Saturday, March 27, 2010

Palm Sunday and/or?

I don’t know exactly when it was that somebody thought it was a good idea to shift the emphasis of Palm Sunday to include the Passion of Christ.

Once upon a time, if I remember correctly, we Presbyterians had Palm Sunday to commemorate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, on the first day of Holy Week. The Passion would come later in the week, receiving full attention on Friday.

Our Roman Catholic friends had a Passion Sunday, but it was the week before Palm Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent. It began a two-week period called “Passiontide,” but that never caught on much for Reformed Protestants. Not long after Vatican II, the Romans put both Sundays together in what they called, “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.”

Along the way, Protestants invented “Passion/Palm Sunday,” compressing both the parade, welcoming the Messiah into the Holy City, and the crucifixion, marking his exit, into a single service. From what I understand, one of the reasons this took hold in many denominations such as the Presbyterians was because it was deemed to be realistic.

Here’s the problem: Relatively speaking, nobody goes to Holy Week services any more. Maundy Thursday draws a few, Good Friday even fewer. Easter Vigil is something most people don’t even know about and therefore don’t know what it is they’re missing. So, for many folks, perhaps most of the members of most of the churches, Holy Week is a complete blank. The story of Jesus, as they experience it, takes a giant leap from the celebration of his entrance into Jerusalem to the celebration of the resurrection, from one mountaintop to another. People are able to skip over the betrayal and injustice that beset Jesus, the profound agony in the souls of all who followed him to the cross, and the devastating tragedy of the whole scene.

The remedy for this unrelenting niceness is to push the Palm Sunday envelope to include the narrative of the crucifixion. That covers the territory for those who won’t be in church again until Easter Sunday. Passion/Palm Sunday, then, also becomes a “preview of coming events” for those who will show up later in the week. All bases are covered.

I concede the realism of Passion/Palm Sunday, but it’s a sorry state of affairs when the church changes its calendar to accommodate the non-attendance of the bulk of its membership. Besides, there are some drawbacks.

One is that we don’t do justice to Palm Sunday. The happy hosannas are sung with genuine joy. But that is obscured, clouded over by the gloom that lurks ahead. The day is a time set for celebration, and the church needs to raise the roof in song to proclaim the fulfillment of divine promises.

The other drawback is that we don’t do justice to the Passion of our Lord either, at least not for those who find in Passion/Palm Sunday a reason for not needing to attend Holy Week services. The one narrative section about Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, lengthy that it is, is not sufficient, even if bolstered by some of the great passion hymns and other music. It’s all crammed into one hour, and that makes it cramped.

Neither is there holy leisure for meditation, for contemplating the wonder of it all, for letting the story sink in. It takes time to worship God. We do ourselves no spiritual favors by doing condensations à la Readers’ Digest.

What needs to happen, of course, is that everyone ought to attend the full schedule of liturgical events throughout the Christian Year, and especially during Holy Week. Yet that’s not realistic. So we unhappily make concessions.

Still, maybe there are ways to convince our church friends that they don’t want to miss Maundy Thursday, that they do want to be there for Good Friday, and that surely they can’t have anything else more important on Saturday evening than Easter Vigil.

What are some of those ways? How can we educate our congregations about Holy Days?


  1. Don, I read your articles faithfully and often get much out of them for myself and in my role as pastor. This morning's came with particular good timing, as I read it almost intirely during our announcement time prior to worship.
    We don't have offer an Easter vigil but it was a great way for me to educate and invite that if anyone was interested I would locate one and join them. But as far as our Maundy Thursday Supper Communion Service and our Good Friday Tenebrae Service your thoughts and words helped share the need to not try to move one celebration to another. Most have always gotten a lot out of Holy Week services but when we look only at numbers some years we are more disappointed than others. The encouragement to never give them up for us was very helpful and the encouragement to stay focused on Palm Sunday today was something I needed to hear, even though that was our plan.
    I added some of my own thoughts that so many times I hear how we have given away the Sabbath, when they really mean Sunday worship, but I used your letter to question what we thought about giving away Holy Week and to prompt a priorty of commentments this year to engage all of Holy Week.
    I will admit I was tentative at reading your thoughts completely as an announcement (too worried about taking too long and worship ending past the hour) but all I heard was what a wonderful worship today, and thank you's for sharing the letter of encouragement for Holy Week.
    So messenger of God, Don we at West Charlton UPC offer you our blessing and thankfulness for your mission and ministry to 21st century Christian litugry.
    Peace, Tom Gregg

  2. You raise a challenging issue. I remember when Palm Sunday was simply that. Twenty or 25 years ago, it seemed there were more people who came to Maundy Thurs. Services and even Good Friday sometime between noon and 3. In part, it seems to be a matter of priority, but I understand, too, that most people don't have as much work flexibility for the former Good Friday 7 Last Words model.

    I think the move to make Palm Sunday an inclusion of the passion and death was a good and necessary one. However, I can't remember when I last preached a Palm Sunday sermon, so that's a mixed blessing in terms of attending to Palm Sunday only.

    Our Maundy Thursday Service includes a simple supper, Tenebrae Service, Communion and the Stripping of the Church. It's a powerful service, ending in starkness and silence. Maybe if we asked people to choose one service btw Palm Sunday and Easter- whether Maundy Thursday or a Good Friday Walk of the Cross or Vespers?

    The balance betwen grace and demand is always a challenging one- so we keep inviting, encouraging, but hopefully not cajoling.

  3. FYI and on the subject, we used this for our meditation today in the bulletin.
    "The same crowd that was cheering during the parade was jeering a few days later. They’d been wowed by Jesus’ sermons, fed with loaves and fishes, healed of their diseases, delivered of their demons. But as soon as the tide began to turn, so did they. Their cries of “Hosanna” turned to shouts of a very different kind: “Crucify him!”

  4. The Crucified and Risen King of the Universe is the Lord of Time and Space working in His Time/Space the atoning Spirit of His Person with His Holy Love for us, in us, and with us in our times. I believe that, when we understand Him as the Lord of Time, we will not want to make our calendars and clocks the measure of His Will for us 'today'!

    Rich blessings,

    Jack McKenna

  5. In our area, it is nearly impossible to find an Easter Vigil service outside of the Roman Catholic or Episcopal churches. Tom, if you find one, let me know! It is indeed a wonderful service and the years that I sought one out I truly felt that I had experienced the full breadth and depth of the Holy Week liturgical walk.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!