Procession in liturgy is, in theory, solemn movement from here to there. It is purposeful and pragmatic, though also solemn and ceremonious. Sometimes, of course, it is movement from here to here — as, for instance, the Lesser and Greater Entrances in the Byzantine Liturgy, or solemn procession at the beginning of a high-church Anglo-Catholic liturgy. Even then, however, the attenuated here-to-here procession has a foundation in here-to-there: stational procession through the city of Constantinople, entering the Great Church of Holy Wisdom (ʽAgia Sophia) or bearing the eucharistic oblations from the external skeuophylakion to the chancel; movement from the chapter house through the cloister of Salisbury Cathedral to the choir.

For above all, procession is movement. It is journey, trek, pilgrimage. Holy Week has a number of processions, all too often taken for granted as part of the routine movement of ministers as on other occasions. Processions are a key feature setting the liturgies of Holy Week apart.

On Palm Sunday, the Entrance Procession is elaborated in commemoration of the Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem. Catholics, Anglicans, many Lutherans, and an increasing number of Christians from other denominations often do this procession “up right,” taking it from a parish house, prayer garden, atrium or columbarium into the church. Missing from this day’s liturgy is the usual gospel procession, giving way to a simplified taking-of-places for the deacons or other ministers who will sing the Passion.

On one of the Weekdays of Holy Week, perhaps Holy/Maundy Thursday but likely another day, the Chrism Mass includes a procession for the presentation of the oils, in which the oil and balm to be consecrated as Chrism may be accompanied with incense and lights. This procession may be incorporated with the procession for the preparation of the altar and gifts, or may take place before it, depending on when in the liturgy the oils are to be blessed and the Chrism consecrated.

Holy/Maundy Thursday includes an elaborated procession for the preparation of the altar and gifts, during which alms, food and clothing items may be collected for the poor. Also, at some point in this day’s liturgy, usually at the preparation of the altar and gifts, but at the beginning of the liturgy in some places, the oils from the Chrism Mass may be received for use in the pastoral life of the parish. Depending on how the Mandatum (Footwashing) is conducted, people may find themselves filing in procession to a station where they will encounter the basin and the towel. And finally, procession will take the Blessed Sacrament out of the chancel to a chapel, chantry or other space for reservation during the rest of the Triduum.

Procession on Good Friday brings the Cross into the assembly for veneration: it may be unveiled during the pauses in the procession — or carried in bare — to be hailed three times as “the Wood. . . on which hung the Savior of the World.” Accompanied with lights (and incense in some places), this procession gives way to another procession, that of the faithful coming to venerate the holy cross.

The Great Paschal Vigil includes the entrance procession with the Paschal Candle, perhaps stopping at the same places that the previous day’s procession stopped, this time to hail the light of Christ arisen. In procession we herald the Word about to be proclaimed, and restore the singing of “Alleluia” in praise for the wonders that God has done. Procession takes candidates for holy baptism to the font and brings them back into the assembly as Christians. Procession may bring water to the assembly, with which they will remember their own baptism in gratitude — or, procession may take one and all to the font for the same purpose.

And on each of these days, procession brings the assembly to the altar, there to receive the sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord of life.

The purpose of the various processions in the Holy Week liturgies is not simply to commemorate past events by creative reenactment. It is, rather, to help us experience ourselves and our here-and-now as being inserted into the Saving Mystery that transcends space and time. In many places, most or all of the above-named processions — and perhaps a few more — are times when the whole assembly is invited to join in, walking, journeying, trekking on pilgrimage from here-to-there — into the heart of the Paschal Mystery.

15 comments

  1. Thank you for this meditation, Father Unterseher. Those of us who minister at these great liturgies year after year sometimes can get lost in the nuts and bolts of “Will the music last long enough? Will the servers set themselves on fire or faint? Will the voice hold out over some many services? Will the deacon make it through the Easter dismissal in a key anyone can emulate”
    We need to take time to pray through meditations like this one!

  2. Also, a thank you for these thoughts. It is far too easy to treat these processions as rubrical requirements which must merely be orderly and efficient.

    I think it is important to think of processions in terms of their origins in the actual movement of masses of people and not as clerical actions. To me, it is useful to think of how to turn each procession into physical participation in a prayerful experience for all present.

    I rejoice to see Palm Sunday processions from outside the usual worship space and an orderly filling of pews from the front instead of many going to their accustomed distant niches.

    It is wonderful to have the Eucharistic Reservation chapel in another building and all accompany the elements in the journey there.

    The procession of the candle from the new fire can easily be a pattern for the procession of all with the cross on Friday.

    One of the things I like about communion at stations instead of kneeling at a rail is the improved possibility of experiencing it as a procession instead of waiting in line to get to our places at the rail and then wait as individuals and make our ways back by going around others. Of course, as in other processions, communion processions should have congregational singing for the whole time, not just as it is convenient for the choir.

  3. Some atypical Holy Week Processional experiences:

    In my short time in the clerical world, as a Jesuit Novice before Vatican II, we did the lighting of the Paschal candle some distance from the Novitiate, then processed to the chapel, led by the paschal flame, reenacting Moses and the Israelites being led by the Lord in a column of flame.

    In my short time in Indiana, where I visited Saint Meinrad’s during Holy Week in the seventies, the reading of the Exodus was accompanied by a drum beat in a rhythm of gradually increasing tempo and intensity culminating in a crash of the waters, followed by silence (one could just imagine Moses and Israel looking out over the sea and the devastated Egyptian army) before resuming the march to a quiet drum beat. It was an audio enactment of a procession. (I still imagine a drum soundtrack to the Exodus story each Paschal vigil).

    With Andrew Greeley, I view religion as poetry more than prose, i.e. that we are shaped by combinations of scripture, tradition and experiences, ritual and otherwise. Having the fortune to have accumulated a wide variety of liturgical experiences has turned out to be a definite advantage when encountering the mediocrity that often accompanies liturgical performances. Imagining past better performances helps to fill in the gaps. We are members of a universal as well as local communities.

    1. we have also done Easter Vigil readings with music – unfortunately, depends upon who is pastor or music director…not even parish tradition influences this.

      Agree with Greeley and others approach – liturgy is poetry/music not just prose/thought. It is action – not thought. So, what does that say about the new translation?

  4. One of the challenges of processions for an assembly is singing. It’s easier to do this indoors than outdoors, because the reverberation within a building magnifies the sound and encourages those who sing to continue boldly. Still, many people seem daunted by the task of walking and singing at the same time. I wish this were different. In my experience, the best way to support the congregation in singing while walking has been to have to choir who do this well walking with them, sometimes splitting the singers so that some strong voices are at both the fore and the aft of the procession. Not rocket science, but I mention it fwiw.

    Also, is there anybody but me who thinks that All Glory, Laud and Honor is virtually unsingable by an average assembly for the Palm Sunday procession? How did this song ever get to be the “signature” of the entry with palms? It feels like a recurring nightmare; no matter how many times it fails, we still use it again. It’s not that people don’t know it. It’s simply that the range is terrible, either too high or too low. And the verses keep one glued to a printed text as there are many words.

    I’ve experienced better processions on Holy Thursday and at the Easter Vigil, even though the latter is done in the dark and can easily dissolve into a dispersed rush toward familiar seats. This may have something to do with the proportion of people who are there intentionally, and thus endeavor to sing and process as a body.

    I’d be interested in knowing if others have used something other than All Glory Laud and Honor with success.

    1. This morning I attended at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame. The use of an outdoor sound system was a great asset, as song-leaders were able to keep us together across a rather long processional route; also, the choir was spread out, lining the walks along which we processed. To boot, the carillon of the basilica played a single stanza of the hymns we used — “To Jesus Christ our Sovereign King” and “At the Name of Jesus.” Of course, as we entered mostly-full the Basilica, the organist was playing something entirely different as everyone made a mostly-futile attempt to find a seat. When the choir and ministers entered, the hymn “All Glory, Laud and Honor” was sung with accompaniment.

      In other times and places, I’ve used “Prepare the Royal Highway” and “O Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee?” from the Lutheran Book of Worship, Psalm 24 with its internal antiphon (chanted), Psalm 118 with the Antiphon “Behold your king comes unto you, meek and riding on an ass”; the hymns “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates,” “A Cheering, Chanting Dizzy Crowd,” “Ride On! Ride On In Majesty,” “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” Rory Cooney’s “Jerusalem My Destiny,” and my own “Rejoice, Jerusalem!” This last is my favorite, not because it’s my own, but because it’s a two-word, two-bar ostinato in four parts, with cantor verses overlaid in the style of Taize.

      All that said, the chanted psalms with antiphons and the ostinato have worked best, for the obvious reasons. Still, I’m loathe to give up any of those great hymns.

      1. Saturday Vigil – we started in the large vestibule which opens to the baptismal font and church. Thus, not outside and all under the same roof with easy access/hearing of the organ. We had a children’s choir and bell choir.

        Great to see Fr. Cody using and referencing Rory’s processional. Unfortunately, our parish falls back on the tried and true – as Deacon (aka Dean) Fritz said below and yes, it was with gusto and folks did sing out and loudly and all processed although a very shortened procession (not like ND). I would have enjoyed a longer procession and a chant such as Fr. Cody is referencing (we do Taize rythmn well).

        Agree – interspacing choir with the people works best in terms of singing and participation. Thankfully, we use specific, printed order of music so folks have the music/words at hand.

    2. In my old parish in South Bend, Ind., we used “Ride On King Jesus,” refrain only.

      In my experience, if you expect people to sing while walking or otherwise on line (like communion) you need to give them a refrain only to sing.

      All Glory, Laud, and Honor is one such hymn, and was indeed the appointed text for the entry into the church back in the old days, a pretty fair translation of “Gloria, laus et honor tibi sit rex Christe redemptor,” the Latin version.

    3. According to legend, we have King Louis I “the Pious” to thank for making “Gloria, Laus et Honor” the “signature song” for the procession with palms. It’s been in use for that purpose for almost 1200 years and still is in both the EF (where it is mandatory) and OF (where it is optional, but printed in the Missal as of 2003 MR at least).

    4. When I was Director of Music Ministries I would use a simple Hosanna by David Hass. I think it is really important to have the assembly sing this. Much of our practice allows the choir to sing this alone. I would use Ride on Jesus Ride in place of All Glory Laud and Honor. Marty Haugen has a great arrangment.My experience yesterday was that the procession was for the Presider, Deacon, and Choir. I agree All Glory Laud and Honor while a nice piece of music is not good ritual music for the opening procession.

  5. Thanks, Cody, for this rich response to my question! I love the idea of chanted psalms, and the hymns suggested are wonderful. Thanks to everyone else who responded too; many good ideas and helpful suggestions.

    I wanted to add another thought on this topic of processions, one which arises from my work with the catechumenate. The motif of journey, which is so important to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, makes those who have experienced the RCIA very receptive to the wealth of symbolism carried by the activity of liturgical processions.

    I think that new churches really ought to consider the placement of the baptismal font so that there can be a “procession to the font” rather than having all the apparatus for baptism placed in the sanctuary. (As Todd Flowerday often remarks, the emphasis on efficiency is at the root of many impoverishments to our ritual culture.)

    We speak of the idea of the “pilgrim people” yet to actually feel that our rites symbolically capture this emphasis on journey, pilgrimage, and seeking is a very profound fruit of the liturgical renewal. There is more richness in our rites than we know, sometimes.

  6. When a local parish remodeled its entry, it placed the baptismal font at the center of a large circular gathering area which can be seen in the link below.

    http://stbedementoroh.org/dnn/Ministries/Formation/PreBaptism.aspx

    The photo is looking on a line from the nave to the doors of the church. Note that there is an area as large as the area between the baptismal font and the church doors in which the photographer is standing, only very close to the baptismal font. The spaciousness of this area for a variety of functions can be seen by the benches along the wall near the entrance doors. If one clicks on the About Us, Mass Schedule drop down there is a picture of the sky light above the baptismal font.

    This arrangement reminded me of Augstine Thompson O.P Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes 1125-1325 were the separate baptistery of the Cathedral church (where all the baptisms of the city were performed) became a center of civic as well as religious identity.

    A separate baptistery area could become a place for emphasizing the common bond of baptism which we share with other Christians and our baptismal mission in the world. Such a spacious place might be particularly good for ecumenical, social ministry, community meetings.

    Many suburban parishes today are campuses with a variety of buildings, e.g. dining hall, meeting rooms. (This parish has a greenhouse where the priest and parish members raise vegetables.) Many of these buildings could be interconnected with walkways something like monastic cloisters that might provide a place for Stations of the Cross, processions, etc. as well as interconnecting sound systems.

  7. Thank you for this rich post! A while back we had a discussion regarding teaching liturgy to children. I had a recent experience with 2nd grade children. worth mentioning here. We had a procession in the classroom. It was explained that a procession is a “holy parade;” with hands folded, singing “Blest Are We” the entire mood changed. Twenty seven children were noticeably moved by this prayer experience.

    Also, in my parish experience we are very successful with outdoor processions. On Holy Thursday, for example, the Scouts create a lighted pathway and stand reverently along the journey as we transfer the Eucharist to another place. Choir member also line the path in order to help those on their way sing.

    At the Easter Vigil, even though our baptismal font is close to the sanctuary, we process around the church with the elect as the litany of saints is sung.

    And finally, we can never underestimate the power of the procession. However, it merits greater catechesis and well prepared liturgy.

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