Palm Sunday, Passion of Jesus, sermon

Frank Answers About Palms and Passion

What is the relationship between Palm Sunday and the Passion? I have heard pastors complain that the movement from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” is too abrupt, that Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem is an important part of the gospel narrative and it gets short shrift just being read at the beginning of the procession, and that one can’t do justice in preaching all the Scripture we have in this liturgy. What do you think?

In my book, Introduction to Christian Liturgy (Fortress Press, 2012), pp. 130-31, I wrote the following about Palm Sunday.

“Modern Western worshipers encounter a long and complicated liturgy on Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion. It includes a festive procession with palms and then suddenly (and some think rather jarringly) turns somber and focuses on the passion of our Lord. This change in the character of the service can seem jarring to the contemporary worshiper, but the juxtaposition of palms and passion brings out that fact that Jesus rode on in majesty to die in abject humility.”

The liturgies of Holy Week go back to the fourth century and particularly to Jerusalem, where the pilgrimage rites reenacted liturgically the events of Holy Week. These rites found their way into liturgical books and flourished into the Middle Ages. In their modern form they were restored by Pope Pius XII in 1956. In the liturgical renewal after the Second Vatican Council the liturgies of Holy Week were adapted in the worship books of several Protestant traditions.

The Processional Gospel is traditionally read at the beginning of the liturgy in connection with the blessing of palms and the procession. The Gospel for the day is one of the Synoptic Gospel Passions: St. Matthew in Year A, St. Mark in Year B, and St. Luke in Year C. Before 1970 the Gospel for Palm Sunday was historically the Passion according to St. Matthew. The other passion narratives were read on other days during Holy Week: St. Mark on Tuesday, St. Luke on Wednesday, and St. John always on Good Friday.

These passion readings on these days were options in the Service Book and Hymnal of the Lutheran Church in America (1958). The Palm Sunday propers gave Matthew 21:1-9 (palms) or Matthew 26:1:1-27:66 (the passion) as options. But a Palm Sunday procession with the processional gospel and blessing of palms was included in Holy Week and Easter: Liturgical Orders Supplementing the Service Book and Hymnal, authorized by the LCA Commission on Worship in 1962.  The option of the Matthean Passion would then have been read as the Gospel for the Day. So this order was not new in Lutheran Book of Worship Ministers Edition (1978). (In the old Lutheran lectionaries Matthew 21:1-9 was also the Gospel for the first Sunday in Advent and several Advent hymns make reference to Jesus’ coming with Hosannas.)

The Palm Sunday Liturgy begins with the commemoration of the entrance of the Messiah into Jerusalem to accomplish his paschal triumph, for which the Processional Gospel is read followed by the blessing of palm leaves (or other branches; for example, olive branches). The blessing ceremony, preferably held outside the church building, is followed by a procession or solemn entrance into the church, with the participants holding the blessed branches in their hands during the singing of the hymn of Theodulph of Orleans, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” (ca. 810).

Palm Sunday blessing of palms has become a local ecumenical opportunity. Here Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists share in the blessing in front of Trinity Episcopal Church in Clanton, Alabama.

There were many local variants of the Palm/Passion Sunday liturgy. In the Sarum Use of the Roman Rite in medieval Salisbury, red vestments were used for the Liturgy of the Palms and the procession. Then the celebrant changed into the purple vestments of Lent.  The palm procession could be very elaborate and was usually done outdoors.

The other noteworthy feature of the Palm Sunday Liturgy is the reading of the Gospel of the Passion. In the Middle Ages the Passions on Palm Sunday, Tuesday of Holy Week, Wednesday of Holy Week, and Good Friday were sung by three deacons who represent respectively the Evangelist, Jesus, and the other speakers (Synagoga). This division of the Passion among three roles is very ancient, and it is often indicated by rubrical letters in early manuscripts of the Gospel.

Three ministers chanting the passion reading in the traditional way.

As time went on, the singing of the Passion became more musical and more dramatic, reaching the apex of this development in Lutheranism in the Oratorio Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach (St. Matthew, St. John). Bach interspersed the biblical texts with pietistic arias and chorales that reflected on the events being proclaimed in the Scripture. It is likely that these massive choral works were performed as part of the Good Friday Service rather than on Palm Sunday. In any event, it has become customary to divide the script of the Passion into roles that are read by various ministers and members of the assembly, with the lines of the crowds being spoken by the congregation. There is also a value, however, in simply listening to the words of Scripture as read by the three ministers, as in the Middle Ages. In any event, I would have the Passion of St. John read this way on Good Friday. Chorales might be sung by the congregation at the beginning and end of the Passion reading.

In responding to what you report as the opinion of some pastors, I would say that the entry into Jerusalem was not the end of the journey in the synoptic gospels. The journey ended at the cross, as is evident in the three passion predictions in the synoptic gospels.

I disagree that one can’t do justice to the array of Scripture readings in Palm Sunday Liturgy (the entry into Jerusalem, Isaiah’s suffering servant, the psalm of lament, the Philippian hymn of humble obedience before triumphant exultation, passion narrative). There are related threads here that can be woven into a fine homiletical fabric. It simply has to be done economically for the sake of time. Since the entrance and passion narratives are from the same Gospel, the perspective of each evangelist on the story of Jesus provides a clue as to how these texts are related if you look for it.

As a practical matter, this is going to be a long Service, especially with an extended outdoor procession. It’s not a day for business as usual in the parish. I would recommend one Service on Palm Sunday in which the whole congregation participates. The length of the service shouldn’t be noticeable if the worshipers are engaged bodily in processions and in the dramatic reading.

As a spiritual matter, I would note that Holy Week isn’t what it used to be. Because of people’s work schedules and spring breaks, attendance is not as high as perhaps it once was on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. For many Christians to hear only “Hosanna” and “Halleluia” two Sundays in succession without “Crucify him,” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and “It is accomplished” is inadequate to faith formation. Historically, theologically, spiritually Palm Sunday should also be the Sunday of the Passion.

Pastor Frank Senn

Good Friday Via Crucis in Chicago Pilsen neighborhood 2013. Liturgy in the streets. That year 18-year old Alejandra Avina portrayed Jesus.  For photos of the entire event, including the participation of the late Cardinal Francis George, see http://www.vivelohoy.com/noticias/8336707/imagenes-del-viernes-santo-en-chicago (see the hyperlink in the first comment).

Here is a sample homily prepared for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion 2018 (the Year of St. Mark).  It directly proclaims the both the Processional Gospel and the Passion Gospel and relates to an important current event.

PALM SUNDAY. Year B. March 25, 2018. St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, Wilmette, IL

Texts: Mark 11:1-11 (Processional Gospel); Mark 14:1-15:47 (Passion)

This has been a weekend of rallies and marches across the country. Hundreds of thousands gathered in “Marches for Our Lives” in Washington, DC, Chicago, and other cities. Led by our nation’s youth people came together in response to the latest school mass shooting in Parkland, Florida to demand changes in our gun laws as well as other changes in our political and social culture.  The youthful leaders saw these gatherings as the beginning of a movement for a better future for this nation. Chicago area Episcopalians who gathered with Bishop Jeffery Lee ahead of joining the Chicago march heard our bishop say that the march yesterday was the beginning of our Palm Sunday procession, and some carried and waved palm branches.

Indeed, I think there are some similarities between the marchers for our lives, who chanted concerning politicians held captive by the National Rifle Association, “Vote them out, vote them out,” and the marchers who accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem chanting “Hosanna!”

Jesus had been making his way from Galilee through Judea, teaching and healing and casting out demons and collecting followers, and was about to enter the holy city at Passover time.  Arrangements had been made for a parade to call attention to his entrance. Those arrangements included securing a colt on which Jesus could ride and cutting leafy branches in the fields. Jesus’ followers spread their cloaks on the road to make a kind of royal carpet. And waving their branches some went in front of him and some followed him shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David!”

This was not a surge of people coming out of the city to greet Jesus. How would they even know who he was or that he was arriving? This was a demonstration by Jesus’ many followers to announce his arrival. It was a political demonstration because they were hailing Jesus as the one who would restore the Davidic kingdom. You can be sure that this caught the attention of the authorities in the city, particularly the Temple authorities—the priests and scribes. They lived in a delicate balance with the occupying Roman administration. Rome was always respectful of local cults and cultures; that was one of the reasons for their governing success. In return for religious freedom the Romans expected priestly support of the imperial administration. Jesus’ entrance into the city upset the status quo. In fact, upon entering the city he went straight to the Temple and assaulted it by overturning the tables of the money changers and driving out the sellers of sacrificial victims. He made claims about replacing that Temple with himself, with his body. “Tear it down and in three days I will raise it up.”

The priestly and scribal authorities needed to get rid of him. But there had been that demonstration by his followers. How many followers did he have mingling among the many pilgrims and visitors in the city for the National Passover? Given this uncertainty, the priests had to make arrangements to grab Jesus under the cover of darkness and have a quick trial and execution. A traitor in Jesus’ inner circle conveniently played into their hands. Jesus was arrested outside in the garden after the Passover Seder, given a trial of sorts in the middle of the night, and delivered to the Roman governor early in the morning.

Here we meet a second demonstration. Some locals turned out at the residence of the Roman governor to ask him to honor of the custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover time.  Pontius Pilate, perhaps sensing an easy way to get Jesus released (since he didn’t find him to be a threat), presented Jesus to the crowd, along with a known insurrectionist named Barabbas. If the crowd gathered before the procurator had included Jesus’ followers who accompanied him into the city the previous Sunday, they surely would have shouted for Jesus to be released. But this was a different crowd and the priests stirred them up to ask for Barabbas.

Why would they choose Barabbas over Jesus? Probably because Barabbas was a troublemaker they knew rather than a troublemaker they didn’t know. Yes, Barabbas had murdered a man, but Jesus had assaulted the holy Temple—the primary shrine of their nation. So when Pilate presented Jesus, they cried out “Crucify him, crucify him.” They were insistent on it and Pilate finally gave in and had Jesus flogged in preparation for his crucifixion.

Where were Jesus’ followers when this dirty deed was being done—all those people who had marched in with him shouting “Hosanna”? We know that Simon Peter had followed Jesus when he was taken away from the garden. He was hanging around the fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. Upon questioning by a servant girl, “Weren’t you with that man from Galilee?,” he denied knowing him, and hurriedly left the scene.

Since Jesus was on the cross by nine in the morning, his followers either didn’t know what was going on or, if Peter had spread the word, they were purposely lying low. But according to the evangelist Mark, none of Jesus’ disciples were there. At the cross only a Roman centurion was astute enough to recognize what was going on. “Truly this man was the Son of God.” This is the only statement about Jesus in the entire Gospel of Mark that the evangelist left unchallenged.

We proclaim both the Palm Gospel and the Passion Gospel on this Sunday because we need to see ourselves at both ends of the week. We need to ask: where are we in this story? Are we with the supporters of Jesus who hailed him as king and thought they had a movement going to renew their nation, but weren’t around when they might have made a difference? Or are we among those who felt a need to support the established order by asking for Jesus to be crucified? Will we who marched for the lives of our youth yesterday continue to do what it takes to support their aspirations? Or will we return to our daily affairs and leave the status quo unchallenged and unchanged. Or…are we like the soldier who had a glimmer of understanding about what was really taking place—that the world’s mess is so intractable that God needs to be involved, even unto death on a cross?

This is a story we need to follow throughout this week because it’s important that we know which group we identify with. And if we’re with the group that calls for the affirmation of life rather than the group that accepts death as the price for maintaining the status quo, then we need to gather at the font at the end of this week to renew our baptismal covenant and commit ourselves anew to the kind of Kingdom Jesus ushered in by his death and resurrection. Amen.

Pastor Frank Senn, STS

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