Palm Sunday

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 1, 2007

This year, Palm Sunday falls on April Fool’s Day. I find that profoundly poetic.

We celebrate it as though it were a powerful moment in the ministry of Christ. But can you imagine what he must have been thinking…sitting on an ass, the fickle crowds in adoration as they ushered him closer to his shameful death? The utter hypocrisy of the people matched with the fleeting celebrity of Jesus paints an absurdly sad picture that is all-too-often lost in our images of smiley-face-Jesus being received as a king.

On a somewhat unrelated note…I’ve always struggled with this time of year. Theologically, I’m not a big fan of the church calendar. I’m by no means an iconoclast in this regard (in other words I’m not saying that it is evil or stupid to mark time using the ecclesial calendar). I simply think there are better ways of living out the Gospel narrative. The church calendar has baggage and issues that I’d love to avoid. However, using the church calendar (and the lectionary) has become much more popular among people of all sorts of backgrounds (like my once low-church emerging friends).

I understand that it allows us to have a more lived-in, sacramental faith that is filled with images and mystery and story. And that it forces us to submit to something outside of ourselves. And I get that to utilize the church calendar is to stand in solidarity with the larger Body of Christ. However, I’m not at all happy with how the Lectionary carves up the Gospels. And my old charismatic sensibilities tell me that these churchly holidays really don’t accomplish much beyond abstracting our faith into un-reality and making it an occasional, event-based Christianity.

Am I the only one grappling with this?

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13 Responses to “Palm Sunday”

  1. b-nut on April 1st, 2007 12:33 pm

    When is Easter anyway? I have been trying to figure it out by watching the news. There seems to be a growing amount of stories on chocolate dishes and Easter flower arrangements… I suppose I could look at a calender. I think my old childhood church rents out the food court of a large mall and has a huge choir perform with all sorts of ‘testimonies’… Be it good or bad, I find very little to relate to in those ‘celebrations’ that contributes much to my faith journey. But then again, I have some issues…

  2. Luke on April 1st, 2007 1:44 pm

    I can’t say I’m “grappling” with that, because the word implies a struggle among at least two competing ideas. I am solidly opposed to the church calender because I share your critiques of it but not your defenses.

    I do not think church events give us more opportunity to “live in” our faith than we could choose without church events. And I think the centrality of images and story in the church is an abuse of potentially illustrative resources; they mislead more than they lead. And I do not think participation in the church calender is a good way to stand in unity with the body of Christ, or in fact that unity with such a broad and often evil body of persons is good. (Mutual love and respect and service, sure. ) I can’t imagine wanting to unify myself with the conservative George Bush cheering squad, and I can’t imagine you (Mark) or Barthrop or a thousand others wanting to unify themselves with my hypocritical, uncompassionate, unserving, ungenerous, selfish ass.

    The Catholic mass a few blocks from my apartment in Merida, VZ was a “palm branch” service, too. We twisted palm leaves into crosses and then prayed to the Virgin Coromoto, an abstraction of Mary that serves as the patron saint of Venezuela.

  3. graham on April 1st, 2007 3:13 pm

    We had a Palm Sunday service this morning (I wasn’t leading). It was nice to do something a bit different and there certainly is something in the idea that millions around the world are doing the same - and have done for some time. However, the cynic in me kept thinking that all we were doing was prettifying the horror of the gospel.

    We made the mockery of the triumphal entry into a nice march, the execution of Jesus into something to celebrate.

    Historic mis-steps are still mis-steps.

  4. Michael Westmoreland-White on April 1st, 2007 3:16 pm

    I came to embrace the Christian calendar (at least in basic outline) as a student pastor of Baptist churches! It was then that I realized that the alternative was letting the secular calendar set the agenda. Building worship and writing sermons with the Christian calendar in mind reinforces the basic Christian story and helps the imitatio Christi dimension of discipleship. That doesn’t necessarily mean embracing every Catholic or Orthodox saint day, nor praying to saints, etc.–not to this Free Churchman, it doesn’t.

    My relation to the ecumenical common lectionary also developed during this time. 1) Being Free Church, I am free to make use of any tools, including those developed by others. (I just didn’t tell some of my congregations!) 2) Using the lectionary gave me choices, 4 passages each Sunday, but meant that I didn’t just preach my hobbyhorses and a very narrow “canon within the canon.” It forced me to preach on a wider variety of texts. 3) Moving to having laity read the 4 lectionary passages increased people bringing their Bibles to church and it exposed the congregation to far more of the Bible than in many fundamentalist churches where a single line of text is the subject for a long sermon. God’s Word is more important than my words. 4) The common ecumenical lectionary is far from perfect. Sometimes the 4 selections seem quite random, arbitrary and unconnected. This is ESPECIALLY true of the selections in Year C and ESPECIALLY true for the season of Pentecost (between Trinity Sunday and the 1st Sunday in Advent, which used to be called “ordinary time”). So, I am also Free Church enough to set the lectionary aside when necessary. Between Trinity Sunday and Advent, basically late Spring through early Fall, I would revert to the Protestant custom of Lectio continua–i.e., preaching through entire books. This ALSO prevents hobby horse sermons, and gives the congregation exposure to the major outline of canonical books. 5) I was/am always free to set the lectionary aside if a crisis in the church or the leading of the Spirit means that something else demands to be preached upon at that moment. But, in general, I resisted this until I learned to discipline myself to the lectionary and the church calendar (it was amazing how much “the Holy Spirit” kept interrupting that first year!)

    The Church calendar is especially helpful for Lent, Passion Week, and Easter. Far too many Protestants skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday with nothing in between. Thus, they move from triumph to resurrection without rejection and crucifixion and abandonment and death. In the words of a Catholic friend, we raise Jesus too soon. But if we have footwashing services and communion on Maunday Thursday, and a Service of Shadows or 7 Last Words on Good Friday, we are more prepared for the joy of Easter. And our Easter faith is not triumphalist, but cruciform.

  5. markvans on April 1st, 2007 3:36 pm

    Luke…I mostly agree. The struggle isn’t with how things have been done conventionally…more with the potential of a church calendar–if it really meant something. I’m tempted to develop our own (more subversive) approach to a lectionary, but I hate the old we-are-going-to-do-it-our-OWN-way impulse. Hence the conflict.

  6. markvans on April 1st, 2007 3:41 pm

    Michael and Graham–excellent thoughts. Very eloquent. You seem to articulate the blessings (and curses) of the use of the lectionary and church calendar well.

    And so friends (and here I include Luke and b-nut), do you think it is a legitimate exercise to develop a theologically thoughtful local (contextual) lectionary if one does so in a way that nods to the existing lectionaries (especially the Eastern ones) is conscious of hobby-horsing, yet tries to cover more than the existing lectionary?

  7. jim on April 1st, 2007 4:52 pm

    I’m a pc(usa) pastor who has been somewhat committed to the lectionary in my preaching, but I do find it limiting in many ways. So I will often leave the lectionary to do a sermon series.

    This way I get the benefit of sticking with the church calendar and the lectionary when it seems especially important or when I’m not really sure what the next sermon series will be.

  8. b-nut on April 1st, 2007 6:27 pm

    Mark, I am not opposed to any of this…even the Easter celebrations I make fun of. I am opposed to religious clichés that have little depth of meaning left in them for sharing in with others. Any sort of calendar or lectionary that can be contextualized for a group of friends is less likely to succumb to the shallow abode of a cliché I think…. Additionally, being mindful of tradition in our contextualizations serves the case for depth and meaning…it lends gravity, foundation, and connection to common practices.

  9. Michael Westmoreland-White on April 3rd, 2007 4:58 pm

    I’d resist strongly the temptation to write one’s own lectionary. That might be more “subversive,” but one can simply be subversive with the current lectionary. That keeps the ecumenical dimensions. A major criticism of the Emerging Movement (and I still don’t understand enough of it to comment intelligently one way or the other) is its apparent sectarianism–starting over everything from scratch.

  10. markvans on April 3rd, 2007 6:05 pm

    If I were to utilize the current lectionary, I’d probably develop a supplement. The criticism of the Emerging church stems from its hyper-contextualism. In other words, just as it would (I think) be misguided to bring the Lectionary with you when doing missionary work in Papua New Guinea, it is likewise (though to a much lesser degree) to bring the Lectionary into Chicago. The comparison only goes so far, but you get the gist.

    The problem is when the theology undergirding the Lectionary isn’t savory. To be honest, if forced to choose between the Lectionary or to continue with the same old hunt-and-peck low church approach to approaching Scripture, I’m tempted to choose the latter. Given this, wouldn’t it be better to develop a “system” that would keep our church from simply preaching its hobby-passages? And, wouldn’t it be good to go a step further and try to make it thematically conversant with the Common Lectionary (or some other Lectionary) in order to recognize one’s indebtedness to the Tradition?

  11. Michael Westmoreland-White on April 5th, 2007 3:27 pm

    And what’s the problem with bringing the lectionary to Papua New Guinea? I brought it to small town Baptist churches in Kentucky–and they never knew it. It’s not like I said, “And today’s lectionary reading is . . .” I simply asked people from the congregation to read passages of Scripture. The church calendar is easier. It actually helps as a missionary tool. What faster way is there to introduce the major themes of Christianity in any missionary situation (whether Chicago or Papua New Guinea) than to have services that focus on the major themes of the Christian year?

    I notice that Catholics and Orthodox are fairly effective missionaries. Contextualization doesn’t mean starting from scratch. There is always adaptation. But I would bet that use of the lectionary and the church calendar for preaching would be far more effective for Missio Dei than beginning from scratch. The world already knows its own message. It needs to hear something in church that it can’t hear in the local pub.

  12. markvans on April 5th, 2007 11:12 pm


    There are some built-in assumptions within the Lectionary that betray the Western theological tradition. That is why the Catholic and Protestant Lectionaries are different than the Orthodox Lectionaries. And even among Western lectionaries there are differences. These differences stem from differing theologies. That was what I meant about not wanting to bring the Lectionary to Papua New Guinea (and it has nothing to do with “effectiveness”).

    And I’m not really interested in starting from scratch. But I would at least like to develop an alternative lectionary, perhaps, that honors the good of the existing lectionary while addressing areas of inadequacy. What are those areas of inadequacy? Here are the ones that come to mind:

    The lectionary doesn’t do a good job representing the Old Testament. In fact, it really only includes the “Jesusy” passages…or those thought of as “Jesusy” by the folks that developed the Lectionary (Neo-Marcion?)

    It not only leaves out most of the Old Testament, it leaves out a third of the New Testament.

    It breaks the texts into chunks in a way that sometimes betrays the overall narratival quality of Scripture…or the flow of argument. The narrative is undercut by its failure to share enough of the Old Testament to give proper context. This actually makes it more likely that we’ll end up with an improper understanding of the New Testament (since the Lectionary presents a very strong hermeneutical grid). The Lectionary reinforces a Neo-Marcion view of the Gospel (as I mentioned earlier) and can make Jesus more of a universal savior at the expense of understanding the profoundly and particularly Jewish nature of his Messiahship.

    In its zeal to focus on the Gospels (which is in many ways a strength) it neglects other New Testament works. It also skips over parts of the Gospel that seem to “lead up” to other points. In other words, it tries to catch “the high points.” This betrays a rather didactic or theological emphasis at the expense of narrative and aesthetics.

    The Lectionary has a bad habit of omitting the most awkward or confusing or troublesome passages out. Sure this makes God look better, but still…

    Half of the year is focused on Christmas and Easter…and the events leading up to Christmas and Easter. While these are no doubt very important events, it would be good if Pentecost were giving better billing. And if the Story of Israel was part of the narratival flow of the Liturgical Year.

    All of this isn’t to say that the Lectionary sucks. It is great. But it has limitations. And instead of being forced to choose between the Lectionary as-it-is or just picking-and-choosing, I’d rather develop ways of exploring the narrative of Scripture that get at things better. It may be that using the Lectionary as-is would be worthwhile. But I’m not interested in using it simply to show solidarity with the Church, though I’m not interested in a complete deviation either.

  13. markvans on April 6th, 2007 11:06 am

    I’m moving this conversation to a new post here.

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