As we return to Mark for Palm/Passion Sunday, it is striking that even Mark has slowed down the action a bit, filling in details about Jesus’ instructions to the disciples and the response of the bystanders who questioned them when they went to find the colt for Jesus to ride. Given the fast pace of most of the book of Mark, the fact that the gospel writer starts stretching out the narrative at this moment ought to get our attention. And in many ways, this reflects what happens to liturgical time as we enter Holy Week. Throughout the church year, we jump around in time in relation to the biblical narrative. If you read all four lectionary readings every Sunday, you are reading texts that span millennia all in the space of twenty minutes. Even if you read only one text each Sunday, one story that takes five minutes to read might be about actions or events that took hours, days, or even weeks and months. Except during Holy Week. During Holy Week, we, like Mark, slow time down so that we can live into the rhythms and observe the details of these few seemingly ordinary days that are, in fact, the culmination of Jesus’ salvific work in and for the world.
One of the challenges before us is how to handle Palm/Passion Sunday. There is a legitimate concern that if you craft the worship service only around the triumphal entry, then congregants who do not attend the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services go from triumph to Resurrection and never encounter the crucifixion. That said, if you plan on having a Maundy Thursday and Good Friday service, it feels oddly redundant to enter into the Passion narrative on Sunday only to then go back and rehash Thursday and/or Friday. So, it seems there are a few options available. One is to emphasize the “Palm” part of Palm/Passion Sunday and make a concerted effort to invite and encourage as many congregants as possible to come to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. Taking this approach might also mean making sure your Holy Week services are available online and that you provide some Holy Week reflections on social media for those who cannot attend in person or online. A second option is to craft a service that encompasses the major points of the Holy Week narrative from the triumphal entry all the way to the crucifixion. One approach that would work well with this second option is treating the service a bit like lessons and carols wherein you structure the service around the Holy Week narrative interspersed with appropriate hymns, anthems, and prayers.
But there is a third option that I think is worth exploring that includes both Palm and Passion without going all the way to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. In this approach, the service begins with the joy of the triumphal entry but makes a slow descent in energy and tone in preparation for Maundy Thursday (or Good Friday if you are not having a Maundy Thursday service). In this approach, especially, we want to emphasize the precarity of the people during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Why do they want to be saved? What do they want to be saved from? Will they accept anyone who says he’s the Messiah out of their own desperation? Will we accept anyone or anything who claims to be the Messiah out of our own desperation?
Of course, the question is, “How do we help our congregants experience this precarity?” Perhaps you sing “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” or “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” while waving palm branches, followed by a prayer of confession centered around our struggle to accept the Messiah that Jesus is instead of who we want him to be. You might also consider interspersing small sermons throughout the service. Near the beginning, you might expound on the significance of Jesus riding a colt and the meaning behind the “Hosanna” the crowds shouted, and then return with a sermonette reflecting on a teaching or event leading up to Maundy Thursday. And, if you are not having a Maundy Thursday service, this is a great opportunity to, at the very least, reference Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and the Last Supper, if not read the relevant passages in John 13 (found here).
In addition, there is much we can do in and to the space to signal the move from triumph toward the Passion. If you do not plan to have a Maundy Thursday service, I highly encourage stripping the altar as the final act of worship during Palm/Passion Sunday. (More is available about why and how to go about stripping the altar in the Maundy Thursday worship planning notes.) If you do plan to hold a Maundy Thursday service, use the end of worship to prepare the altar for Maundy Thursday as a signal of the move we’ve made away from the palms and toward Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion. One way to do this would be to recruit volunteers to remove the palms from the altar and chancel as others remove everything from the altar except the paraments (you may also change to red paraments for Maundy Thursday if you so desire). Then, place a chalice and paten in the center of the altar as a sign of preparing the Table for the Last Supper we remember on Maundy Thursday. Allow all of this to happen in silence and then dismiss the congregation with a blessing. There are certainly other ways to use the space to signal the transition from Palms to Passion. We simply encourage you to use the visual and physical space to help the gathered body experience and encounter the whole story of Holy Week once again.
Dr. Lisa Hancock, Director of Worship Arts Ministries, served as an organist and music minister in United Methodist congregations in the Northwest Texas and North Texas Annual Conferences, as well as the New Day Amani/Upendo house churches in Dallas. After receiving her Master of Sacred Music and Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology, Lisa earned her PhD in Religious Studies from Southern Methodist University wherein she researched and wrote on the doctrine of Christ, disability, and atonement.