I came to the church — the Lutheran church — as a young teen, and the parish was an extraordinary one: The Lutheran Church of St. Andrew. I still have many impressions from those early years, but Palm Sunday memories remain among my favorites. At that time, the new lectionary hadn’t yet taken off with its “Passion Sunday” reading, confining the palms to a few moments at the beginning of the service. Instead, the whole Sunday was devoted to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and the crowd’s explosion of praise.
Pastor George Lobien preached one Palm Sunday sermon that I still remember. He exhorted us to enter into the joy of that day and not allow the somberness of how we know the week will end to cloud that joy for us. I have carried this exhortation with me for many years, and I’ve seen its implication in my life: How many times have I allowed anxiety over what’s coming down the pike in a few days to dull, dim or even make me miss out on a present joy? That Palm Sunday sermon has stuck with me and helped me through much.
Joyous Lenten hymns
But I’d be lying if I gave the impression that I loved the day because of the sermons I heard. No, as great as they were, I savored the joyous interplay of the readings from the Word and the hymns we sang. Palm Sunday greeted me with the smell of the palms bunched in the ushers’ hands as they struggled to separate and distribute them to those entering the sanctuary. The organist would trumpet a majestic piece on the organ, and my heart soared when we stood for the opening strains of the invariable opening hymn: “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” (LSB 442). The first reading took us to Zechariah 9:9–10. The Epistle was always Philippians 2:5–11. And the Holy Gospel, the centerpiece of the liturgy, was always the triumphal entry as recorded in Matthew 21:1–9. The hymn of the day was “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” (LSB 443). And my all-time favorite was the closing hymn: “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty” (LSB 441).
I don’t think the liturgy or its music changed much year by year. It didn’t in The Lutheran Hymnal days. It just always featured those exact same readings and those three hymns. But boy, oh, boy, did joy ever ring through them — oh, the joy of that day. “The company of angels Are praising Thee on high, And mortal men and all things Created make reply” (TLH 160:2). Zechariah told us that Jesus came to us lowly and bringing salvation, and the deliverance He brings is not only our salvation from evils like sin, death and the devil, but our salvation for communion with Him. He gives us a share in His very mind (Epistle). He wants to open us up to the joys of not having to even think about ourselves. He coaxes us down His path of humbleness, the path of a King who doesn’t set out to cow His enemies into submission with terrifying displays of power, but woos them lovingly all the way, even unto His own death on a cross. The Palm Sunday liturgy still gets you to the Passion, to the cross. The last verse of the last hymn does the job: “Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die. Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain, Then take, O God, Thy pow’r and reign” (LSB 441:5). He will take His power to reign in human hearts by His self-oblation on the tree.
A change in tone
When the reforms of Vatican II began to make liturgical inroads among Lutherans, it seems that Palm Sunday experienced significant changes. Of course, there’s still a wonderful opening processional that reflects the events of that day, but how swiftly the focus shifts to the Passion. Indeed, I’ve often thought it ironic how a modern hymn captures what’s happened: “The palms, how soon laid down!” (LSB 444:3). In a little over five minutes, the whole tenor of the service shifts. The crosses are veiled, and though we still hear the same Old Testament and Epistle, the long reading of the Passion replaces the Palm Sunday account. We move in minutes from joy to somberness. The old way of doing Palm Sunday that I remember from my youth gets you to the somber end by the conclusion of the service, but it braces you for it with the unbridled joy celebrated on this particular day, a joy that the sufferings to come do not dim.
No doubt I’m just getting older and waxing increasingly nostalgic, but I miss the way we did Palm Sunday when I was a young man. I love the Passion too, of course. We often meditate on that throughout Lent (the parish where I serve is actually preaching through the conflated Passion in the Altar Book this year at the Lenten midweeks). Yet, somehow, I think we lost something precious when we followed Vatican II on this one — something that was its own distinct joy, a joy that the upcoming sorrows had no power to tamp down. In fact, we celebrate this joy whenever we sing the Sanctus, “Blessed is He that cometh in name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” each week before the self-same King (LSB, p. 195). Our joy remains in that King who rides on in majesty, the majesty of self-sacrificial love, who gives away His life that we might have life and forgiveness and salvation.
I just kinda miss what Palm Sunday was. What about any of you?