calendar, Palm Sunday, Passion of Jesus

Frank Answers About Palms and Passion

What is the relationship between Palm Sunday and the Passion? I have heard pastors say 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, the 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 in liturgical books and flourished into the Middle Ages. But 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, especially in North America. The Processional Gospel is 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 always 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. So this order was not new in Lutheran Book of Worship Ministers Edition (1978). (In the old Lutheran lectionary Matthew 21:1-9 was also the Gospel for the first Sunday in Advent.)

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 present 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 impersonate respectively the Evangelist, Jesus Christ, and the other speakers (Synagoga). This division of the Passion among three characters 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. Chorales might be sung by the congregation at the beginning and end of the Passion reading, and perhaps at a strategic point within the Passion narrative.

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.

Jesus enthroned on the cross in the award-winning 1989 Canadian film, “Jesus of Montreal” (French: Jésus de Montréal), The players in the film tried to enact the crucifixion with historical accuracy, as the narrator explained the details of this passion play to the spectators.

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 entry 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. The fickleness of the crowd in welcoming Jesus and then calling for his death six days later is a theme many preachers have taken up, although I think the focus should be more on what these texts proclaim about Jesus. The suffering servant Jesus in the Passion according to St. Matthew is human enough for worshipers to relate to. So is the abandoned Jesus in the Passion according to St. Mark. Likewise the benevolent Jesus reigning from the cross in the Passion according to St. Luke.

As a practical matter, this is going to be a long Service, especially with an extended 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 dramatic enactment.

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 on the other days of Holy Week as it perhaps once was on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. For many Christians to hear only “Hosanna” and “Halleluia” two Sundays in succession without “Crucify him” and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is inadequate to faith formation. Historically, theologically, spiritually Palm Sunday is 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 (see the hyperlink in the first comment).

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