Palm Sunday has Enough Passion of Its Own

A Christian Century blogpost by Karoline Lewis (Against Passion Sunday) has inspired a few posts among blogs I read, and a wonderful conversation on my Facebook profile. In her piece, Dr. Lewis recalls her childhood experience of worshiping on Palm Sunday. "It was celebratory, festive, when as child I got a chance for a hands-on worship experience and a glimpse of what royalty could look like." She then notes that for practical concerns – many people who worship on Palm Sunday will not be in worship for Holy Thursday and Good Friday – it might make sense to read the Passion narrative, but she laments what is lost by that practical consideration.

"I wonder if we need Palm Sunday's moments of praise for what they are, not what they will be in a few days. A celebration of Palm Sunday alone might bring back a pattern of faith that we need: the moments of pain, of suffering, of the victory of the world, are bracketed by hosannas and alleluias, by glory, laud and honor. It's a structure of belief that is inherent in the Gospel story."

I agree that the celebration of our Lord's entrance into Jerusalem – paradoxical as it is, with Jesus the King riding into town on a donkey – needs its own day. In the current practice of Palm/Passion Sunday, we read the Palm Sunday narrative as an entrance rite, but then within minutes we're reading a long Passion narrative, and the tenor of the day takes a quick, whiplash-inducing turn. We hardly get time to soak up the irony of Jesus' royal entrance, before we're rushed to his royal coronation on the cross.

Clearly we need the cross, and in any good liturgical and homiletical practice the cross is always at the center. But what a great, tension-filled prelude to the cross a dedicated celebration of Palm Sunday is! Why the rush to the Passion? The Palm Sunday lections and liturgical actions have enough shades of the cross that we need not overlay them with a reading of the grand Passion narrative.

A practice that some of our churches maintained into the middle of the 20th century was to read the Passion narrative on the 5th Sunday in Lent, a day that inaugerated a two-week mini-season of Passiontide. The Sunday of Hoy Week was dedicated to a Palm Sunday celebration, which was bracketed by Passion narratives on Lent 5 and again on Good Friday. Thus the rythmn toward the end of Lent was the horror of the Passion, followed by the "celebration" of Palm Sunday, more Passion, and then Resurrection. This achieves what the current Palm/Passion Sunday practice seeks to achieve, but in a more deliberate fashion.

As I wrote above, Palm Sunday is a day filled with the paradoxical imagery of our soon-to-be-crucified King riding on a donkey to his eventual coronation on the cross. Any good liturgical and homiletical practice will not allow this day to be mistaken simply for a mini-Easter (which, just as every Sunday in the church year, it technically is) but will instead draw out the tensions that this day holds … tensions that mirror the tensions our congregations and people live in every day – tensions of life and death, betrayal and faithfulness, shouts of "Hosanna" and shouts of "Crucify him." These tensions can be drawn out marvellously in Palm Sunday prayer and preaching that prepare us for and lead us to the Passion without, on that day, actually reading the Passion narrative.

It seems to me that Palm Sunday has enough Passion of its own.

Two more thoughts about liturgical matters, one historical and one contemporary, and a question about the origins of Palm/Passion Sunday.

According to Frank Senn (Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical, pg. 343), the early Lutheran liturgies included the Passion narrative both on Palm Sunday (I assume during the Eucharist, though Senn isn't clear about this), and also at Matins and Vespers during Holy Week. Reformation-era church practices included Matins and Vespers, a practice that the overwhelming majority of churches today do not observe. I wonder if, in part, our current Holy Week practices are not trying to cram into fewer services readings and liturgical observances that our predecessors spread over several liturgies.

Secondly, at my internship congregation, we engaged in a little bit of liturgical innovation and split the difference, so to speak. We used the Palm Sunday Gospel narrative as the entrance rite, and continued the service with the Old Testament reading, Psalm, and New Testament reading. Then followed the sermon and the standard communion liturgy. During the recessional hymn the worship leaders walked to the font at the rear of the church, and from there the Passion narrative was read. The congregation departed in silence. The Passion narrative, then, stood alone as a sending rite and segue to the Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter.

I'd love to know why our current two-for-one Palm/Passion Sunday was created. I understand the theology of placing the Palm and Passion commemorations in tension, but I don't see why these two need to be in the same liturgy on the same day – especially if we understand the church year cycle in general, and Holy Week, in particular, as a liturgical whole.

Is it, as Dr. Lewis and many others suggest, a "practical" issue of reading the Passion narrative on Sunday since so many people will not attend services on Thursday and Friday? Or, was there something else at work? I imagine that there was more than just "practical" concerns that drove this decision by the Revised Common Lectionary folks to establish this day as Palm/Passion Sunday. I'd love to know what that "more" is.

For further reading, supporting the current practice of Palm/Passion Sunday:

Two Passions Each Year, and Two Passions Each Year: Part Two, by Mark Mummert

Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, by David Hansen

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Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

2 thoughts on “Palm Sunday has Enough Passion of Its Own

  1. Here is a little more from another writer, Gail Ramshaw, from her commentary in Lectionary Helps from Sundays and Seasons . com, showing that Passion Sunday on the Sunday before Easter is not at all a “new practice.”
    “Since at least the fourth century and universally in the church since the eighth, Christians have kept the Sunday before Easter as a memorial of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and a literal procession of palms, started in Jerusalem, has spread throughout the world. During Year A most of the Sunday gospels are taken from Matthew, and so this year on this Sunday a reading of Matthew 21 with a palm procession marks the opening of worship. As well, the three-year lectionary restored an ancient practice of observing the Sunday before Easter as Sunday of the Passion, and so a longer or shorter reading from the passion in Matthew functions as the gospel of the day. Since in the three-year lectionary Lent has replaced a sustained meditation on the passion with a focus on baptism, the proclamation of the full passion on this Sunday is key. Thus the service, inaugurating the most important week of the Christian year, has a two-part focus: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and his passion and death. Assemblies can be helped to encounter the quite different theological emphases between Passion Sunday’s proclamation from the synoptic gospel of the year and Good Friday’s annual proclamation from John.”

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