Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Happened to Palm Sunday?

The Commemoration of the Annunciation of Our Lord
March 25, 2010

The Lord be with you

This coming Sunday is now known as either “Palm Sunday” or the “Sunday of the Passion.” When I was a child the common hymnal in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LC-MS) was The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH). The official name for this coming Sunday with that hymnal was either “Palmarum,” or the “Sixth Sunday in Lent,” but we all called it "Palm Sunday." The assigned lessons were Philippians 2:5-11 and Matthew 21:1-9. The Matthew lesson is about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem with the crowds strewing cloaks and branches before him while shouting their “hosannas.” With the advent in 1982 of the hymnal Lutheran Worship (LW), the names “Palmarum” and “Sixth Sunday in Lent” were replaced with “Palm Sunday” and “Sunday of the Passion.” Other changes included the introduction of a three year lectionary (meaning that there was now a three year cycle in the assigned readings for Sunday mornings instead of the one year cycle used with TLH) and the addition of a regular Sunday morning reading from the Old Testament. (With TLH there were only two assigned reading from the Bible each Sunday, one from a Gospel and the second typically from an Epistle, though sometimes the second reading was from the Old Testament or the book of Acts.) Another change was a greatly expanded Gospel lesson for Palm Sunday, which reflected the “Sunday of the Passion” name.

At Lamb of God we, like most in the LC-MS, adopted the Lutheran Service Book (2006) when it came out. It retained the changes LW made that I’ve mentioned. These changes reflect what is called by some “the liturgical renewal movement.” Exactly what this term means depends on who is using it. For some it might mean the inclusion of “praise bands,” skits, dancing, clowns, and the like, in a Sunday morning service, thus “renewing” the service. That is not what in means in the LC-MS. In our circles it means more of a liturgical renaissance movement, with the word “renaissance” meaning more what it meant 500 to 800 years ago. Then it meant a rebirth of study with a looking backward for a guide to the future. So the liturgical renewal movement, as it is expressed most commonly in the LC-MS, is a looking backward at the liturgies of old for guidance into the future. Therefore I expect, though I’ve not done the research to verify the suspicion, that “Sunday of the Passion” is an old name for Palm Sunday.

The general assumption of the liturgical renewal movement seems to be that the worship experiences of the past, which shaped the spirituality of Christians for multiple centuries and produced such luminaries as Augustine, Athanasius, and even Martin Luther, clearly are effective. With the Reformation, and especially in the history of the churches that developed as a result of the Reformation, much of the richness of the past was jettison in an anti-Roman Catholic sentiment. Some denominations went much further down this rejection of the past’s worship practices than the Lutheran tradition. A return to the “good” practices of old would then strengthen the spiritual life and worship of the congregation. I put “good “in quotes because different people see value/corruption in different practices of earlier times.

What is kept of the restored practices will be known in a hundred years or so. I think more of the renewed practices will be retained, instead of less.

The much longer Gospel reading in today’s lectionaries for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion includes everything from the Triumphant Entry of Jesus to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday through his burial on Good Friday. I suspect this much longer reading was adopted because, even back in the early 80’s, attendance at Holy Week services was slacking off. So parishioners might come to a Palm Sunday worship service, skip all the mid-week services, and then attend the Easter Service the next Sunday. Theologically and biblically this gives a very distorted picture. You skip the passion, the price paid for our redemption, the pounding effect of the Law, and only hear the “happy” stories. There is no victory without a battle, and there is no salvation without the cross, but that is exactly what a “Palm Sunday, skip the events of the Holy Week, Easter Sunday” worship life teaches. So, I suspect, the greatly lengthened Palm Sunday Gospel lesson is an attempt to counter the bad theology that people can learn if they skip Holy Week services.

From a worship design point-of-view, the longer Gospel reading presents a real challenge. Do we try to focus on all the events of Holy Week? If so, how can we do Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday justice? If we seek to do the events during the week justice, how can we keep the service down to a “reasonable” length? If we do a little bit on each of the major themes of Holy Week with a Sunday of the Passion, will it further suppress attendance in the mid-week services? On the other hand, if you do not deal with each theme and just keep it as Palm Sunday, are you doing a disservice to those who do not attend the mid-week services? In the days of Augustine they simply started the worship service Thursday evening and it continued until Easter. That’s right, a three day worship service. People did go home to eat a little and sleep a little, but the service continued and they hurried back to rejoin the worshiping community (though even when they left for food and sleep they were encouraged to continue in a worshipful frame of mind). No one I know of is suggesting we return to that practice. Each local congregation will handle these issues in ways that they feel is best for them.

At Lamb of God, we will be using the extended reading from the Gospel, but will keep the worship service theme as Palm Sunday. The members are encouraged to attend Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday services. There are readings assigned for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Holy Week, and some churches offer services on those days as well. Information about each of the services will be posted on this blog.

If you live in the Spartanburg area, we invite you to worship with us this Holy Week. If you do not live in the Spartanburg area, we encourage you to investigate what your options are in your area, and attend Holy Week services where you live. Remember, there is no victory without a battle, and Easter has no Christian meaning meaning without the events of Holy Week.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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