This Sunday, April 2, is known by two titles: Palm Sunday and The Sunday of the Passion. Before the 1979 Prayer Book (or Vatican II for that matter), Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday were separate celebrations–the 5th Sunday in Lent was The Sunday of the Passion and the Sunday before Easter was Palm Sunday.
Interestingly enough, even though the 1928 Book of Common Prayer referenced the 5th Sunday in Lent as “Passion Sunday,” the Gospel reading appointed for the day was not the Passion narrative but John 8: 46. And, while the 1928 BCP did refer to the “Sunday next before Easter” as “commonly called Palm Sunday,” the prayer book did not include a liturgy of the Palms for use on that day. A liturgy for the Palms first appeared in the 1960 Book of Offices—a separate book of liturgies not provided in the Book of Common Prayer. However, the Gospel reading appointed for the Sunday next before Easter in the 1928 Prayer Book was the Passion Narrative.
We have the liturgical revisions of the “new” Prayer Book 1979 (now into its 44th year) to thank for combining the Sunday of the Passion and Palm Sunday into a single liturgical celebration that inaugurates Holy Week (the week before Easter Day).
I have come to appreciate more and more the combination of the two themes of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem—Palm Sunday, with his betrayal, trial, suffering and death on a cross—the Passion.
The word Passion has been affixed in our culture with the idea of love or a strong, mostly favorable, emotion. We understand the word passions more as “ardent affection.” But its original meaning, especially as used in the context of Christ’s Passion— as in the Sunday of the Passion, is the word’s original , now “obsolete,” meaning which is “suffering.”
In the celebration of Palm Sunday we see Jesus revealed as the triumphant power of God riding into the holy city of Jerusalem in great humility, on a donkey. Jesus on the back of donkey is the very symbol not of battle and dominance, but peace, mercy, reconciliation, and love. He rides to the city within the crowds of the poor, the down trodden, the neglected, and the “common” who hail him and proclaim that he comes in the name of the Lord.
This scene unfolds as the city of Jerusalem and all the people are preparing to celebrate the Passover—Israel’s great independence day, the day of the people’s freedom from their oppression under pharaoh; their liberation from bondage to systems of slavery, suffering, and death. Passover celebrates that freedom comes in the name of the Lord and in the way of the Lord.
But systems of power and domination do not give-up their hold on oppression easily. The way of God’s love, mercy, justice, reconciliation and freedom suffers mightily at the hands of this world’s systems of power. God’s way of love and freedom suffers, even dies, on a cross.
But that is not the last word. For Passion also means to endure, and, indeed, God’s love, justice, and freedom endures. Easter Day is the victory of God’s freedom. The tomb is empty. The king of love is risen. Freedom, true freedom, is alive.