The meaning of Palm Sunday

Published 9:21 am Friday, March 30, 2012

By the Rev. Katie Fick, Hayward and Trondhjem Lutheran churches

Palm Sunday, or Sunday of the Passion, or Palm/Passion Sunday, is this weekend, and it has always struck me as a strange day in the church. I think strangeness striking is appropriate for a Sunday worship that begins with people (in our case, children) processing into the church waving palm branches and shouting praise to God and then a few minutes later tells the story of a man who is tortured to death.

I used to think, as no one explains these things so we are left to wonder, that Palm Sunday used to be just about Jesus entering Jerusalem, because, after all, we hear in detail the story of Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday. I assumed the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion was stitched on to Palm Sunday because not as many people attend Good Friday services as they used to (to which I good-naturedly say: for shame!) and so people were moving from Palm Sunday to Easter, Jesus being hailed to his resurrection. There was a missing piece there: the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, which is so central to our faith as Christians. I thought the passion story was added because it is important that people hear the story of Jesus on the cross. As I said to a group of pastors a few weeks ago: no one walks around wearing an empty tomb necklace.

Email newsletter signup

But all of my assuming was wrong, because for many centuries Palm Sunday included a procession with palm branches along with the gospel reading recounting people waving branches and laying down some of their clothes (haven’t seen that at church) and people shouting for Jesus: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Usually Matthew 21:1-12 or John 12:12-19) and then also had solemn reading of the Passion narrative. According to my copy of The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Music, the story of Jesus’ trial and death used to be chanted by three ministers — a tenor (narrator), a bass (Jesus), and an alto (other individual parts like Pilate and the crowd). This worship that has struck me as odd has made good sense to other Christians for many years. This means, for me, it is worth paying attention to see what this ritual might be trying to say to us.

I and many others will hear the stories again this Sunday, and experience the rituals as my brothers and sisters have in Christ for many, many years. I don’t know what meaning it will have for me this year, waving the palms, hearing the words once again of Jesus praised and then beaten. Come to this day for yourself, walk through it with others and think about its meaning for your life, our community and our world.