Episco-Fact #84
March 22, 2018

Even if this has been asked before, could you explain why Palm Sunday is combined with a reading of the Passion?

It is true that through the late 1960's, Palm Sunday was its own day, and it came on the last Sunday before the Feast of the Resurrection. But it was also true for Episcopalians of the 1928 Prayer Book variety, that what is now the 5th Sunday of Lent was included in a period of the calendar known as Passiontide, the two-week period before Easter Sunday. During that Epoch of the church, the Passion was still read on the 6th Sunday of Lent (the Matthew version every year), and there was no specific order for the liturgy, including or excluding a liturgy of the Palms.

Some have argued, especially in recent years, that the service of Palm Sunday, as we now have it, was a convenience issue to make certain that Christians, with attendance down, would get the whole story of Holy Week in one day, before, of course, the celebrating that happens at Easter. That may be our interpretation, but the liturgists (i.e. scholars of liturgy) who compiled the Revised Common Lectionary and the Episcopal ones, who developed the Book of Common Prayer 1979, were trying to recapture ancient traditions, including the ancient tradition of Lent.

By the way, all traditions in the 21st Century appear ancient, especially given our current capacity to forget anything, or at least, remember only vaguely, anything more than twenty-four hours old. But, by the Third Century, Lent was the time of instructing Baptismal Candidates in the ways of Christianity. This probably included some theological learning of the esoteric variety, such as who Jesus was, but it also included, and, in fact, emphasized, the practices of the faith: caring for the homeless, feeding the hungry, nursing the sick, watching out for the widows and orphans. You know, all that Biblical stuff that comes up in the stories about Jesus.

We know about this way of preparation from The Apostolic Traditions of Hippolytus of Rome from around 215 AD. In that time and place, the catechumenate took three years, with an intense review in Lent of the year of Baptism. By the time of Egeria, a Roman woman of what is now Spain, who took a Spiritual Pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Constantinople around 380 AD, the Catechumenate was down to the forty days of Lent. But it still emphasized the practices of Christianity over esoterica. Over the years the training becomes Confirmation and shifts its focus to theology and creeds—belief stuff over practice stuff.

The liturgical reformers of the Mid-Twentieth Century, steeped in the learning spurred on by documentary discovery and rediscovery of the 19th and early 20th Century, looked to recapture Lent as a training period rather than as a period of personal pietistic reform. Therefore, the changes to the Ash Wednesday service and the use of the Sunday before Easter as a pivot point, from reform of practice to deeper engagement in the story, to be reinforced by the liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. The change was intentional, and like much liturgy, it is a thing to be experienced, as opposed to a thing to be made rational.