From the Mount of Olives to Golgotha:The Palm/Passion Sunday Paradox

palmsundayHoly Week takes us through a liturgical and emotional swing, from cries of “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” to “Alleluia!” But that swing is sudden, making that first move over the course of the Liturgy of the Word on Sunday morning. We gather with palms, kids joining in excited because things are so very different this day. And then by the sermon, a pall has fallen over the assembly. Somehow, Christ has been crucified — and we haven’t even gotten to Maundy Thursday yet.

Palm Sunday presents a particularly vexing issue for those involved in planning Christian worship. We begin outside with a collect and Gospel reading, process inside and…have another collect and another Gospel reading. We somehow jump the gun straight from the palms to the Cross. Why? And which text should a preacher take into the pulpit? And what songs should we sing?

Like many Protestants, I had grown up without the Passion reading. In seminary, when I finally joined a Lutheran parish and learned and was confronted with the Palm/Passion paradox, I assumed the double-Gospel readings of Palm Sunday was a modern move designed to accommodate those who would skip worship on Good Friday. I got quite worked up about it, in fact, and would wax liturgical to anyone who would listen. “Why are we assuming people won’t be in church on Friday? Just let Palm Sunday be Palm Sunday. If people don’t hear the Passion on Good Friday, that’s on them.”

As so often happens to seminarians, though, I learned later that, despite all of my passion, I was mistaken. The sudden shift over the course of the Mass is confusing, there’s no doubt about that. In some ways, it is a recent development — but better put, it’s a recent recovery that has changed over the centuries and the past seven decades, caught in the overlap between Lent, Passiontide, and Holy Week.

The procession with palm branches — the defining trait of Palm Sunday for lay members, and probably most clergy — dates back to the fourth century. Egeria, a Christian pilgrim in Jerusalem during Holy Week, records the practice:

Accordingly at the seventh hour all the people go up to the Mount of Olives…and the bishop with them, to the church, where hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said, and lessons in like manner. … And as the eleventh hour approaches, the passage from the Gospel is read, where the children, carrying branches and palms, met the Lord, saying; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord, and the bishop immediately rises, and all the people with him, and they all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people going before him with hymns and antiphons, answering one to another: Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. And all the children in the neighbourhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives, and thus the bishop is escorted in the same manner as the Lord was of old. For all, even those of rank, both matrons and men, accompany the bishop all the way on foot in this manner, making these responses, from the top of the mount to the city, and thence through the whole city to the Anastasis, going very slowly lest the people should be wearied; and thus they arrive at the Anastasis at a late hour. And on arriving, although it is late, lucernare takes place, with prayer at the Cross; after which the people are dismissed.

Egeria’s account is notably different from current practice. The procession occurs late in the day, ending with an evening prayer service. The procession, like many of the events recorded in Egeria’s journal, ends at the structures known today as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

What sort of prayers took place at the end of the procession? Did it include a reading of the Passion narrative? Given that Egeria records when Scripture was read at other places, it seems unlikely, but the end destination does suggest some focus on the Crucifixion.

In the Latin-speaking West, the practice is quite different. Instead of a day-by-day recounting of Holy Week with stops at accompanying sites as Egeria witnessed in Jerusalem, the move of Holy Week was on the complete action of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. As a result, St. Matthew’s Passion was read on what we now call Palm Sunday. St. Luke’s Passion fell on what is now “Spy” Wednesday. St. John’s Passion is still read on Good Friday.

The Palm Sunday procession spreads across Europe slowly, starting in Spain in the fifth century, shortly after Egeria’s pilgrimage. It pops up in France by the 600s.

Rome, however, emphasized the Passion. The collect for Palmarum in the Gelasian Sacramentary praises God for “our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon Him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the Cross….” By the tenth century, the more typical Palm Sunday rite was in use in England — and seemingly as elaborate as the Jerusalem procession, stopping at numerous churches before ending at the cathedral. Astoundingly, the glory, laud, and honor of the palm procession didn’t arrive in Rome until the 1100s!

By Luther’s lifetime, the pattern has taken hold in the West: a procession with palms into the church, at which point the focus shifts to the Passion. But the Reformation witnesses yet another change. Luther and the other Reformers are suspicious of blessed objects, and so the emphasis on blessing the palms falls away. However, the Evangelische tradition maintains the emphasis on the Triumphal Entry. The Common Service Book bears witness to the resulting tension: all but the Gospel reading focus on the Passion. The Psalter places “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me,” onto the lips of the choir and parish. The Epistle reminds the assembly that Christ became obedient to death, and the collect is that from the Gelasian Sacramentary above. All to suddenly turn to Matthew’s account of the Triumphal Entry.

The Roman tradition, by comparison, slowly lost any emphasis on Christ’s entrance to Jerusalem. Instead, the focus remained squarely on the Passion, reading the Matthean Passion, returning to the pre-medieval custom.


The move back towards the medieval tension started slowly. By the time of the Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal (1958), parishes were given the choice to read from either the Triumphal Entry “or” the Passion. In the post-Vatican II reforms of Catholic liturgy and the calendar, Passion Sunday (also called Judica Sunday, and did not include a Passion reading) was renamed, and the title “Passion” was given to Palmarum Sunday. Modern usage in both the Evangelische and Roman Catholic streams now lists the final Sunday in Lent as being both Palm and Passion Sunday: rendered in the Catholic Church as “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion” and in the ELCA as “Passion of the Lord: Palm Sunday.”

At the same time the Roman Catholic Church renamed Passion Sunday, they introduced a three-year lectionary that imposed an equally large change. Instead of reading from St. Matthew’s Passion on Palmarum Sunday and St. John’s Passion on Good Friday, the Palm Sunday text joined the three year cycle, bringing Mark and Luke’s Passion accounts into rotation. (Prior to this, Mark and Luke would be read on the Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, respectively.) Protestant churches, including the ELCA’s predecessor bodies, followed the example, introducing a similar three-year lection cycle in the 1970s.

By the time the American Lutheran churches published the Lutheran Book of Worship in 1978, the norm was to shift from Triumph to Passion over the course of the service, starting outside with palms and moving towards the Cross. We should note, though, that liturgical change does not happen overnight. Whether from the ground up or the top down, these things take years to catch on, especially in traditions with a strong sense of local use. While the LBW and Evangelical Lutheran Worship may express a preference for an emphasis on the Passion, many of us have grown up only associating Palm Sunday with the Triumphal Entry. (I wonder how many Catholics spent the 1970s wondering why there were suddenly palms in church.)

Given the complex history and the expectations we place on the start of Holy Week, how do we handle this Palm/Passion paradox?

Many liturgists state simply: the emphasis is on the Passion. Gail Ramshaw and Mons Teig are rather blunt in their advice when they “encourage the preacher to deliver a short but intense homily on the meaning of the passion….” Bishop J. Neil Alexander puts it this way:

The threshold between the Liturgy of the Palms and the Eucharist for Passion Sunday is a ritually important moment that is too often ignored….one possiblility is to treat the threshold of the church as the line of demarcation where the Liturgy of Palms ends and the Sunday of the Passion begins.

Ramshaw and Alexander advocate for what I’m going to call the “Traditional” order that developed over the centuries and was recovered towards within the Liturgical Movement. The Traditional order flows this way:

  • Procession with Palms
    • Blessing of Palms
    • Processional Gospel
    • Collect
    • Palm Sunday ceases at doors of the church
  • Collect
  • Readings
  • Passion Reading
  • Sermon on Passion Narrative
  • Liturgy follows as normal

While I usually favor stability over change, I think there’s good cause to break with the liturgy as recovered in the 20th century. The “Traditional” model deprives the preacher the chance to explore the Triumphal Entry. Here, the stage is set for Holy Week, emphasizing the political tensions and symbolic actions, and unlike other pericopes, it is not revisited during the liturgical calendar. Preaching on Christ’s entry into Jerusalem sets the stage for the political and religious showdown that ends at Golgotha.

Growing up, I was accustomed to a different model, which I have taken to referring as the “What Passion?” version of Palm Sunday:

  • Procession with Palms
    • Blessing of the Palms
    • Singing
  • Liturgy Follows as Normal
  • Sermon is on Triumphal Entry

The Gospel may or may not be read during the procession. No mention of the Passion is made in the collect nor the readings. The assumption is that Palm Sunday and Good Friday are separate and thus the Passion is left for the end of the week. Perhaps it’s nostalgia goggles, but I actually really like this model in so far as it conforms loosely to what we know of liturgical practice in Jerusalem during the fourth century; this is as close as we can get in the local parish to what Egeria witnessed on her pilgrimage. The downside is that it breaks from Tradition and ignores the catholic efforts of 20th century liturgical renewal.

When I was first introduced to the Palm/Passion paradox, it was through a sort of “Bookends” arrangement:

  • Procession with Palms
    • Blessing of Palms
    • Processional Gospel
    • Collect
    • Hymn
  • Collect
  • Readings
  • Sermon on Triumphal Entry
  • Liturgy Follows as Normal…Until:
    • Passion Reading
  • Sending Hymn
  • Benediction

I’ve introduced this model in another parish, and up until a few weeks ago I was planning on using this model at Redeemer. The strength is that it permits preaching on the Triumphal Entry, heightening the immediate downfall from “Hosanna” to “Crucify!” In a narrative sense, the day starts out so incredibly high and drops immediately. The drawbacks are three-fold: 1) it breaks from centuries of Tradition; 2) the Collect for the Passion doesn’t match the preaching emphasis, leaving the service disjointed; and 3) the Passion narrative feels tacked on. I suspect it’s that third drawback that led me to believe this was some attempt at catching those who would be absent on Good Friday.

There is, however, at least one more option; for lack of a better term, I’m calling it the “Early Sermon” order:

  • Procession with Palms
    • Blessing of Palms
    • Processional Gospel
    • Collect
  • Sermon
    • Brief; comes just after the procession
    • Emphasis is on Triumphal Entry
  • Collect
  • Readings
    • Passion Gospel
    • Passion is Read in Full
    • Narrator occupies the normal place for the preacher
  • Liturgy Follows as Normal

Bishop Neil Alexander permits that this might be a useful model, but you can tell he’s not happy about it (and he suggests preaching the Passion should also be preached upon; his reasoning is that the processional rite isn’t properly within the Eucharist). The strength is that it largely follows the Traditional order and reinforces the Passion emphasis inherent in the other readings and proper while also allowing for reflection the Triumphal Entry. The weakness is that it still breaks with the recommendation of most liturgists; any time I disagree with Gail Ramshaw, I have to wonder if and where I’ve gone wrong. For my part, this order seems to strike the right balance of exploring the vital themes of the Triumphal Entry while adhering to the Tradition’s focus on the Passion, viewing the entirety of Jesus’ mission in Jerusalem as a “complete action.”

There is certainly no perfect solution; what we have are two observances that have been pushed together, torn asunder, and put back together. Liturgy and the history in which it’s situated are both messy affairs. The Tradition is important and imperfect; our attempts to reform it are as well. The best we can do is prayerfully discern the sacred narrative we are telling and trust that the Spirit will do Her work.

Sources and Further Reading:

  • Gail Ramshaw and Mons Teig, Keeping Time: The Church’s Year (Augsburg Fortress, 2009).
  • J. Neil Alexander, Celebrating Liturgical Time: Days, Weeks, and Seasons (Church Publishing, 2014).
  • John J. Baldovin, “Holy Week, Liturgies of” and “Palm Sunday” in The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship (Liturgical Press, 1990).
  • M. Bradford Bedingfield, “Anglo-Saxon Holy Week,” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship (Oxford: 2006).
  • Frank C. Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Fortress: 1997).
  • J. Gordon Davies, Holy Week: A Short History (John Knox Press: 1963).


6 thoughts on “From the Mount of Olives to Golgotha:The Palm/Passion Sunday Paradox

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s