The Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday): A Festival with Two Names.
Palm/Passion Sunday has been the attention of much planning and innovation in the past forty years of liturgical renewal. Yet this Sunday before the celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ still needs two titles in most planning resources and calendars to convince us what its primary emphasis should be. The Sunday preceding Easter, also known as Palm Sunday, has recently also acquired the title, Sunday of the Passion, or in shorter parlance, Passion Sunday. Yet this clarification is still not enough, since the Fifth Sunday of Lent also had this name is some older liturgical traditions. Therefore, the two titles are put together in many unique ways to attempting to keep the identity of this day as a hinge that both ends Lent and begins Great Week (Holy Week). For many, it is a day when we recreate in our local communities the procession of Christ into Jerusalem in his final week, and yet incorporate into this day a reading or presentation of the Passion of Jesus from one of the synoptic Gospels. It is a day with two themes and the only Sunday with two appointed gospel readings. It is a day not devoid of themes or ideas, but literally bursting with too much to do; no wonder it requires a dual name.
Ancient History of Palm/Passion Sunday
The designation of the Sunday before Easter as Palm Sunday is something we might assume has been a part of Christian worship since the time of Apostles. In fact, the earliest recorded account of observance of this day comes from the fourth century when in Jerusalem, a procession “with palms is in the diary of the pilgrim Egeria”. Egeria came from Gaul, near Spain, and the recording of her pilgrimage to Jerusalem from 381-384 is a now a treasured recollection of some of the worship practices of the early church. (An easily accessible version of the Diary of her Pilgrimage, as well as the worship life lead by Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, at this same time, is in Walking Where Jesus Walked, reviewed in CrossAccent, Vol. 19, #2; 2011, pg. 30) As a pilgrim, Egeria records much of what she experiences while in Jerusalem during Great Week or Holy Week and this record becomes a pattern for Christians hoping to duplicate worship as observed in the Holy Land. For modern liturgical reform and study, it is also one of our earliest records of Christian worship. She calls this day “the Lord’s Day, which begins the Paschal Week” A source of some puzzlement to us looking back on her detailed account of this palm procession into the city and the liturgy following is why it happens in the late afternoon and then into the evening instead of in the morning. Some would account for this by the logistics of allowing pilgrims to worship in the morning in throughout the city and then, en masse, participate in this one event, the procession, together. Others wonder if this event was one that was not part of the normal worship life of Jerusalem, but created for the very pilgrims that participated. In any event, the idea of a palm procession on this day spreads throughout Christendom in the following centuries
We see that possibly through Egeria, the custom of the Palm Procession flourishes in Spain by the sixth century and is mentioned in the mid-eighth century Gallican Bobbio Missal. It was observed in many parts of Europe following that, but was not accepted in Rome until the twelfth century. In the Anglican world, there is little evidence of Holy Week observances, including Palm Sunday, before the tenth century. During the time of Bede (d. 735), the reading for the day was the Passion according to Matthew, but no indication of a Palm Sunday procession exists. However, we have records of palms being purchased and used in the parish church of St. Andrew, East Cheap, London, (1511-12) “payd for palmes and yew, palme sindaye, ivd …pyd for wyne, Cakes and foures vjd.” Although an observation like this, with Palm Procession and Passion reading, honors the written gospels and the life of Jesus, it has a checkered past among the Reformers. The blessing of the palms preceding the procession, before the service began “came to be so elaborate that it resembled the structure of the mass, and it may be largely for this reason that the Lutheran and Anglican reformers did not retain the blessing.”
In the Lutheran Church, Protestant leanings had kept many observances of Palm Sunday joyful and triumphant, with the procession setting the tone for the whole morning. The emphasis on this day was on the pageantry of the procession; Christ’s triumphal entry. However, Lutheran worship history also has an especially strong emphasis upon the Passion of Christ, as evidenced by the two famous musical works by J. S. Bach, The St. Mathew Passion and St. John Passion. There are also numerous settings of the Passion narratives by Lutheran composers like Heinrich Schulz, Carl Heinrich Graun, George Philipp Telemann, and recent composers like Pepping, John Ferguson and John Leavitt. Yet these were all written for Good Friday or some other midweek or evening worship event, not a Sunday Morning. So there was no lack of observance of the Passion narrative, but it was not assigned to this Sunday.
In recent Lutheran history, this accent on the joyous, triumphant part of this Sunday can be seen the instruction in the Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal (1958). In this volume, the fifth Sunday of Lent of the calendar is called Judica and also Passion Sunday. The following Sunday designated as a sixth Sunday of Lent is called Palmarum or Palm Sunday. The lectionary that day allows congregation and Pastors to choose between the entrance Gospel of Matthew 21:1-9 or the Passion reading of Matthew 26:1-27:66, not both.
In the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), the day is called Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday). With this book, the Lutheran Churches of North America adopted the three-year lectionary that had come out of Vatican II, so Synoptic Passion readings are assigned in a three-year cycle (A-Mathew, B-Mark, and C-Luke) with both longer and shorter versions available. However, the Psalm and Second lesson are identical across the cycle, regardless of the gospel being read. The Blessing of the Palms is not mentioned in the actual congregational version of the LBW, but is an option for Pastors to consider inserting into the rite as they saw fit. Like the service for the Vigil of Easter, the Blessing of Palms was only present in the Ministers Desk Edition of the LBW.
The most recent Lutheran Hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), designates this Sunday in the same way, Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday). In a special two-page section set aside in this hymnal for this day, a simple outline for the processional gathering is presented, including a Processional Gospel, Blessing of the Palms and the words to the hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”. The two pages serve not only as an outline for the service, but also a simple resource for those who have brought hymnals to the procession or as a congregational handout to be copied and given out.
In the Episcopal Church there are only two service books to consider in the past century preceding our own time: The Book of Common Prayer from 1928 and that presently used, adopted in 1979. In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the Fifth Sunday of Lent is labeled as such and also “commonly called Passion Sunday” . The top notes of the pages of the book are also labeled as Passion Sunday. The following Sunday is designated, “The Sunday next before Easter, commonly called Palm Sunday” It is significant that there is only one Gospel assigned to this day and that it is the Passion reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 26:1-27:66; a second gospel before the procession, if there was one, is not designated.
The Book of Common Prayer (1979) that is in current use by The Episcopal Church follows the three-year lectionary that many churches adopted from Roman Catholic use and Vatican II. It designates this Sunday now as The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday and includes a four-page section outlining the elements to begin worship that day, designated The Liturgy for Palms. It includes a matching synoptic processional gospel, to correspond to the Passion reading to follow (Mathew, Mark or Luke) and includes the prayer for Blessing the Palms. Following this resource then, the day would have two gospel readings, with a longer or shorter option for the Passion reading.
So for Lutheran and Episcopal churches, although coming from different histories, the Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday) practices have merged to be nearly identical. Presently, after the Procession, all begin Holy Communion with the Prayer of the Day. Gathering away from the main place of worship is encouraged, with a physical procession by all to the church encouraged. The Blessing of the Palms, once rejected by the Reformed Traditions until the mid-twentieth century, is now included in their official worship books. The official rites of each church encourage some presentation of the Passion of Christ, longer or shorter; read, sung, chanted in parts, or enacted. Working out a title for the day is nearly complete, as the memory of the use of Passion Sunday earlier in Lent fades into the distance. For the immediate future at least, the Sunday just before the Resurrection of Our Lord, will be characterized by both a palm procession and a presentation of the Passion narrative. By insisting and encouraging all who gather to worship on this day to process, all are encouraged to participate in this simple act of going from a gathering point to their sanctuary or nave; “Only for a serious reason should the church ignore the stational character of Passion Sunday”. Both processing and the reading of a Passion Narrative have found a place and a home on this day as has the assignment of two Gospel Readings. We can only hope that this ecumenical consensus, working through each of these three groups, has arrived at a liturgical form that celebrates this event with joy and dignity, participation and contemplation. “Palm Sunday is the Door to the great Holy Week celebrations. We look, as it were, from the threshold, through the dark shadows of the suffering of Good Friday, to the shining glory of Easter-day. The door will not lead to a dark passage-way, but will lead to the Light.”
Connell, Martin. Eternity Today, On the Liturgical Year, (Volume 2). New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2006
Crichton, J. D. The Liturgy of Holy Week. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1965.
Davies, J. Gordon. Holy Week: A Short History. Ecumenical Studies in Worship No. 11. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1963.
Pfatteicher, Philip H. Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1990.
Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Second Emended Edition). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991.
Tierney, Mark. Holy Week: A Commentary. Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1958.
Wainwright, Geoffrey, editor. The Oxford History of Christian Worship. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006.