The Big Mistake
My church celebrated Palm Sunday today, and the service was, in many ways, typical of Palm Sunday services both within and outside The Episcopal Church. That’s too bad. The service was certainly executed well, but, through no fault of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, it was fundamentally wrongheaded.
The service began well enough. Palm fronds were blessed and distributed, and the procession went forward to the strains of “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” the only hymn mentioned by name in the Book of Common Prayer. In fact, everything was just fine until well into the Gospel reading. That reading began with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the apparent climax of his ministry, and the event the Church claims to be celebrating. Then comes the Big Mistake. The Gospel reading keeps going, leaving Palm Sunday behind for the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest in the garden, his trial, crucifixion, and burial.
At St. Paul’s, the reading of the ugly events recounted by St. Mark was followed by a sermon that began by reminding the congregation about the sorry state of the economy, an opening that sent me into a funk that made me eager to get to the offertory anthem, Gibbons’ “Hosanna to the Son of David,” which would at least return attention to Palm Sunday proper.
After the Eucharist, the service concluded with a recession of the altar party and liturgical dancers—veiled young girls dressed all in black—walking solemnly in the rear to the funeral march written by Henry Purcell for Queen Mary. The music was played on the organ and accompanied by side drum. The effect was powerful; I felt like slitting my wrists as the “dancers” retreated down the center aisle.
Yes, it was a moving service. What was so wrongheaded about it?
Several years ago, I wrote about the Easter Vigil as the dramatic culmination of Holy Week, and I alluded to the Big Mistake. The drama of Holy Week begins with the Palm Sunday liturgy, moves to the Maundy Thursday institution of the Lord’s Supper, and continues with the Good Friday liturgy ending in post-crucifixion gloom. The Easter Vigil of Saturday night opens soberly and reflectively. It then explodes into the triumph of Christ’s victory over death. Into this story arc, the latter details of the Passion Gospel read on Palm Sunday are an unwelcome intrusion.
Surely, Jesus’ disciples must have been awed and a bit bewildered by their entry into Jerusalem. They may even have had forebodings that the Jewish religious leaders might not react well to their leader’s “success.” They had more than 15 minutes to enjoy that success, whatever their misgivings about the future, however; they could not have anticipated how their fortunes would turn only a few days later.
What the Big Mistake does liturgically is to dull the impact of the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services by commemorating, albeit briefly, all the pre-resurrection events of Holy Week. Why bother to go to church on Thursday or Friday? And the more solemn the end of the Palm Sunday service, the more redundantly lugubrious seems the beginning of the Easter Vigil. Why not just return to church on Easter Sunday, scrubbed and polished, and ready for a cheery message and an Easter egg hunt?
Of course, it is almost certainly the concern that many worshippers will skip mid-Holy-Week services that has dictated that the whole Passion Gospel be read on Palm Sunday. Omitting it would mean that many Christians would have a celebratory Palm Sunday followed by a celebratory Easter Sunday, with no real sense of Jesus’ sacrifice in between. The liturgical price to pay is a small one—a somewhat unfocused Palm Sunday service and a requirement that the more conscientious churchgoers endure a Holy Week trailer for the coming attractions they’re already committed to going to see.
But perhaps the price is higher. Despite Saint Paul’s near obsession with Jesus’ sacrificial work on the cross, there was significance to our Savior’s life on this earth. His ministry actually counted for something and was meant to teach us something new. Palm Sunday is a celebration of this. Jesus’ preaching found a receptive audience, and, although that audience may not always have understood his message fully, the people’s enthusiasm attests to its appeal and power. Slighting the triumph of Palm Sunday diminishes the significance of Jesus’ ministry, in addition to the theological-historical whiplash produced by the out-of-sequence storytelling of the Holy Week liturgies.
The Big Mistake is not a recent liturgical innovation. Would I really want to fix it? Yes, I think I would. It lessens the coherence of the drama that begins on Palm Sunday and, ideally, concludes with the Easter Vigil. That drama is compelling and deserves to be made as powerful as it can be. At every Eucharist, the institution of the Lord’s Supper is recalled and the Lord’s death is alluded to. The reading of the Passion Gospel adds little to the weekly celebration of the Eucharist and does not adequately compensate for missing the affecting sobriety of Good Friday. Ironically, while doubtless intended to compensate for the non-attendance of worshippers on Thursday and Friday, the Big Mistake may actually encourage non-attendance by making it seem unnecessary.
Why not make the Palm Sunday liturgy about Palm Sunday and advertise Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil services with renewed enthusiasm?