Did Vatican II Ruin Palm Sunday?

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?

20 thoughts on “Did Vatican II Ruin Palm Sunday?”

  1. Hello, I just happened to find this searching for this very thing. I am a Catholic and, guided by my heart, decided not to attend Palm Sunday today. Instead, I sat home and consecrated my own bread and grape juice, read John 11-12, and listened to chants and hymns found on YouTube. I refuse to participate in a condensed version suitable for a secular culture, who would rather catch their latest unGodly TV shows on Thursday and Friday, than observe the most sacred, most holy time of Christianity. People used to walk and pilgrimage to the Temple 3 times a year, we get in our car in comfort and security, and drive 10 minutes.
    Did our Lord say -“hey let’s hurry up and get this crucifixion over with so I can reign with the Father!” No, He did not. The Church run by men in the 21st century is engaging in far too much secularism to truly call it spiritual anymore.

  2. It was always my understanding that the Passion was done on Palm Sunday for all those who would not be attending on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
    I agree with Pastor Weedon.

  3. Rev. Dr. Richard Zeile

    I think the problem is our (American) desire to squeeze all our religion into a one-hour box on Sunday (or a 45-minute box on Saturday night). The ancient Church, reflected in Eastern Orthodox liturgies, had a matins service devoted to the procession of palms, and the one Sunday (Communion) liturgy focused on the Passion. The celebration of both could easily take 5 hours (including that parade around the neighborhood). If we are going to devote one hour, we have to make some choices and that leads to debates over which to choose. Personally, I find the ups and downs reflected in the palms/Passion conjunction to be very instructive for the Christian life and preach accordingly. And as to influences in my life, the late Dr. Norman Nagel set a good example at the Valparaiso Chapel for balancing these elements in a fitting manner.

  4. This is an odd interpretation. There is no conflict between Palm Sunday and the reading of the Passion according to St. Matthew at Divine Service that day. Indeed, the Passion reading is the historic Gospel for Palm Sunday, and the triumphal entry is part of the liturgy of the procession for the day as described in Lutheran Service Book: Altar Book. It has nothing to do with a “new lectionary” or the misguided liturgical innovations of the Roman Church in the 1960s.

    I am saddened and shocked that Lutheran Witness published this. This is not helpful or edifying to the church. It introduces unnecessary confusion about the historic practice that our Synod has recovered and which we should encourage in our parishes. We need writings to support Lutheran worship, doctrine and practice.

    Far more helpful would be a study of how the St. Matthew Passion is historic to the day, and why the 1941 Lutheran Hymnal – which is normally accurate on these matters – is mistaken in appointing “Matt. 21:1-9” as the “Gospel” for Palm Sunday.

    Additionally, “Passion Sunday” is Judica, the fifth Sunday in Lent. It doesn’t have a Passion reading; rather, it is the beginning of Passiontide, the final two weeks of Lent, when the crucifixes are veiled and the Gloria Patri begins to be omitted. Perhaps another study could critique why the 1982 Lutheran Worship made the strange innovation of labeling Palm Sunday: “the Sunday of the Passion.”

    Each of the Passion accounts from the Gospel books are read each year. Reading the Passion according to St. Matthew on Palm Sunday was not “introduced” because some people are lazy and won’t come on Good Friday (as I’ve heard said before!) Indeed, some people will miss Holy Week for whatever reason, but the liturgical year does not change based on who will or won’t be there. The St. Matthew Passion is read on Sunday; St. Mark on Tuesday; St. Luke on Wednesday; and St. John on Friday. And even if a parish neglects to celebrate Divine Service on these days, they can be read at Matins or Vespers.

    The hymn makes the connection quite concisely: “Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die.”

    1. William Chancellor Weedon

      Hi, Pr. Schultz,

      Just to be clear: the original did not advocate doing anything but what IS in the Altar Book. It was a nostalgic look back at how I remember the day being celebrated in my youth and a missing of that; not an advocating for returning to that. Hope that makes sense.

      At our parish, we do indeed read St. Matthew Passion at Divine Service on Palmarum, St. Mark at Divine Service on Holy Monday; St. Luke at Divine Service on Holy Tuesday; and St. John’s Passion at Divine Service on Good Friday (fully at the chief service; and the 19th chapter at the Tenebrae Vespers). I.e., we do it all out of the book.

  5. We always do the “Sunday of the Passion”… on Good Friday where it belongs. Holy Week is the only time in the entire church year in which we can remember day by day what Jesus did for 7 days in a row. So we use devotions and sometimes services to remember each step toward the cross.

  6. I, too, prefer to focus on Palm Sunday being Palm Sunday. It is such a joy-filled day. The Passion aspect always seemed out of place. While a missionary in West Africa, the Palm Sunday parades each year were a great joy and left a wonderful impression on me. A Palm Sunday parade is in order here as well. Such a display of joy and hope and witness is much needed in this time that we live. Blessed Palm Sunday!

  7. In a congregation of predominantly Latino and Caribbean membership in Brooklyn New York, Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) has long featured the entrance Gospel and procession through the neighborhood or through the building to the song “Enter Into Jerusalem.” Palm branches are distributed, waved, woven and taken out to be placed in the entrance of apartments and homes as a form of annual blessing and invitation. The same branches, long since dried out, are brought back on the last Sunday of Epiphany, the Transfiguration of our Lord. On Shrove Tuesday, those branches are crushed, burned and combined with oil to make the ashes used on Ash Wednesday. Miercoles de Ceniza and Domingo de Ramos are significant days of penance and celebration in the lives of the faithful, featuring the visible sign of palm branches. There is no danger of folks not showing up the rest of Holy Week – under normal circumstances there is a living Passion drama on Good Friday along with the Stations of the Cross, with baptisms and new member accession on the Vigil of Easter or Easter Sunday.

    I support wholeheartedly Pastor Weedon’s sentiments on the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday.

  8. I must say I don’t have the same fond memories of Palm Sunday that you do, Pastor Weedon. Jesus barely appeared on Palm Sunday growing up in my home congregation. It was all about confirmation and those been confirmed. We had no palms to bless, wave, and process with. So unlike you, I am rather glad that the liturgy has restored the focus. I do not think that there was a conflict between the joy that you speak so well love, and rightfully so, and the realization the Jesus enters the city not simply for praise and adoration, but for the cross. I am not sure that there needs to be such an abrupt or quick shift in tone, rather a gradual movement from the hosannas to pondering of the great mystery of the cross. That is how we do it. Singing the same hymns that you speak of so well, we honor both the welcome and the destination. In my mind at least that is what the Pericopes for Palm/Passion Sunday are supposed to help us do.

  9. I too miss the traditional Palm Sunday Gospel. For many years Confirmation was celebrated on Palm Sunday, giving two reasons to celebrate the day. Jesus entry into Jerusalem and young adults taking the step into the communicant membership of the church.

  10. I love the practice of using the St. Matthew Passion account on Palm Sunday. I am a convert to the Lutheran church so I grew up with only the Palm Sunday account on that day. It is far more meaningful to have this move to the more somber events of Holy Week after the account of the triumphal entry. Importantly, the use of the St Matthew Passion on Palm Sunday goes way back, at least to the Middle Ages.

  11. Phyliss Schaefer

    I also remember the way we celebrated Palm Sunday when I was a child and as an adult. As a child, I walked home from church and waved the palm leaves at everyone we saw to let them know it was Palm Sunday. When we started calling it Passion Sunday, I asked what happened to Palm Sunday, don’t we celebrate it anymore. I liked celebrating Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. Our King was coming to accomplish that which He was sent to do. Our King is ready for battle at His chosen time!

  12. Robert M Bjornstad

    The reading of the entrance into Jerusalem need not only last five minutes. In the congregations I served, we included a procession of palms that left the church. We marched, around the block, while singing. That gave people a chance to actually see a worshiping community in action. When we later read the passion account, many who would not be there on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday hear of the suffering and death of Jesus, before the next Sunday’s celebration. In many ways I appreciate the work of the Liturgical Movement, first begun by Vatican II Council.

    1. Robert,

      When I served as a missionary Asia, I witnessed a congregation in Sri Lanka march through the entire town (which was only about the size of a block or two) for Palm Sunday. It was a delightful witness I will never forget.

  13. Charles P Schultz

    I have rejected the change in the lectionary and continue to use the Palm Sunday Gospel reading. I prefer to leave the passion reading either for midweek services or Good Friday.

    1. I love the idea of a march around the town waving palm branches. what a wonderful witness to what occurred on that day we celebrate, and a witness to Jesus majesty.

    2. We do the same. I have always resisted the “Sunday of the Passion.” I also think it conveys the unspoken message that “we don’t think you are going to be here on Good Friday, so we better read this account now.”

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