Eons ago, back before 1970, the season of Lent had a slightly different structure than it does now. If you happen to look at a missal from back then, you'll notice that there are only four Sundays of Lent, followed by Passion Sunday, followed by Palm Sunday. In a current missal you will typically see that Palm Sunday is now labeled “Passion (Palm) Sunday”.
Why is this? What did a separate day signify before 1970?
According to Dom Gueranger in The Liturgical Year, “This Sunday is called Passion Sunday, because the Church begins, on this day, to make the sufferings of our Redeemer her chief thought”. Traditionally, all statues and crucifixes were veiled at the Vespers for Passion Sunday. The Introit, Gradual and Tract all are petitions to save the just from the persecution of the unjust and the Tract even foreshadows the scourging.
Introit: “Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy: deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man: for thou art my God and my strength...”
Gradual: “Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies; teach me to do thy will. Thou, O Lord, art my deliverer from the enraged Gentiles: thou wilt put me out of the reach of those that assault me; and thou wilt rescue me from the unrighteous man.”
Tract: “Many a time have they fought against me from my youth. Let Israel now say: They have often attacked me from my youth. But they could not prevail over me: the wicked have wrought upon my back. They have lengthened their iniquity: the Lord who is just, will cut the necks of sinners.”
The Epistle is from Heb 9, 11-15 and is St. Paul's exposition of Christ as both the High Priest and the perfect victim who was sacrificed for our salvation.
The Gospel is from John 8: 46-59 and is the condemnation of the Jews by Christ in the temple. He tells them that they do not know God and that before Abraham was I AM. They try to stone him but he slips away.
The Communion Antiphon is the final Passion foreshadowing of the Mass. The verse is the words Christ used to institute the Eucharist at the Last Supper: “'This is my body, which shall be given up for you: this is the cup of the new covenant in my blood,' says the Lord, 'do this as often as you receive it, in remembrance of me.'”
Other Names for Passion Sunday
Passion Sunday was also known as “Judica Sunday” in reference to the Introit “Judica me, Deus, et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta...”, similar to Laetare and Gaudete Sundays being named after the first word of the Introit for those days.
The Sunday is also known as Neomania, the Sunday of the new moon, because it always falls after the new moon which regulates the feast of Easter.
The Greek Church simply calls this Sunday the fift Sunday of the holy fasts.
The stational Mass for Passion Sunday was celebrated at the basilica of St. Peter. It was considered such an important day that no other feast had precedence.
Elimination of Passion Sunday
So why was this Sunday eliminated from the liturgical year?
According to Cardinal Bugnini [May he rest!] in his Reform of the Liturgy, “Also suppressed as a title is 'Passiontide.' The whole of it now becomes, even externally, a part of Lent...The readings and prayers used in antiquity on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays have been restored (the Sundays of 'the Samaritan,' 'theMan Born Blind,' and 'Lazarus'). The final two weeks are dominated by preparation for the celebration of the passion.”
And so, on March 21, 1969, the Sacred Congregation of Rites published the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar which stated that “The Sundays of this season are called the First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent. The Sixth Sunday, which marks the beginning of Holy Week, is called Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday).”
In spite of the suppression of Passion Sunday, the tradition still echoes in the new rite. It is still permitted to veil the statues and crucifixes at vespers before the fifth Sunday of Lent if your parish wants to do it before Holy Thursday. You can also still hear, if your parish uses the propers of the season, Psalm 42, 1-2 as the Introit on this day. “Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy: deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man: for thou art my God and my strength...” Aquinas and More