Easter 2024

10 April 2017
A Passion for the Passion

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!

Labels: , , , , , ,

This year's singing of the Passion at St. Paul's was a new one written by Gene Harris. Some spoken narrative, some choral parts, solos, and some riffs on well-known hymns by the small band. It was-dare I say it-kinda cool.

Post a Comment

The page you're reading is part of

©MMXVII a site for fun and prophet

Organ and church music, esoteric liturgics, and a site that changes color with the liturgical year.


Looking for Carol Spreadsheets?

Hungry? Try the Liturgical Guide to Altoids Consumption

Thirsty? Try the Tibia Liquida

The Eric Harding Thiman Fan Page: The greatest composer you've never even heard of.

Infrequently Asked Questions

picture of a chicken

Questions? Problems? email the sexton.


The author of this website is an organist whom the New York Times calls “repeatedly, insisting that he pay for his subscription”. He likes to read parking meters, music, Indianapolis Monthly, and weather forecasts in Celsius, particularly whilst wearing cassock and surplice. He serves lasagna, overhand, as an example to many, and on ecclesiastical juries. He mixes salads, drinks, and metaphors. He takes photos, lots of dinner mints, and a little bit of time to get to know.




Anglicans Online
Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise
Book of Common Prayer
Brain Pickings
The Daily Office
The Lectionary Page
Sed Angli
Ship of Fools
The Sub-Dean's Stall
Vested Interest - Trinity Church in the City of Boston


Andrew Kotylo - Concert Organist
Anne Timberlake
Bonnie Whiting, percussion
conjectural navel gazing: jesus in lint form
Friday Night Organ Pump
Halbert Gober Organs, Inc.
in time of daffodils
Joby Bell, organist
Musical Perceptions
Musings of a Synesthete
My Life as Style, Condition, Commodity.
Nathan Medley, Countertenor
Notes on Music & Liturgy
The Parker Quartet
Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers
Steven Rickards
That Which We Have Heard & Known
This Side of Lost
Wayward Sisters
Zachary Wadsworth | composer

Archenemies Aviary



Advent (Medfield MA)
All Saints, Ashmont (Boston MA)
All Saints (Indianapolis IN)
Atonement (Bronx NY)
Broadway UMC (Indianapolis IN)
Cathedral of All Saints (Albany NY)
Christ Church (Bronxville NY)
Christ Church (Madison IN)
Christ Church (New Haven CT)
Christ Church Cathedral (Indianapolis IN)
Christ's Church (Rye NY)
Church of St. Stephen (Hamden CT)
Congregational (Belmont CA)
Coventry Cathedral (UK)
First UMC (Lancaster SC)
Gloria Dei ELCA (Iowa City IA)
Immanuel Lutheran (St Paul MN)
Immanuel Lutheran (Webster NY)
John Knox PCUSA (Houston TX)
St Andrew (Marblehead MA)
St Andrew's, Oregon Hill (Richmond VA)
St Bartholomew the Great, (London, England)
St James's (Lake Delaware NY)
St James's (Richmond VA)
St James Cathedral (Chicago IL)
St Mary's Cathedral (Memphis TN)
St Matthew and St Timothy (NYC)
St Paul's (Cleveland Heights OH)
St Paul's (Indianapolis IN)
St Paul's Cathedral (Buffalo NY)
St Paul's, K Street (Washington DC)
St Peter's (Lakewood OH)
St Peter's ELCA (NYC)
St Stephen's (Richmond VA
St Thomas (New Haven CT)
St Thomas ELCA (Bloomington IN)
Second PCUSA (Indianapolis IN)
Towson Presbyterian Church (MD)
Tremont Temple Baptist (Boston MA)
Trinity (Indianapolis IN)
Trinity on the Green (New Haven CT)


BBC Radio 3 Choral Evensong
New College (Oxford, England)
St John's College (Cambridge, England)
St Thomas (New York NY)


Like the site? Buy the shirt.

Areyou . . .

selling diphthongs?
Yes, but they're not the kind you buy on Wheel of Fortune.

the owner of a bower at Bucklesfordberry?
Full daintily it is dight.

interested in touch lamps?
And fountain pens.

this site used to be better:

March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005
August 2005
September 2005
October 2005
November 2005
December 2005
January 2006
February 2006
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
September 2007
October 2007
November 2007
December 2007
January 2008
February 2008
March 2008
April 2008
May 2008
June 2008
July 2008
August 2008
September 2008
October 2008
November 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
March 2009
April 2009
May 2009
June 2009
July 2009
August 2009
September 2009
October 2009
November 2009
December 2009
January 2010
March 2010
April 2010
May 2010
June 2010
July 2010
August 2010
September 2010
October 2010
November 2010
December 2010
January 2011
February 2011
March 2011
April 2011
May 2011
June 2011
July 2011
August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 2011
December 2011
January 2012
February 2012
April 2012
May 2012
June 2012
July 2012
August 2012
September 2012
October 2012
December 2012
January 2013
March 2013
April 2013
May 2013
June 2013
July 2013
August 2013
September 2013
October 2013
November 2013
December 2013
January 2014
February 2014
March 2014
April 2014
May 2014
June 2014
August 2014
September 2014
October 2014
November 2014
December 2014
January 2015
February 2015
April 2015
May 2015
June 2015
July 2015
August 2015
September 2015
October 2015
November 2015
December 2015
January 2016
February 2016
March 2016
April 2016
June 2016
July 2016
August 2016
September 2016
October 2016
November 2016
December 2016
January 2017
February 2017
March 2017
April 2017
May 2017
June 2017
July 2017
August 2017
September 2017
October 2017
November 2017
December 2017
January 2018
February 2018
March 2018
April 2018
May 2018
June 2018
August 2018
September 2018
October 2018
December 2018
February 2019
March 2019
October 2019
December 2019
September 2020
December 2020
January 2021
September 2021
October 2021
December 2021
November 2022
December 2022
March 2023
July 2023
March 2024
April 2024