Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm or Passion?

So we've come 'round again to another Holy Week, and the seemingly inevitable debate has once again arisen: is today Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday or Palm/Passion Sunday?

Let's start by eliminating the third option.  Palm/Passion Sunday looks and sounds stupid, and conveys the sense that the Church doesn't really know what she's supposed to be commemorating.  Pick one, and stick with it.

With that out of the way...

It seems that the oldest Roman traditions referred to the Fifth Sunday in Lent (last week) as Passion Sunday, which marked the beginning of "Passiontide" - the end-ish of Lent that really leaned into commemorating and leading up to the Passion.  "Palm Sunday" has been known as Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, Second Sunday of the Passion, and so on.  At least in Rome.

Growing up Lutheran, I just knew it as Palm Sunday, until a few years ago when people started calling it Passion Sunday and reading the entire Passion narrative - right on up through the crucifixion and everything - on Sunday morning.  When I first heard this, it really took me by surprise.  What happened to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday?  If we were going to cram it all into Palm Sunday, what was the point of the rest of Holy Week? 

The longer this has gone on, I've heard more and more people make the argument that "most people don't come to MT or GF services, so we read the whole account for them on Palm Sunday."  Well, look.  I'm all for keeping people in the loop.  And I suppose it's true that if you only went to church on Palm Sunday, but not Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, Easter might not make a whole lot of sense.  So I see where we're trying to go with that. 

But, really?  One, it makes for a ridiculously long Gospel reading.  I'm happy to read Scripture, particularly out loud, particularly in the congregation.  I'm frustrated by congregations that have gone down to one (or zero!) readings on a Sunday because "people can't pay attention," or "it's not relevant" or whatever.  The Word of God is always relevant.  And people will pay attention if you teach them to.  But it's true that 50+ verses all at once is a lot to read, and a lot for little kids to sit still through, and a lot for even adults to follow. 

Two, it is a huge amount of content to cover.  There are a ton of things going on in the text, three or four different plotlines to follow, and it's really emotionally charged (or at least, it can be).  Frankly, it's a lot to try to read, listen to, absorb, process, and preach on in a week, let alone in an hour.  Also, along these lines, when it's all done so quickly, one right after the other, there's no time for contemplation of the wildly contrasting attitudes of the disciples and the crowd, the major shift that happens from Palm Maundy Good Friday.

Third, I come back to my original question: What is the point of the rest of Holy Week if we're just going to put it all on one day?  Maybe there is no point, you say?  People just don't celebrate Holy Week anymore.  It's not a part of the culture.  Well since when has the Church started caving to the culture?  (Yeah, I know, all the time.  Don't start with me right now.)  Since when has it been acceptable for the Church to cave to the culture?  Perhaps the reason that many people don't engage the traditions and disciplines of Holy Week is because we don't encourage them to, because we don't tell them they should, because we can't articulate the benefits of doing so.  Perhaps it's because we're so afraid of works-righteousness that we can't bring ourselves to say, "You should be in church on Thursday and Friday and Sunday this week."  Why?  Because God's going to smite you if you don't?  No.  Because there's a story to tell,  to remember and commemorate and mourn and give thanks for and celebrate all at once, and this is the way the Church does that.  One week out of the year we sacrifice lunch or evening plans for going to spend time worshiping the Lord and remembering what He has done for us.  And I don't see anything remotely Pelagian about saying so.

Would we need to spend so much time and energy trying to cram the entire Passion into Palm Sunday if, as "Christian public leaders", we were more willing to step up to the plate and encourage piety and devotion amongst the faithful? 

I suppose there's an argument that could be made, something that would change my mind.  But for now, count me as voting for Palm over Passion.

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