Against Passion Sunday

Matthew 21:1–11

For more commentary on this week's readings, see the Reflections on the Lectionary page, which includes Lewis's current Living by the Word column as well as past magazine and blog content. For full-text access to all articles, subscribe to the Century.

I am thinking of starting a campaign to bring back Palm Sunday, without the additional observance of Passion Sunday. Palm Sunday was always one of my favorites growing up as a preacher's kid, and it was all about the palms--and a lot of them. 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.

I understand the practical reasons for the more recent liturgical emphasis on the day's dual themes: most people won't be coming back during the week, so they need to hear the crucifixion story now. The church needs to make sure that the story of Jesus' death is given its due before acknowledging any reports of resurrection appearances.

But are such practical concerns rationale enough for downplaying the Palm Sunday experience of faith? What is Passion Sunday's theological raison d'être? Should we really try to hold the palms and the passion together in a single service? Even between Good Friday and Easter Sunday we get a day to move between sorrow and joy, between suffering and glory, between death and life.

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.

Palm Sunday can give us language to express "God with us." The crowd gets it: "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" The one at the center of this parade of palms is none other than Immanuel. Hosanna indeed.

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Hosanna Sunday not Palm!

Western Christianity badly needs a corrective theology – Palm Sunday is Hosanna Sunday for my heritage. It was a brouhaha Sunday or better a transplosion  Sunday ( as in implosion/explosion) where life was good for the disciples who were with Jesus but at the end everything got messed up.

When you belch out: ‘Sing Hosanna, sing Hosanna’ if you know the meaning of the term, it should be ‘cry Hosanna’ – not sing. Some Bibles  erroneously introduce the title ‘Triumphant entry into Jerusalem”; it was  far from triumphant. It began in the outskirts, possibly in Bethany – house of the poor!  Here you call it Passion Week or  Holy Week. It is in fact “Suffering Week”. Good Friday? No.

It should be  Dukkah Friday – thanks to the Buddhists who teach us about Dukkah.  

There is a place for both...

Good Morning:
In reading your article, I began to think of any time when Palm Sunday was replaced by Passion Sunday. I am Catholic, attended Catholic schools and am a lector at our church.
I have a 2011 book entitled "Workshop for Lectors, Gospel Readers, and Proclaimers of the Word", and today, Palm Sunday, April 17th, the top of the page reads, "Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion".
That speaks volumes to me and in our little church we celebrate Christ's entrance into Jerusalem, knowing full well what will happen by week's end, and how the beginning of next week will remind me of why we believe...some people put an extra emphasis on the "Reading of the Passion", but in my time we have always woven the palms...taking the afternoon to do so after morning Mass.
There is room for both, and lest we ever forget why He came, today is a great reminder to any of us who believe we are "on top of the world"; it can come crashing down so quickly...our Lord's love will not, and that, Ms. Lewis, is the best reason for remembering both.
Thank you for your time, and God bless you and yours.

the practical is theological

I could not disagree more with the division made here between the theological and the practical. In my experience as a pastor, the practical *is* theological. So for me, the concern over congregants hearing and experiencing the Passion story before moving forward to Easter is reason enough to observe Palms and then Passion in one service. This practical concern is not somehow lesser than more abstract theological concerns.

Even so, i believer there is still "theological raison d'etre." The movement from Palms to Passion offers a visceral experience of Jesus' experience that week - the quick and horrifying turn from praise to persecution. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem was a ride toward his execution, and even in a service that only celebrates the Palms, that understanding shouldn't be lost.

Yes, but...

I have very much shared in the emotions and thoughts of this piece. Passion Sunday has seemed to me a rather ham-handed solution to a variety of practical problems. It wrenches too quickly from the joy and hopefulness of the entry into Jerusalem to the events ahead—the wrenching is appropriate and needed but this timing and weighting of it often seems off.

(Incidentally, I think my parish is somewhat helped by the fact that we have persisted with the old tradition of using the entry into Jerusalem not only as a Palm Sunday text but also as the gospel for the First Sunday in Advent. I would encourage my colleagues to consider that small divergence from our current lectionary. It is a venerable tradition and it gives an important text, and an important image, an attention beyond its reading as mere prologue to the events of Holy Week that immediately tower up to overshadow the bright but brief beginning of the service.)

As to Palm/Passion Sunday, however, my sense has been that it can function adequately, indeed quite well, if:

a) we are clear and explicit about what we are doing, explaining the shift in mood in away that keeps it from seeming a mere effect of either incoherence or didacticism.

b) we remember and communicate even after we have gone into the latter part of the service that it is still Palm Sunday, that the Passion account we are reading is in terms of the liturgical drama prospective rather than retrospective. We who celebrate the hope-filled joy of Jesus' coming are now looking ahead into the week and to the events toward which Jesus is riding. We do this forward-gazing with the appointed Synoptic Passion; on Friday afternoon Jesus will meet the fate which these words describe. When the Passion according to John is read at Good Friday services on Friday evening, that dynamic is reversed and we are looking back upon the terrible yet wondrous event that took place. This sense of temporal orientation and dramatic movement seems to me liturgically important.

C) Palm Sunday's anticipatory entry into the solemnity of the passion enables deeper understanding of its meaning rather than an obliteration of its celebration. Yes, it's important to understand, and to have our exultation chastened by the knowledge, that the hosannas turn to cries for crucifixion, but that corrective and recollection need not stifle silence those hosannas in our mouths that morning.

It's all about focus...

I appreciate that ideas were shared about traditions that are meaningful to congregations. More of this and more specifics would be lovely.
From the standpoint of liturgy I have been troubled with this dual Sunday for a decade. We put much effort into Holy Week, having services every night for a congregation with one clergy person and 65 parishioners. It is vitally important to us. From this perspective, including Passion Sunday has always seemed insulting to the congregation, implying that they would not put forth the effort for Good Friday. Indeed it is our lowest attended Holy Week service. Is that because we have already given them the crucifixion?
With these troubling thoughts prompting some murmering on my behalf, I have had colleagues, who are in support of the dual service, express the importance of the crowd turning on Jesus, of feeling that emotional shift. I have appreciated this and often preach to this point on Palm/Passion Sunday.
As for me and my house, well, I wish it were different. The journey of Holy Week is the most important spiritual journey of my year. Every year - without exception - I am transformed. Inside, in that private just me space - I resent having to arrive at the crucifixion and then backtrack. I need all of the journey, and I need every bump in the road. Where we are now feels like we are not trusted to make that journey, as if our societal ADD will lead us to get so distracted we will forget to sit at the foot of the cross.
Ultimately I do not make the decisions; I look to the Standing Committee to Liturgy and Music for my national church to do this. May they hear my cry...until then, I will weave it all together this Sunday and come Monday pull it apart again to create something I believe is far more beautiful.

What?

The writer understands that people aren't hearing the story of Jesus' crucifixion, yet still doesn't think that's a big deal, compared with having the (so American) festivity of a big parade without the "downer" of the Passion story following? The raison d'etre is, very simply, reminding us of the heart of our faith. The people on that day cried "Hosanna," meaning "Save us." We still need that!

A Passion for Palms

Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem was a celebration then, and it should still be celebrated today. That said, the "passion for palms" (a convenient description, though certainly not original) is probably very telling, both then and now. It is too easy to point fingers, saying that the crowds in Jerusalem were fickle. Some (perhaps most) of the very people who cheered Jesus' arrival on Sunday would join the chants of angry mobs demanding His death. As bad as that sounds, many congregations today want to do the very same thing, reenacting their passion for palms without any real commitment. Indifference to the crucifixion--when you already know about it!--is just as shocking as the mob's behavior.

Call me an idealist, but I would (and do) challenge people to learn from the events of Jesus' time. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, can we at least attempt to live the commitment of our faith for one ... whole ... week? When I make the challenge to hundreds of nameless people, no one accepts the challenge. When I challenge a handful of people in a more intimate setting (a class or study group), several will. When I talk with people one on one and invite them to participate in a service or vigil, almost all of them have.

I believe we are living in another Christian century. We can have a passion for palms or a passion for passion. Mostly, though, let's have a passion for Christ, all day, all week, all month, all year, and all our lives long. Follow the Path! Hallelujah!

Palm Sunday

I completely agree. We go all out for Palm Sunday with a pony (the donkey was too stubborn) and a procession with palms down Broadway, NYC including a mariachi band. The preaching points us towards the rest of the week as we follow Jesus into death and beyond.

Hosanna Sunday not Palm!

 

Western Christianity badly needs a corrective theology – Palm Sunday is Hosanna Sunday for my heritage. It was a brouhaha Sunday or better a transplosion  Sunday ( as in implosion/explosion) where life was good for the disciples who were with Jesus but at the end everything got messed up.

When you belch out: ‘Sing Hosanna, sing Hosanna’ if you know the meaning of the term, it should be ‘cry Hosanna’ – not sing. Some Bibles  erroneously introduce the title ‘Triumphant entry into Jerusalem”; it was  far from triumphant. It began in the outskirts, possibly in Bethany – house of the poor!  Here you call it Passion Week or  Holy Week. It is in fact “Suffering Week”. Good Friday? No.

It should be  Dukkah Friday – thanks to the Buddhists who teach us about Dukkah. 

Palm Sunday

I simply cannot imagine the darkness of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday without the celebration of Palm Sunday. Within a span of seven days we have the opportunity to experience, albeit to a much smaller degree, the same emotions of the Disciples and the women on the day of resurrection. We should embrace Palm Sunday and mark the significance of each day of Holy Week .

FOR Palm/Passion being held together

The writer sees only "practical" concerns and some of the comments are rather harsh (people are too busy at Outback to come on Friday?...wow!) But there are good theological reasons to keep Palm/Passion together; see especially Borg and Crossan's recent work. To suggest that "Palm Sunday is only about praise" is precisely to miss the point that these claims of "hosanna" have a political dimension. I think the palms are not only about praise to the true "king of kings" but also a counter-demonstration; a political rally. The response of the powers-that-be is swift and predictable. When we separate palms and passion we wonder why those mean old people would possibly have killed dear sweet Jesus whom we just want to praise. Taken together, we see that the more things change, the more they stay the same...

Just Separate Them

The lectionary that I grew up with had both Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday, separately, one after another. As a pastor, I've come to miss that arangement.

The Roman Catholic lectionary reforms of the 1960s inspired much of the Protestant world to follow suit. But there does seem to be a wave of re-evaluation going on these days, and perhaps the "simplification" of Passion-tide should be one of the reforms that we re-evaluate.

Agree, and moreover

I resent having to skip Palm Sunday just because the majority are too lazy to come put on Friday night. They're not too lazy or too busy for Outback on a Friday! Besides the crucifixion, as brutal as it is, was Jesus' gift. "This is my body given for you." If folks don't want the gift...then too bad for them. So we do Palm Sunday, palms crowns etc. I often end with a brief reminder that Jesus dies on Friday. Not too much, just an invitation to be real in faith.

Jesus' Purpose

It's a hard reality of Christian faith - Jesus Christ came to die an ugly, horrible death for the sins of all the world. There would be no Easter without Good Friday.

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