The first day of Holy Week is liturgically of two minds: it is both Palm and Passion Sunday. The former commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and is probably more familiar to Protestant Christians, thanks to a long tradition of marking the Sunday with anything from a procession of palm-waving worshippers to the more subdued distribution of small crosses made of palm-leaf ribbons. The latter involves the presentation of the story of Jesus’ last days—the conversation with his disciples over a meal, prayer and betrayal in the garden, arrest, trial, conviction, crucifixion, and death—and includes the longest single passage of Scripture in the whole lectionary year. A usual worship service desiring to incorporate both starts with the proclamation of the entrance into Jerusalem in the form of the narration of that event from one of the Gospels along wth appropriate liturgical actions, before moving ahead to the story of Jesus’ death. Because of the length of the story—in some places presented as a dramatic reading—often there is only a short reflection or no sermon at all.
The Passion narrative part of the Sunday is relatively new, especially for Protestant churches, since it arose from 20th-century North American attempts to generate a common lectionary for ecumenical purposes. The criticisms which I have heard of combining Palm and Passion Sundays mainly centre on the idea that this moves a congregation through the events of Holy Week too quickly, touching on Jesus arriving at the holy city but not taking the time to reflect upon it; some say that this moves the story out of sequence, and that worshippers should learn to relive the events leading up to the cross in something like real time. Defenders of the lectionary’s vision of Passion Sunday in their turn most frequently take one of two different paths to argue: pragmatists note that many people will not come for non-Sunday services like those of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, meaning that they will never hear much about the crucifixion if the story is not told on the Sunday before Easter; others proclaim that it is good for people to hear the Passion narrative in its entirety, to let the story of Scripture work transformation in its hearers.
Both sides have valid claims. I usually prefer to follow the full lectionary when I have the choice, and present the Passion narrative of one of the Gospels, but I understand the feeling that this means that the Palm part of things gets short shrift. Yet my aim here is not to debate this. Instead, I will point out that whichever way a congregation observes Palm/Passion Sunday, the occasion is emblematic of the Christian liturgical approach to Holy Week: worshippers relive the story, walking with Jesus to cross and tomb. Processional entrances symbolically remember Jesus riding up to the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey and the crowds joining in a parade to shout ‘Hosanna!’ Letting the Passion story speak for itself invites people to enter into the events roughly two millennia past and make them part of one’s own story. They are both ways for a community to embody the story that shapes them.
As a liturgical theologian interested in bodies, stories and relationships, I’m pretty much okay with this. It is all part of the way that liturgy works as a formative art, part of the way that the stories we tell fashion our sense of identity. It is part of the way, also, that we are shaped as we stretch our attention towards one another and God. But re-enacting the story of Holy Week has a problematic side, too. Quite often, reliving the story prompts Christians to identify with the roles of some of the characters. But which of the characters are most like us present-day Christians: the crowd which cheers Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem or the crowd which called for his death later in the week; the disciples who hung on his every word, only to betray him by running away or selling him for silver; the women who grieved his pain, or any of the groups portrayed as his opponents? Understandably, Christians mostly take the story as the gospels tell it, and most know how it ends. But none of the four evangelists really have any heroes in their versions of the story, other than Jesus. This shows up acutely on Palm/Passion Sunday—even without the Passion part, the most common move that I have heard preached consists of pointing out how the crowd welcomes Jesus riding into the holy city as if he were a king but less than a week later shouts to Pilate to ‘Crucify him!’ (Strangely enough, the idea that different crowds just might consist of different people has never come up.) And no one wants to identify with the fickle crowd. The discussion too easily moves from ‘we’ to ‘they’.
In three of the Gospels, Jesus soon follows his entry into Jerusalem with a visit to the temple, where he famously overturned the tables of the moneylenders and merchants who sold animals fit for sacrifice. The meaning of this action is debated, naturally. A few years ago, I attended a Palm Sunday service which included a dramatic retelling of this part of the story, for which the liturgy writers imagined the reaction of different people who might have been involved or witnessed the scene. There was a priest, a money-lender, a Gentile woman, and more. The only person given a positive speech was the Gentile woman, who was gratefully amazed that Jesus was acting against the sexist, exclusivist temple regime. She said something like, ‘All I wanted to do was worship God, but no one would let me. However, this Jesus….’ That service was an example of what I will call triumphalism, a kind of spiritual pride resulting from Christians identifying a little too closely with God, abrogating God’s power and freedom to ourselves while simultaneously exiling everyone else from God’s good graces.
Instead of walking alongside Jesus and reliving the story of Holy Week, triumphalism sees Christians looking back from the end we think we know, writing ourselves in as heroes. On the principle that every good protagonist needs proper antagonists, everyone who is different gets cast as an opponent, either because of wilful action or through ignorance. Triumphalism does not leave much room for otherness, seldom even for alternative readings of the narrative by other Christians.
The result is that all other religions become cultural, while Christian faith transcends or uses culture.
Or the Church becomes the true culture, the counterculture, while everyone else is the world, the culture of individualism/virtual reality/non-compassion which must be resisted.
Or Christians become the hospitable ones, who give but never need to receive from anyone (other than God).
Or Christians become the ones who know, while everyone else is left in the dark.
Faith becomes an us vs. them contest, in which we arrogantly think that we are certain to know the final word.
This Holy Week, it would be good for Christians to give up the attitude of triumphalism. Then maybe we will be better able to see the way of Jesus.