Planning - Passion/Palm Sunday
About Worship Today
Palm/Passion Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week in the Christian calendar. Lent is over, but not finished. Everything is intensified starting today. The color may change from "penitent purple" to "blood red," a reminder of the suffering and death of Jesus. During this week, the baptized walk hand in hand with those preparing for baptism as we face together the conflict, injustice, pain, suffering, death, and grief leading to and surrounding the crucifixion and death of Jesus.
Worship today brings two liturgies together, a processional liturgy (Entrance) to or into the worship space that recalls the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the main liturgy (Word and Response, Communion, and Sending Forth) in which we hear the whole story of Jesus' last night with his disciples, his betrayal, arrest, trial, and execution on a Roman crucifix. Today's ritual recapitulates and anticipates the whole journey of readings and actions of the week to come.
As you plan for worship today, remember that today's gospel reading of the Passion of Jesus is the longest you may experience this year, especially if you do not offer a traditional Good Friday service that includes the reading of the entire Passion from John's Gospel. Read it well, read it interactively, and strongly consider not offering a sermon at all, but rather an extended time for silent reflection after the reading, leading into a celebration of Holy Communion in a solemn (though not funereal!) key. If there is any day in the year to use Word and Table IV, this is it. If you are not used to this form of the service, be sure to rehearse it with your musicians and a few others so you are able to lead it with dignity and grace, not stumbling over the words or the flow of the ritual, which is different than Word and Table I, II, III and V.
Palm/Passion Sunday begins Holy Week. The week, for many churches, includes daily services of worship that have a cumulative quality of a vigil. The services may end with departure in silence, almost as if we are taking a little break for food and rest and then we return to continue our watching with Christ. Egeria, the early fifth century pilgrim to Jerusalem notes in her diary that the daily services for Holy week ended this way: "prayer is made, the catechumens and the faithful are blessed, the dismissal is made, and every one returns . . . to his house, it being already very late at night."
Plan for a complete celebration of the week, including services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and The Great Vigil. (See BOW 343-376 for resources, descriptions and service orders, and the link above for thorough instructions and suggestions for The Great Vigil.) We also have a more contemporary version of the Great Vigil, including suggestions for music, readings offered around the worship space, and a dancer. Readings for each day of Holy Week are available on the Discipleship Ministries worship website. If you do not plan to gather for daily services in your worship space, consider organizing smaller gatherings at homes throughout this week (especially Monday-Wednesday), using these texts as guides for your prayer and reflection.
As you plan beyond Easter Sunday, remember that Easter Season (or Eastertide) lasts a full eight Sundays, from the Easter Vigil (April 23 at night) through the celebration of Pentecost (June 12). This is seven Sundays to celebrate and teach the stories of Christ after his resurrection, through his Ascension (June 2 is Ascension Day, but the readings and celebration may be transferred to Easter 7 on June 5) and the coming of the Spirit at the Day of Pentecost. While the purpose of Lent is to prepare persons for baptism and help the baptized reaffirm their own baptismal commitments, the purpose of Eastertide historically is to help the baptized understand the mystery of the resurrection (mystagogy) as they discern their gifts and claim or reclaim their ministries in the world in the name and power of the Risen Lord. You may find "The Progression of Eastertide, Year A" helpful as you plan for this season.
The Festival of God's Creation is always scheduled on the Sunday closest to Earth Day, and this year that happens to fall on Easter Sunday (April 24). You are encouraged always to include the earth and care for the earth in your congregation's weekly intercessions (if not, start adding that now!), and of course on this day as well. If, during Lent, you will encourage folks to reduce their energy consumption, today may also be an occasion for folks to share testimonies or simply place something in the offering plate indicating the results of their efforts to save energy. But Easter should be the primary focus of your celebration this day, regardless of any other denominational focus. So while you may include recognition of the denominational day in worship, keep the resurrection of our Lord front and center, and consider offering other commemorations for the day at a time other than the worship hour.
Native American Ministries Sunday (one of six Special Sundays with offering in the United Methodist Church) is May 8, the third Sunday of Easter. Remember in your planning two principles: (1) The primary celebration is the Lord's Day, and in particular for this day, the continuation of Eastertide -- the season of celebration, formation, and calling for ministry in the name of our Risen Lord. (2) This Special Sunday is not an invitation to adopt a Native American "style" in worship elements for the day. It is rather an invitation to be in partnership with Native Americans in ministry. Begin planning now (if you haven't already) for how this service will reflect ministry WITH rather than ABOUT Native Americans in your community and the larger community of The United Methodist Church.
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Liturgy of the Palms (that begins the service)
Matthew 21:1-11 (Palms liturgy)
Matthew's narrative of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem.
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29.
The Palm Sunday processional is an invitation to embodied and kinetic worship. The reading from Matthew's Gospel includes two cues for "props" for the processional: branches and cloaks. Whether you use "palms" (strip type or leafy) or other "branches," note what the gospel invites you to do with them . . . they are not waved, but placed down in front of Jesus like a "red carpet" or an aisle runner (as in weddings). We do not recommend using coats (they're not flat enough and could easily cause folks to trip and fall!), but you may consider making and using a few simple overgarments -- a large piece of cloth with an opening for the head -- that some in the procession could wear then remove to place carefully on the ground for the leader of the procession (worship leaders and acolytes) to walk on.
(Note: If you do this procession this way, following the pattern of the Scripture, be sure to provide for time and people to "clear the path," removing whatever "branches" and "cloaks" to avoid any safety hazards! OR, simply do the entire processional outdoors, leading up to the entry to the worship space rather than in the worship space itself.)
If Matthew gives us some cues about props, Psalm 118 gives us cues about language to use during the processional. Here is a reconstruction of the psalm based on the New Revised Standard Version and the verses in our psalter with parts added. This reconstruction assumes that the lay leader is outside with the people, while the pastor/pastors are just inside the church or sanctuary.
Lay Leader: Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.
Pastor: This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.
(Lay Leader and People enter the space.)
Lay Leader: I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
People: This is the Lord's doing; It is marvelous in our eyes.
All: This is the day that the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Here, a hymn may be sung as the congregation processes into the worship space, with the pastor(s) and lay leader(s) of the congregation leading the way, and some people placing branches and cloaks before them as they process. After all but the last verse of the hymn, the psalm continues, with the pastor facing the table (away from the people), arms raised in petition:
Pastor: Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
People: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord.
Lay Leader (facing the people): The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the altar. (Any remaining branches or palm leaves are placed at this time to complete the pathway to the Lord's Table or the entry, if you do this entirely outdoors.)
Pastor (facing table): You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. (Pastor turns)
Pastor (facing people): O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
People: for his steadfast love endures forever!
Here, the last verse of the hymn is sung. Then the service of Word and Table begins with a greeting and opening prayer, such as that in The United Methodist Book of Worship, page 339.
Isaiah 50: 4-9a.
Isaiah voices the way God's servant will move forward in hope.
A psalm of trust from one in the throes of intense suffering. Sing using a minor key or otherwise contemplative setting.
The way of Jesus Christ -- emptying himself, taking the form of a servant, dying on the cross. God exalts him and gives him a name above every name.
Matthew 26:14-27:66 or shorter reading Matthew 27:11-54.
Matthew's Passion narrative in a fuller and a shorter version. Given that, in many of our congregations, attendance at Good Friday services is significantly less than on Sunday, strongly consider a participatory reading of the entire text.
The consistent theme of the imagery in the Passion Sunday readings is intense human suffering. From Isaiah, we see the suffering brought upon one who seeks to teach truth, but is reviled, rejected, and persecuted for doing so. In the Psalm, we enter into the world of a person whose physical suffering is matched by the emotional pain of being forgotten, abandoned, left for dead, or intentionally shunned by others. Philippians and Matthew place before us the suffering of Jesus as he faced and experienced crucifixion.
Consider how you will incorporate images and soundscapes of suffering in this second movement of the service today. Keep in mind that the idea is to help the congregation identify with those who are suffering.
This is not a day to spend any significant time on the specifics of Roman crucifixion practices -- neither is Good Friday, for that matter. Instead, this is a day to help the congregation see and experience the world as those who are suffering intensely see and experience it -- not so much by looking at their eyes, as through them. It is a day to hear and understand deeply the sounds and voices and stories of suffering that are still with us, all around us, so that our prayers and our worship are not so much for the suffering ones (in pity or concern) as in solidarity with them (in radical hope before God). In so listening, singing and praying, your worshiping community will be able to enter more deeply into the suffering of Jesus with us and for us.
There is a piece of an ancient Communion prayer that speaks to this:
In order that he might fulfill your will
and make for you a people,
he extended his hands when he suffered,
so that he might liberate the suffering ones who hoped in him
who was handed over by his own will to suffering,
that he might destroy death,
and break the chains of the devil,
and trample hell,
and direct the saints,
and fix the boundary,
and manifest resurrection.
(from Bernard Botte, translator and editor, La Tradition Apostolique: D'aprs les Anciennes Versions [Paris: ditions du Cerf, 1984], chapter 4, p. 48-50; English translation from the Latin of the Ethiopic text by Taylor Burton-Edwards)
- Context in the Christian year. On this Sunday that begins Holy Week, we come to the core and mystery of our salvation. This Sunday and Easter Sunday are the most evangelical Sundays of the year. The liturgy for this day is ancient and comes as a wonderful gift. It is so powerful that it draws all into its story-- not as distant observers, but as people fully present for the events that we call the Paschal Mystery. Even if there has been a death in the congregation or a national tragedy or a breath of some good news, stay with the ritual of this day. It will embrace us in whatever has happened and transform us with the love of God enacted in the dramatic events in Jerusalem two millennia ago.
- Colors and Clothing. The Book of Worship still indicates purple for this day, but increasingly red or crimson has become the preferred color for this Sunday and the rest of Holy Week through Holy Thursday. Keep in mind that black is not a liturgical color. On Good Friday, there is simply no color, no paraments, no decorations of any kind. And since the service does not involve the sacraments, clergy may choose to wear no stole, or perhaps to wear it under the alb or robe
- Readings. The readings are the heart and life of this Sunday's liturgy. It does not get any more vividly dramatic than this Sunday! Consider using all the readings. There are two important sources for approaches to reading the Passion narrative:
- The United Methodist Book of Worship, "A Service of Lessons and Hymns," pages 341-342.
- The New Handbook of the Christian Year by Hoyt L. Hickman and others (Abingdon, 1992; available from Cokesbury). The handbook has the whole narrative (longer and shorter) divided into parts for readers.
Avoid typecasting parts, such as the pastor reading the words of Jesus. Instead assign parts to the best readers available.
Questions for your planning today:
- Is this a Sunday for the usual sermon? Maybe, but at least consider letting Matthew be the preacher with the aid of ways of reading and hearing the story that let the people enter it well. Personally speaking, I have found the gospel writers to be able to say far more eloquently and completely what needs to be said on this day than any sermon I could write or have ever heard.
- Is this a Sunday for Holy Communion? Absolutely. This is a day that perhaps the majority of your congregation will experience with intensity the "suffering side" of the paschal mystery, unless your congregation has a strong tradition of large attendance at Holy Week services. And in response to the gospel reading of the suffering of Jesus, how can we not offer our Great Thanksgiving and encounter him at Table on this day?
- Is this a Sunday for baptism or welcoming new church members? Probably not. The United Methodist Book of Worship urges that this be done during Eastertide rather than on this Sunday (see pages 338-339 in the red). But it IS a day for welcoming those you may have been preparing for baptism to walk with you through the experience of Holy Week, and especially the Three Days (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday). See suggestions for such ritual invitation in Dan Benedict's Come to the Waters,
- If we do the processions, and the long reading, and Communion, won't that take longer than usual? Yes, it will. And today it needs to. So plan accordingly. Remove elements you do not need -- especially announcements and, if you have them, "joys and concerns" times. Move the intercessions into the Great Thanksgiving itself -- there are suggestions below for how to do this (See Concerns and Prayers, below). And if you offer multiple services, consider offering at least one less today so there is time in each service for all present to experience and give all this day calls us to offer. And of course, give plenty of notice -- both of the lengthier timeframe and of any alternative starting places for the opening processional you choose to use.
- But what about those who will say, "When I come to church I don't want to stand around outside and join in a parade!" Invite them to take their seats in the worship space and tell them that the service will start outside (or whatever other location) and that the congregation will join them shortly.
- I'm new here, and this congregation has never done it this way before! Then pray, listen and talk with folks about how much of this you can do this year, and start building a plan to do more of it in succeeding years. Get the shape and basic actions right this year (Processional as Entrance, Passion as Reading, Communion, and Sending in Silence) then look at how you can elaborate on each section in the years ahead.
- We're a contemporary church. We don't do "liturgy!" Yes, you do; it's just a different form of liturgy, assuming it is the work of the whole people and not a stage show! Consider at least adopting the contrasts of festive gathering with Hosannas and your praise band and then moving to the somber rehearsal of the Passion "unplugged." It will be a powerful juxtaposition.
Embodying the Word: Passion/Palm Sunday, Year A
This Sunday, more than any other Sunday in the Christian year, is all about the dramatic encounter between the Word of God in Scripture, the Living Word in our midst, and ourselves as people of the Word. There is more to be read on this day than any other Sunday.
So pay particular attention today to who will read and how they will read. Remember that Psalms are not readings, but rather prayers, and sometimes, as Psalm 118, actually cues for liturgical action (as suggested in the form of the processional offered above). So help those who will lead psalms not only read the words, but help the congregation respond and embody these prayer-acts.
There is a dramatic shift in tone from the Liturgy of the Palms to the Liturgy of the Passion. Everything in the Liturgy of the Palms is act of praise. The reading of Matthew needs to be proclamatory and joyful. Surround it with song, or interlace it with call and response.
Do not be lulled into thinking this is "just" about the children (several hymns for Palm Sunday have left that impression over the past century or two). In fact, no gospel records of the "entry" scene specify children at all. The notion of children waving palm branches refers not to the Scripture, but rather to substantially later (over 1000 years later) liturgical practices in the Western church. So, if you are seeking to embody the Scripture this day, rather than repeat a traditional practice of one part of the church as if it were Scriptural, find ways to include the action of children AND adults throughout both the Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion.
The tone of the Liturgy of the Passion is immediately and drastically different. We shift from victory to victims, from celebration to suffering. While the voice of the crowd dominates in the first movement, here it is the voice of the few who have been singled out to be treated with brutality and respond with both realism and confidence in God. Are there people in your congregation whose own stories resonate with such suffering, who may be asked to lead in the reading of Isaiah or the singing/chanting of Psalm 31 today?
Philippians presents a different perspective. This is not the voice of one who is suffering, but rather a description of Christ's humility and suffering in the context of a culture that highly values the top levels of its own hierarchy. Consider singing this text rather than reading it. Two versions appropriate for Lent (the third includes Alleluias, and so would be best reserved for another day, such as Christ the King Sunday) are available in The United Methodist Hymnal. Hymn 167 presents it as a responsive canticle with a sung response, and 168 sets the entire passage to music in a minor key, very fitting for the day.
The reading of the Passion according to Matthew is the centerpiece and pinnacle of the service of the Word for today (though not of the service overall -- let Holy Communion, informed by this reading, take that role, today). Several suggestions for reading or enacting it have been provided above. Here I only want to suggest that every attempt be made to help this reading be heard in its own drama, and that other elements (sound, video, or drama) not subsume the power of the story told well and including the whole congregation.
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Resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship with links and other suggestions
- The full liturgy for this day is on pages 338-343 of The United Methodist Book of Worship. What follows supplements that liturgy.
- See Season of Ash and Fire, pages 45-52 for a number of supplementary resources for this day.
- Passion/Palm Sunday Prayer, The United Methodist Hymnal, 281
- Prayer of Thanksgiving: If you will not be celebrating Holy Communion, see page 27 of The United Methodist Book of Worship. However, there are very strong reasons to celebrate Holy Communion -- the gospel reading almost demands that having heard this story, we come to receive the very gift of one who died for us.
- Holy Communion: Use "The Great Thanksgiving for Later in Lent," 62-63, The United Methodist Book of Worship, or "A Service of Word and Table IV," pages 26-31 in The United Methodist Hymnal.
- Concerns and Prayers: In order not to skip them but to more closely link the gospel narrative (proclamation) and the Eucharist, consider including the intercessions as part of the Great Thanksgiving.
For example, if you are using "The Great Thanksgiving for Later in Lent" (UMBOW 62-63), you could insert the concerns and prayers following the epiclesis that ends with " that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood."
The intercessions should be brief and simple, such as:
Remember, Lord, your one, holy, catholic and apostolic church as together all Christians recall your passion for us. Reveal its unity, guard its faith, and stir it up to love's risk and service.
Remember also the world for whom Christ died and rose again, especially the poor, the unemployed, the victims of ethnic cleansing, racism and disease.
Remember those whom we name aloud or in silence before you. (pause)
Then the prayer continues with "By your Spirit make us one with Christ"
- Dismissal Blessing:
The Lord Jesus Christ be
with you to defend you,
within you to refresh you,
around you to preserve you,
before you to guide you,
behind you to justify you,
above you to bless you;
who lives and reigns with the Father [the Almighty],
and with the Holy Spirit, one God for evermore.
(10th Century Prayer)
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