Every year around this time, the debate rages among clergy and worship leaders: Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday?
Repeatedly, someone will argue against the “recent liturgical emphasis” on observing both the Triumphal Entry and the Passion on the last Sunday in Lent. They will draw on childhood memories of when Palm Sunday was just that – Palm Sunday *only* – and says that the move toward Palm/Passion Sunday was caused by practical concerns (recent lack of attendance on Good Friday in particular).
It’s true. Attendance at Good Friday worship is not as high as any worship leader would like.
However, I believe that this is a straw man, and a misleading one at that.
The reading of a synoptic Passion account on the Sunday of Holy Week dates back to the medieval church (when the practice was to read Matthew’s Passion on the Sunday of Holy Week). Instead, the historically novel practice was (is?) congregations who omit the reading of the Passion on this Sunday.
Besides the historical argument, there is also a certain theology presented in the observance of the Sunday of the Passion.
In the liturgy of Passion Sunday, we – the church – are simultaneously the ones who pour accolades on the entering Jesus and the ones who demand his execution. The peculiar juxtaposition of celebration and crucifixion gets to the heart of what we believe about Jesus and the world.
Yes Jesus is the Messiah, but not the Messiah of worldly conquest. Yes this creation is good, but it is broken by sin. Yes we have been made holy by Christ, and yet our wills are still incurvatus in se. Yes God’s Kingdom has drawn near, but no it has not fully come into being.
The liturgy of the Sunday of the Passion will not allow any theology that dwells on triumphalism. It will not let us deceive ourselves about the sort of Messiah that Jesus is.
To leave Palm Sunday without the Passion narrative can leave one with the impression that Jesus is the conquering Messiah, the Messiah of worldly power. The Passion narrative reminds us that we follow the crucified Messiah, the one who gained victory precisely in defeat.
Don’t get me wrong – local context always wins. If celebrating Palm Sunday without the Passion narrative works in your context, go for it. However, in doing so please don’t continue to perpetuate the trope that experiencing the Passion on Palm Sunday is some sort of recent innovation.