What is Passiontide?

Passion Sunday – 5th Sunday of Lent

The great festivals that were once kept throughout Europe provided a cultural common language that is now almost entirely lost. But rather like the twelve days of Christmas…the days from the 5th Sunday in Lent to Vigil at the end of Holy Saturday were for centuries amongst the most important and most colourful of the year.

Just as Holy week and Easter week are now muddled – often Holy Saturday is called Easter Saturday – so indeed the meaning of Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday and Passiontide and Holy Week and Easter week are somewhat lost. Even those attending Catholic or Anglican services might mistakenly think that nothing much has changed since medieval times but the liturgy and rituals known to Shakespeare’s audience have passed away entirely or taken on entirely new forms.

Therefore I thought it might be fun to revisit these old high days of the ancient calendar and review some of the ritual practices that surrounded them.

Amongst things lost in the mist of childhood is the wonder I felt on going to church on Passion Sunday. When I went into church for Mass I saw all the statues, pictures and crucifixes covered in violet cloths. I remember asking mum why there were no flowers on the altars. Even the gilt crucifix over the tabernacle was covered in a cloth.

The figure of Christ hanging on the giant cross suspended from the apse in front of the sanctuary was also covered. Mind you it was as wondrous in my small head that they could get up that high to put a cover over the figure of Christ as to the meaning of the figure being covered.

It was a simple theatrical device. But I was awe struck and that meant it had achieved the desired effect.

In the middle ages – pre sixteenth century – the entire period from Septuagesima to Holy Saturday was regarded as a Season of Reconciliation. In English it is called Shrovetide and the greatest feast of the period was kept at most royal courts in Europe in the weekend and days leading up to Shrove (Pancake) Tuesday.

The tumult of ‘carnival’ ended at the stroke of midnight.  On the following day, Ash Wednesday, the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday were burned, the ashes were mixed with Holy Water and given out at the end of Mass. The priest alone dispensed ashes using his thumb dipped into the ash to make a cross on the forehead saying ‘remember man that thou art dust and to dust thou shall return.’

Ash Wednesday then marked and still marks the beginning of the most ancient of the ecclesiastical seasons – Lent. It is a period of forty days in remembrance of the forty days spent by Christ in the fasting desert before he began his public ministry with his Baptism by St John the Baptist in the River Jordan. The entire forty days of Lent were days both of fast and of abstinence: a fast being daily allowance of only one meal and two collations; abstinence is refraining from eating meat. Sunday’s were not days of fast but continued as days of abstinence.  In addition to the fast it became traditional for individuals to give up something in addition which was brought to church each day of Lent and given as alms for the poor.

Our modern version of giving up of sweets, chocolate, alcohol or tobacco is a descendant of this direct form of alms giving. We are meant to substitute money as the gift of alms resultant from this act of self denial. And in our self denial we are supposed to imitate the fasting of Christ in his forty days in the desert.

In this sense the Lenten fast is distinct in character from say Ramadan.

Like Christmas there were popular songs sung in the streets by mummers – also called carols. Whilst guilds prepared for the performance of Passion Plays and some so called Mystery plays were also publicly performed on Palm Sunday –  in or around the processions – these practices fell into disrepute with the rise of public theatres.

By the seventeenth century there was a prohibition in both Catholic and Protestant Europe on the public performances of plays and opera which led the the development of the tradition of Oratorio and the Passions – the latter traditionally being performed in Passiontide. Handel wrote an Oratorio, La Resurrezione for performance after the Vigil Mass for Easter.

The fourth Sunday of Lent is Laetare Sunday – pink vestments were worn and the Sunday was kept as a semi-feast. It marked the mid-point of Lenten observance. The name comes from the Introit of the Mass ‘Laetare Jerusalem’ – rejoice, o Jerusalem. In medieval times a special court was held on Laetare and at which a single meat dish was served. In the Papal States certain categories of prisoners were given early release.

The Introit of the fifth Sunday begins ‘Judica Me….’ (‘Judge me O God…’psalm 42,v1-2). This is known either as Judica Sunday or more usually since 1570 as Passion Sunday. The introit is the first prayer of the mass – sung by the choir whilst the priest enters the church in procession. On Passion Sunday usual antiphon – Gloria Patri et Filio etc (Glory be to the Father, to the Son etc) is omitted throughout the Mass and in all the daily prayers (Vigils, Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None Vespers & Compline.)

Passiontide as a season within a season had its own special observances. For example no fish was served on Passion Sunday in religious orders. Public alms – bread and small beer – were often given after mass on Passion Sunday.
Passiontide as a special time in Lent had emerged by the time of the early Roman Pontifical in general use in the ninth century. In the papal chapel at the gospel reading from St John 8, 46-59 and upon speaking the last verse: “And they took up stones to throw at him but Jesus hid himself and went out of the Temple”…in Latin “Jesus autem abscondebat se” the deacon covered the processional cross with a white linen cloth and then all the statues and crosses in the chapel were covered in white or violet cloth.

The mass was the occasion for the singing of the hymn (sequence) between the epistle and gospel ‘Pange Lingua Gloriosi Lauream Certaminis’ by composed by Fortunatus (not to be confused with the prayer Aquinas composed for the Mass of the feast of Corpus Christi).

This hymn was then sung throughout Passiontide.

The week following Passion Sunday was known as Hebdomas Passionis and in the Greek ‘The week of Palms’. Liturgical practices varied from country to country and usage to usage. For example Sarum and Hereford and Chester all kept the season but covered crosses on Palm Sunday. In Bavaria and in the Milanese rite in the middle ages statues were covered from Ash Wednesday.

The last session of the Council of Trent (the city in northern Italy chosen by the pope and the Emperor Charles V was technically within the Holy Roman Empire where the council met) remitted to the Pope various tasks including the composition of a catechism and the reform all the books of worship including the Missal, Pontifical, Breviary and Ordinal. The resultant Tridentine (from the Latin name for the city of Trent – Tridentum) Missal promulgated by Pius V (Ghislieri) in 1570 standardised the variety of practices into one common form.

From this point forward until Paul VI’s Missal in 1969 Passiontide was kept as a period of intense fasting and abstinence, with all statues covered in the church.

The liturgical reforms of Pius XII (Pacelli) re-established the liturgical centrality Sacrum Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night) the last three days of Holy Week. This was believed to conform to the very earliest liturgical practice in the church in Rome.

The resultant rise in the importance or focus upon Holy Week diminished the importance of Passiontide as a fortnight of special significance.  Although the name Passion Sunday was retained in the new missal of Pope Paul VI (Montini), it now referred to the reading of one of the synoptic Gospel accounts of the Passion of Christ. The common name Palm Sunday was retained in parallel use.

Next week we will look at Palm Sunday….a day traditionally of public processions and strangely certain games..the link below takes you to a performance of the Aquinas Pange Lingua which is commonly mistaken for its older Lenten brother.



Sing my tongue, the Saviour’s glory,of His flesh the mystery sing;of the Blood, all price exceeding,shed by our immortal King,destined, for the world’s redemption,from a noble womb to spring.

Of a pure and spotless Virginborn for us on earth below,He, as Man, with man conversing,stayed, the seeds of truth to sow;then He closed in solemn orderwondrously His life of woe.
On the night of that Last Supper,seated with His chosen band,He the Pascal victim eating,first fulfills the Law’s command;then as Food to His Apostlesgives Himself with His own hand.
Word-made-Flesh, the bread of natureby His word to Flesh He turns;wine into His Blood He changes;what though sense no change discerns?Only be the heart in earnest,faith her lesson quickly learns.
Down in adoration falling,This great Sacrament we hail,Over ancient forms of worshipNewer rites of grace prevail;Faith will tell us Christ is present,When our human senses fail.
To the everlasting Father,And the Son who made us freeAnd the Spirit, God proceedingFrom them Each eternally,Be salvation, honor, blessing,Might and endless majesty.Amen.


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One Response to What is Passiontide?

  1. Pingback: Shrovetide – another Time lost to History | John Murphy