Thursday, August 11, 2022

A fond misrecollection...

People of my age often long for those days when on Palm Sunday the confirmands rode in to be conferred their communicant status.  These were days of girls in white dresses and boys in their first manly suits, with flowers and Bibles and big family gatherings.  To get there you had to undergo the rigorous questioning (take all the questions and answers and Bible passages and divvy them among the number of confirmands -- in my case 6).  But once there on folding chairs in the front of the chancel, you had no thoughts of Jesus on a donkey or palms waved or hosannas shouted.  You just wanted to make it through without shaming your family or peeing your pants (which I did barely).

So when the lectionary was revised in the 1970s and Palmarum became the Sunday of the Passion, many wondered why and complained miserably about the loss of Palm Sunday.  So many questions have arisen concerning the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday -- the seeming preempting of Holy Week and stealing the focus away from the big days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  Does the lengthy Passion reading somehow detract from or infringe upon Palm Sunday?  Whose idea was it to make the Passion the Gospel for Palm Sunday and why was the Passion moved to Palm Sunday?  Except it wasn't.  It was not an invention or a novelty or a creative maneuver of the liturgical movement at all.  Far from being some recent innovation of the Vatican II crowd mirrored by Lutherans or some attempt to make up for the waning attendance of the Lenten Services (themselves sort of an extended Holy Week), the reading of the Passion on the Sunday before Easter turns out to be an ancient custom -- one observed almost universally by the Western Church as far back as the fifth century (Jerome c. 471)!  How about that.

In two of the oldest surviving lectionaries of the West, those of Würzburg (c. 700) and Murbach (c. 800), the Passion according to St. Matthew is prescribed, with no mention whatsoever of the Palm Sunday Gospel, or even a mention of palms in the name of the Sunday. What is mixed, historically, are the ceremonies and practices of the Palm Sunday side.  The overwhelming majority of the last 1300 years supports the reading (or, more properly, singing) of the (St. Matthew) Passion as the Gospel on Palm Sunday.

Fair warning for those planning ahead for Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday next year.

Thanks to the good work of two Lutherans on the Lutheran Missal Project for the research from which this column is in debt:  and  

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