I have an unpopular opinion: the "community theatre" style reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday is an idea whose time is past.
Hey, remember the last time I had an unpopular opinion? Old 100th is really new again
And let's get something out of the way right now: the phony idea that reading the Passion narrative on Palm Sunday is a new innovation that came with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It's not. The Passion according to Matthew (xxvii. 1.) was printed for the "Sunday next before Easter" since the 1786 proposed Book of Common Prayer.
Only the name "Palm Sunday" is new, appearing in the 1928 book.
Reading the Passion on the Sunday before Easter follows the pattern set forth in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Follow the publication history further back and you find that in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer the previous chapter of Matthew was also read, which is very like the "full" lection of Matt. 26:14-27:66 given in the modern Revised Common Lectionary.
So when I hear complaint about reading the Passion on Palm Sunday, or see places that shift or eliminate it, I just have to shake my head. For Anglicans the Scripture and Tradition we have on this day should account for something. Shift the Passion out of the traditional location for the Gospel reading and you have placed undue focus on the triumphal entry; eliminate it and you have a very wobbly stool indeed.
The Passion is part and parcel of what Palm Sunday is about, and it is the day that we incorporate this rich narrative into our weekly cycle of Sunday celebrations.
Some clergy have told me that they remember the Passion being read on the Fifth Sunday in Lent and that Palm Sunday was reserved exclusively for the Palm Gospel.
I don't believe it.
If this was done anywhere there was certainly no provision for it in the Prayer Book, and furthermore, either this actual violation or the fabricated memory of it seems to come from a misunderstanding of "Passion Sunday" which is, let's face it, a problematic term.
It was the '70s, man. This custom was probably more influenced by Godspell than the Gospel.
Historically, it seems to have been used for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, which was the start of Passiontide. But Passiontide didn't really signify anything other than the time to veil the crosses (they were not veiled for the whole season of Lent as they are in many places today).
Nowadays, most places have never even heard of Passiontide (the only relic of it in the 1979 Prayer Book may be that second proper preface for Lent). Use the term "Passion Sunday" today and it will be assumed that you are referring to the official 1979 Prayer Book title for Palm Sunday: "The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday".
So if the custom of reading the Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday is not new, why did the 1979 Prayer Book provide the rather strange permission for it to be read by various and sundry persons?
It was the '70s, man. This custom was probably more influenced by Godspell than the Gospel.
But, I have to ask the question: is it really worth doing something with this Gospel that we do with no other Gospel?
The rubric, which appears both for Palm Sunday and Good Friday reads: "The Passion Gospel may be read or chanted by different persons. Specific roles may be assigned to different persons, the congregation taking the part of the crowd."
Are we really comfortable with the words of the Gospel being read liturgically by lay people on Palm Sunday? On Good Friday? On any day? Why? I'm not trying to make a slippery slope argument here, and neither is the Prayer Book. But why these days? Why any day?
From personal experience I can say I've never really been satisfied with a single rendition of the Passion that I've heard read in a dramatic fashion with a large cast. I'm referring to what I think is typically done in most places: separate parts for the narrator, Jesus, Pilate, various others, and the congregation taking the part of the crowd.
I know that many people find it meaningful to shout "Crucify him!" at the appropriate points. I suppose I did too when I was younger (we did this in my Presbyterian Church growing up). But now I just find it kind of … I don't know … gimmicky.
With a large cast (who, let's be honest, usually haven't rehearsed it all together and are just going through it for the first time in the service) there are the various hesitations, miscues, mispronunciations, questionable inflections, amplification problems, etc. The process of hearing the Gospel this way, at least from my perspective, diminishes the prominence of the words.
I'm not trying to single anyone out. This has been the practice in most of the Episcopal liturgies I have experienced. And, each time, for me, the result has fallen flat.
When we want the words to be heard, we shouldn't distract the focus of the congregation by getting them to wonder about who is reading them. As the Rev. Christopher Arnold put it on Twitter, "We're remembering, not reenacting. It's a fine line, but even [on] Palm Sunday we're celebrating the resurrection."
I cannot conclude this meandering essay without mentioning that for the five years I served at St. Paul's, Richmond the Gospel was sung in choral settings on Palm Sunday. This was a deeply embedded and dearly held custom at this parish, and it was one that the Choir took with great seriousness. The hymn before the Passion always took on extra significance as the Choir would form up for procession to the Chancel steps from which the Gospel would be proclaimed.
And while I don't want to advocate for choral settings of the Passion in every place, I do want to point out that the custom of singing the Gospel is an ancient one. Before any choral settings were composed there was the tradition of the Gospel being chanted by three deacons: one taking the role of the Chronista (narrator), Christus (Jesus), and Synongaga (everyone else). So, yes, even in the ancient church there was a special dispensation made for the proclamation this story -- but please note, the chanters were ordained ministers of the Gospel.
And I would suggest that this glimpse backward might provides a way forward. In churches with multiple clergy, perhaps the three traditional roles can be assumed by deacons and/or priests. If the clergy are insufficient in number for this, why not employ laypeople to assist? But under this scheme maybe the Narrator should be a clergyperson. I don't know. I'm just thinking out loud.
Out of curiosity I tuned in to Trinity, Wall Street yesterday to see what their Palm Sunday service was like. Trinity is no stranger to creative approaches to liturgy. In recent years the Trinity Choir had devised an interesting approach to improvising chants for the Passion narrative. I also seem to recall another year with the reading of the Gospel being divided with stanzas of the hymn "Ah, holy Jesus," which I found an effective approach to the "problem" of length.
But this year, to my surprise, the Gospel was read from the midst of the church by a priest.
Just like it was the week before – just like it will be on Easter.
Tune in next time when we talk about how fun it is to say the Acts reading for Pentecost in different languages simultaneously!
I got dibs on Klingon!
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