Pondering Procession, Palms and Passion
Holy Week reflections by Michael Merriman
Looking toward Holy Week I think back to past ones and feelings engendered by the various liturgies. I always have mixed feelings about those rites before, during and after. Those special rites both as printed in the BCP (USA) and the BAS (Canada) are the result of layers of Christian practice over centuries, often with what seem to be strange combinations. Palm Sunday is a good example.
We have two rites with very different purposes joined together rather artificially. (That it may not seem artificial is due to custom – to having been told that it is part of the Tradition.) The Liturgy of the Palms celebrates the triumphal entry and has its own Gospel reading, eucharistic style prayer, and hymns of rejoicing and triumph with a procession often truncated to a stroll around the sanctuary or at best from the parish hall or parking lot into the sanctuary. Then comes the Eucharist in which the Passion Gospel is read with appropriate hymns about the death of Jesus and the part our sinfulness played in that.
My discomfort stems from several factors:
The first is the procession. What is it about? What is its purpose?
Second should our liturgy on this day be limited to the Palm Sunday Gospel, saving the Passion reading for Good Friday?
Is the customary way of reading the Passion (especially the Presider reading the words of Jesus and the congregation reading the words of the Jewish authorities and the crowd) true to our understanding of the Church as the community of all the baptized?
The processional custom in some places to have just the clergy party process around the sanctuary seems silly. From the parish hall to the sanctuary would be like Jesus and the disciples gathering in the Temple courtyard and processing into the inner court. If we really wish to recapture the event then perhaps our procession must be outdoors, preferably in a public space on city streets or in suburban malls. I imagine a kind of flash mob showing up in street clothes, passing out branches (not palms unless it's in Florida or Southern California) reading the Palm Gospel and inviting everyone to join in singing and proceeding through the streets, perhaps stopping at one place for intercessory prayer for the city and its people and those in need. Stopping at another place to pray in honor of the Cross and then sharing some food with all those who have gathered.
Then what about trying to combine the Entry into Jerusalem with the reading of the Passion. The only practical reason I can see for reading it on Palm Sunday is that so many church people will not be back in church on Good Friday – Palm Sunday will be their only opportunity to hear it read. But it still seems misplaced to me. Perhaps it should be eliminated from Palm Sunday and only read on Good Friday so that the two themes are kept apart liturgically.
And then there’s the reading of the Passion in parts. The original custom was that three clergy read it, one as Jesus, one as the narrator, and one all the other parts with the choir singing the crowd’s words. At some point it became the custom that the priest read the part of Jesus and the congregation the part of the crowd and of small groups such as the chief priests. The clericalism both of the old tradition and of the more modern one of the priest as Jesus seems out of place with our understanding of the place of all the baptized. Who is it in the church’s liturgy that represents, symbolizes, embodies Jesus? It is surely the whole congregation. Perhaps they should read the part of Jesus. A small group could read the crowd parts. A well trained reader can read the narrator and other able people the other individual parts. In this case the ordained would join with everyone in the words of Jesus.
Not much of this will be done this year at the church where I serve as a part-time retired priest. But perhaps others can try these and yet more adventuresome alternatives to what has been the custom.
Michael Merriman is a presbyter serving Church of the Transfiguration, Dallas, Texas. He is a member of APLM Council.