Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Palm Sunday Problem: Liturgy vs Theology



One aspect of the western liturgy that I find problematic as theologian is the heavy emphasis on Palm Sunday on the Passion of Christ at the expense of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. If a solemn procession takes place at the beginning of the mass, there are plenty of appropriate Biblical texts used. However, in many churches, there will be just a simple procession, with the waving of palm crosses and that is about it. The rest of the mass switches focus to the arrest, trial and crucifixion of our Lord. The Liturgy of the Hours is better, with morning prayer placing an heavy emphasis on the triumphal entry. However, daytime prayer and evening prayer are Passion-centred. The Anglican liturgy is even worse, with texts in both the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship focusing on the Passion.

Theologians and Biblical exegetes will inevitably see the significance of the triumphal entry, seeing in it the setting up of the cross as the enthronement of Christ in glory. Christ demonstrates His kingship by coming in humility and accepting suffering and death, finding victory in weakness. By placing so little emphasis on the triumphal entry, the western liturgy risks divorcing the cross from the Kingdom of God. A potential danger of the liturgical emphasis is to make the triumphal entry look like a cruel joke, focusing on the irony of the fickle crowds switching from adoration to calling for Christ's execution.

I completely understand why the Palm Sunday liturgy is the way it is. It makes perfect liturgical sense to focus on the Passion on the Sunday before Easter. Otherwise, no Sunday in Lent would cover the theme of the cross in Lent. To go from the triumphal entry to the resurrection would be awkward if one were to skip the Good Friday liturgy. This is thus a case of liturgy coming into conflict with theology. An important theological theme is played down for liturgical convenience. I can't see an easy way to revise the texts to avoid this dilemma.

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