Palms or Passion

Growing up Catholic I experienced the church year without paying much attention to what was coming next. In other words, I lived in without thinking about it. Christmas and Easter were holy days I came to expect, but the others just sort of came and went, usually catching me somewhat by surprise. One of the holy days that I never really understood well was Palm Sunday. I’d arrive at church for the Mass and receive a “branch” of a plant that I had never seen in my life before entering in to take a seat with my family. There came a point in the Mass where we held up our palm branches, but other than that I don’t remember much.

Of course, now as an adult and student of the Bible I understand that Palm Sunday is all about the day Jesus made his “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem. Poor, doomed Jerusalem.

While serving Sunrise Christian Church in Farmington, New Mexico (yes, I’m mentioning it by name from now on…let the search engines do what they will) I attempted to incorporate weekly readings from the Revised Common Lectionary into the worship of the church. This is something I tried to do carefully and respectfully, knowing it would never be a “high church” but wanting people to have a sense of the rhythm of the church calendar.

One day I made the mistake of leaving the lectionary out on my desk, where the treasurer saw it and warned me that it had a liberal bent and that I should be careful. I was so conservative at the time I practically squeaked when I walked, and ironically it was the hateful hypocrisy of a minority in that church that drove me to face my fundamentalist demons once I was “safely” in New Jersey. I still like the lectionary!

In any event, it was when I got to Palm Sunday that I was a bit puzzled. The Revised Common Lectionary allows for either Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday on the same day, with appropriate readings for either. It seemed silly for me to have a celebratory service for Palm Sunday and then another celebratory service the very next week for Easter, so I opted for the Passion Sunday readings. In the context, I think I made the right choice. Looking back I understand that Palm Sunday readings work when there is a high church context, one in which most active members will be attending Good Friday and possibly Maundy Thursday services that bring out the suffering and death of the Messiah. In a low church environment, though, Passion Sunday pretty much has to precede Easter Sunday, unless you are really good at mobilizing people to participate in evening services on weeknights to which they are not accustomed.

This morning I attended the same church I have ever since moving to New Jersey, a Brazilian Church of Christ. There were no palm branches and no mention was made either of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem or his passion and death. The message this morning was about looking forward to heaven, leaving this world behind. No, I don’t endorse the teachings of the church I attend, and I specifically reject belief in a permanent, disembodied state or a complete destruction of the universe in favor of a separate heaven. I can only speak for what I find in Scripture.

Deeper Scripture study in this church wouldn’t hurt, and a lectionary of some sort would also helpful in keeping the preacher from only talking about one topic all the time. It challenges the preacher to analyze texts he otherwise would often ignore, seeking to understand them and translate them into useful messages for the contemporary congregation.

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