For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. – 1 Cor 1:17-18
I’ve been reading more today about people who are planning to move the Passion gospel to the end of the liturgy on Palm Sunday, or even to drop it altogether and only read it on Good Friday. The reasons seem to be 2 in number: “let people have one Sunday where they feel good!”, and “Holy Week follows the narrative order of the week, so we should only hear about the crucifixion on the Friday”.
To the first point: Practically every Sunday should be a day of “feeling good”. Every Sunday is a little Easter. Even having heard the Passion Gospell on Palm Sunday, we immediately celebrate the feast of victory for our king which is the Eucharist. The Passion Gospel is the centerpiece of the Palm Sunday liturgy, but the abrupt shift from “hosanna” to “crucify” doesn’t *have* to be as stark a shift as we often make it. Perhaps it’s time for we preachers (and the others who craft the liturgy) to take up the challenge of helping people to see the glory of the cross.
To the second point: Yes, the liturgies of the Triduum are designed to focus on events of that last week on the days when they happened: the Last Supper on Thursday, the crucifixion on Friday, etc. Yes, that’s true. But we don’t do this because we are trying to force ourselves into the narrative and feel all the feelings that we think we ought to have felt on that day. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” is a fine, fine hymn, but the truth is that, no, you weren’t. It happened a long time ago, and everything that has happened in your life and mine has happened in the aftermath of the Resurrection.
We remember in Holy Week, we allow ourselves to confront and to see the passion of our Lord, which is the central event in the Christian story, after all. The gospels are not so much biographies of Jesus, but accounts of Jesus’ passion with a bit of preparatory material leading up to that last week. Holy Week helps us to cut up a complicated story and focus on it one bit at a time. But we are not reenactors. The purpose of the liturgy is not to crush us with emotional manipulation to the point that Palm Sunday or Good Friday leave us feeling shattered with guilt and sorrow. This is, incidentally, why I don’t do dramatic readings of the Passion, in which the congregation is typically given the role of the crowd shouting “crucify him.” The crucifixion was horrible, yes indeed, and we should be uncomfortable at it. We should not look away. But I think that we (I’m talking to the preachers and liturgical planners here) are doing something wrong if people leave the liturgies of Palm Sunday and Good Friday bereft of all hope. The cross is our hope!
The heart of the Christian story is that humans were powerless to save ourselves, and Christ our God was born to save us, and to save us he died on the cross and rose again. The passion of Jesus is the salvation story, and that’s got to be good news. We need to hear the story of the cross more often than we do, on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, but also throughout the rest of the year too.