As always there is a choice to be made here: Palm Sunday is such a fun event for churches to celebrate; the temptation is to let the palms and the donkey and the parade and the crowd shouting “Hosanna” be the entire focus of the day. Some might argue that is the way it should be. Let the day be its own day. There are certainly many themes available to allow Palm Sunday the whole of the worship experience. Whether the focus is on the Matthew story or the enthronement Psalm 118 and the assigned verses, it is easy to see that there is content to explore this event.
The problem, however, is not in the day itself, but in the attendance patterns of congregations. For many church members, Sunday is the only day of attendance for worship. Sunday to Sunday is the usual rhythm of the community of faith, but this week, something more is needed: the experience of the Passion of Christ – not necessarily an understanding, but the experience; a taste, perhaps, a glimpse. We are too far removed for the full experience, but something needs to jar our comfortable sensibilities with the awareness of what has been done for us.
This glimpse is what drives the Holy Week services. We could argue that if the community is faithful to attend Maundy Thursday and Good Friday worship, then Palm Sunday can be Palm Sunday. The problem is that in most churches, the weekday services are attended by a fraction of the congregation, which means that most folks will go from a parade to a party, from an enthronement to a Resurrection, without ever walking through the valley of shadow. The result is to blunt the power and glory of Easter and Resurrection. Life after death without the experience of dying seems an empty promise. Resurrection after the shadows draw near is an experience of power and grace.
Each faith community will need to determine how best to provide that experience. Many congregations will need to create a “slash” experience on Palm Sunday by putting two modes together in one service, in this case Palm/Passion Sunday. To do this well requires careful planning as the congregation transitions from the exuberance of Palm Sunday into the heaviness of the Passion experience. In some settings, the gathering can be the reenactment of the Palm Sunday parade, with children and adults leading the whole body as they circle the sanctuary waving palms and singing Hosanna, processional hymns for the season, and then a reading of the gospel account of the event (Matthew 21:1-11 for Year A of the Lectionary Cycle), followed by a brief commentary on the event, perhaps a reflection on the word “Hosanna,” then a corporate prayer or litany. Here is where children would be dismissed to stay in worship and sit with their parents or to go to Sunday School or Children’s Church, depending on the tradition of the church.
An appropriate next move would be to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion. Palm/Passion Sunday falls on the first Sunday of the month this year, and we recommend that if it is your habit to observe Communion on the first Sunday, to continue that practice this month. Even if you plan to celebrate Communion on Easter, plan to celebrate Communion on Palm/Passion Sunday also. Wesley believed you should offer the Lord’s Supper as often as you can. Palm/Passion Sunday is an opportunity to show how Communion can be observed in a variety of ways. The Passion Sunday observance is more focused on the sacrifice, for example, and the Easter observance is more focused on the grace of the gift. Even the methods of serving could be different, with Passion Sunday being a quieter, more reflective event, and Easter being a louder, more exuberant celebration.
The service of Holy Communion could be the hinge upon which the transition is made from Palm to Passion. The transition could be made musically, as a choir or ensemble or soloist prepares the body for confession before the Great Thanksgiving. The transition could be made through the words of the liturgy, the emphasis on confession and repentance. It could be done through the setting; the bright lights of the palm celebration are dimmed in preparation for the sacrament; the palms lie on the floor as the congregation moves forward to receive the elements. It is a moment, an experience to savor, even as the worship then turns toward the Passion.
Let’s be clear: our tradition teaches that whenever the sacrament is celebrated, it is supposed to be the center of the worship. It is not preparation for anything, not a preliminary for something to come, sermon or drama. It is the apex of the service, the very real presence of the living Christ. At the same time, the sacrament is a part of the people’s response to the Word. It is a moving forward to receive the gift that comes to us in our unworthiness, and it makes us worthy in our receiving.
In fact, the Passion is a gift in our unworthiness. We recommend as a continuation of the sacramental moment that the Passion is presented --not expounded, not explained, but presented. Offer a simple reading of the Passion story from Matthew’s Gospel; or consider having a variety of readers to enhance the drama – a narrator and then various voices that speak from the verses in the text. Let the story stand on its own. Let the sacrifice be evident; let the injustice be heard; let the shame we all bear be presented, but simply, not overly dramatically, but clearly and passionately in presentation.
You know your congregation. You know how present they are likely to be for the full experience of Holy Week; you know how they prepare themselves for the glories of Resurrection Sunday on Easter. But don’t allow them to miss the depths and the heights that our faith touches. The Lenten series “Selah” was, in part, about the visceral experience of the season, the emotions that accompany our journey to the cross. So, let that experience continue all the way to the cross and beyond.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.