In which she muses on the tensions of Palm and Passion Sunday.

In the Episcopal pattern of liturgy, on the Sunday before Easter, we celebrate and symbolically re-enact Jesus’ triumphal arrival in Jerusalem, then turn to the Gospel of the Passion, reading together one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last evening with his friends, his arrest, trial, and execution. It is, unquestionably, a lot of content and a lot of emotion to pack into an hour and twenty minutes or so. And every year I hear or see a few friends – church folk of various stripes – protesting that it’s too much. That it’s emotionally jarring, too hard to absorb; that the abruptness of the turn towards the Cross gives them liturgical whiplash. They complain that Palm and Passion Sunday is an unholy hybrid created to accommodate the fact that church members were no longer faithfully attending Holy Week services & couldn’t be counted on to hear these parts of the story on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday; they long for the ancient practice of the Church in which Palm Sunday was just Palm Sunday, and the Passion Gospel was spread over the several days approaching Easter.

I hear that. I used to feel the same way. In fact, a lot of what I just said is based on how I used to feel; I’m boldly presuming my friends and acquaintances share my basic objections. I used to feel that way pretty emphatically. I don’t anymore. (Which is not to imply that I think or expect that others’ opinions will move along the same track that mine have – or that I won’t think differently about this yet again in another three years…)

Here’s what I think about Palm and Passion Sunday, this year.

It should be jarring.

It IS jarring in the Scriptures themselves. The Triumphal Entry takes about ten verses to tell. Those ten verses are set in a narrative arc of increasing confrontation and debate between Jesus and the authorities, a spiraling plot to eliminate Jesus, and the tensions of the approach of Passover – huge numbers of people gathered in Jerusalem, excited Jews, edgy Romans. Even allowing for the general terseness of Biblical text, I think there’s intentional irony in the way the Gospel writers present this one joyous celebratory moment in the thick of all the other  dark stuff that was gathering around Jesus at that point in the story. If you long for the Palm Procession to be longer, even to have whole Sunday to itself – if it’s meaningful for you to dwell in that place of welcoming and praising Jesus, waving palms and singing Hosanna! – that’s great! I’m for it. Just know that that’s something you’re asking for from the text and the occasion, not something that the Scripture, and our liturgical enactment of the Scripture, owes you.

At St. Dunstan’s we turn from the Palm Procession to the Passion Gospel by singing the first three verses of “A Stable Lamp is Lighted.” 

Is it jarring for a wrong reason?

I wonder if it would be less jarring in an important way if the matter of the voices was handled differently? Many churches (well beyond the Episcopal Church, I believe) divide up the voices of the Passion Gospel (which is a solid two chapters long), having different people voice the Narrator, Jesus, Peter, etc. It is a widespread practice to give the congregation the voice of the Crowd, so that the congregation’s participation in the story is shouting things like “Crucify him!” “We want Barabbas!” “We have no king but Caesar!” “Crucify him, crucify him!”

This has bothered me for years – kind of a lot, actually. Simply put, that’s not where I believe we stand, in the story. I don’t believe we’re that crowd. I’m not at all convinced that the crowd that met Jesus shouting Hosanna! was the same crowd that gathered at Pilate’s palace to shout for his blood. Yes, people can be that fickle – no denying that. But there’s kind of an assumption here that Jerusalem only had one crowd in it that week, and that’s simply ridiculous. My guess is that the folks who came out to meet Jesus were the curious, the hopeful, the sympathetic – not committed enough to join and follow him, but interested in this Galilean prophet. My guess is that when Jesus was arrested, those folks were all locked up safely at home, reminding their friends and family in hushed voices that they never saw the guy, didn’t know anything about it, were not now and never had been a disciple.

We might be them, the half-assed fair-weather Christians. Or we might be the disciples, who really love the guy, really believe in what he’s saying and doing, but when the going gets rough and risky, run for the hills. I do not find in myself any impulse to murder Jesus. I do, absolutely, regularly, find in myself an impulse to run away because going where Jesus leads seems too hard or too risky. That’s subjective, but I’m a pastor; I talk with a lot of people about their life of faith and their struggles with faithfulness. And I hear a lot that boils down to courage – it’s hard to speak out, it’s hard to stick to your convictions, it’s hard to follow where our faith leads.

So my objection isn’t that having the congregation shout “Crucify him!” is a downer – it’s not that I don’t want anybody to feel bad. It’s that I think casting the congregation as that murderous crowd is accusing ourselves of the wrong sin – of murderous hatred instead of cowardice. I know that for some folks, shouting those words is just an opportunity for a little drama in church. But I also know it’s uncomfortable or painful for some – including, sometimes, myself. And I don’t think it’s the right discomfort. It’s the discomfort of resistance (I didn’t! I wouldn’t!) instead of the discomfort of conviction (when have I…?).

I’ve experimented with giving the Crowd’s harsh lines to a particular group, instead of asking the whole congregation to say them, but it just perplexes people; it’s too ingrained that the congregation says those words. My compromise the past few years has been to give the congregation BOTH the Disciples’ lines AND the Crowd’s. Maybe next year I’ll try something else.

Could it be more jarring for the right reasons?

I wonder if it would be MORE jarring in an important way if we told more of the story. I know, I know: exactly nobody is complaining that Palm and Passion Sunday isn’t long enough. But some years back it was pointed out to me, by various folks from various angles, that telling the story the way we do in Episcopal churches a) really does violence to the story and to Jesus’ witness and b) is arguably intrinsically anti-Semitic.   The RCL Palm & Passion Sunday readings give us two-plus solid chapters of Scripture – but look at what they’re skipping, in the jump from the Triumphal Entry to the Passion narrative. In Mark we jump from 11:11 to 14:1; in Matthew we jump from 21:11 to 26:14; in Luke we jump from 19:40 to 22:14.

What happens in all the chapters we skip? Jesus argues with the religious leaders. Jesus tells sharp stories and makes snarky remarks. Jesus gets mad and throws tables around. Jesus knew his journey to Jerusalem was the end of his story – look at all the times he predicts his death to his clueless disciples. He was bringing his message and his mission to the center of power, fully expecting that power to crush him. If we read those in-between chapters, that’s really really clear. If we don’t – it’s not. Then the story starts to look like the Jewish authorities took against dear kind Jesus, who was so nice to children and lepers, and decided to get him executed by the Romans, out of sheer meanness. The whole complicated set of political/religious/economic/colonial dynamics that frame this drama is lost. That’s where the anti-Semitism comes in, because when you take all that away, then the only reason left for the Jewish authorities to take against Jesus is that he was right and they were wrong.

For several years now we have included the Jerusalem Readings, a series of short excerpts from those in-between chapters that give a sense of what was going on during Jesus’ week in Jerusalem, as part of our Palm and Passion Sunday liturgy. This sample only includes selections from the Gospel of Luke, but it’s not hard at all to pull similar passages from the other Synoptics for whatever Gospel you’re using in a given year; or drop me a line and I can share the ones we’ve used. I’m also thinking of adding the conversation in John 11 when Caiaphas tells the Council that it’s better for one man to die, than to allow him to stir up a revolt that may lead to the destruction of the whole nation. That’s a chilling, challenging, and timeless passage.

All right, enough musing on last Sunday; it’s Good Friday and I have stuff to do. Blessed Triduum, all. And feel free to comment with your thoughts, ideas, practices!