Lessons and Carols for Palm/Passion Sunday

March 26th, 2012

As we approach the end of the Lenten season, and preparations for Easter celebrations are made with increasing urgency, some churches begin to resound with the ambivalence of both pastors and worship committees around the semiannual appearance of the “Chreasters.” You know them: family and friends and neighbors who show up to worship on Christmas and Easter, but never on regular Sundays; pollsters might label them “nominal Christians.”  

Of course, we’re always delighted to have newcomers (or returning visitors) show up to hear the Gospel proclaimed, but pastors and worship planners who hold the liturgical cycle as sacred also wrestle with how to share the deeply meaningful rhythms of the lectionary and Holy Week journey with those who haven’t moved with us throughout the weeks of Lent, or who plan to show up to wave palms and then sing out that Jesus has Risen a week later, without journeying to the cross in between.

A Service of Lessons and Carols can tell the whole story of Jesus’ final week in the same way such a service during Advent tells the whole story of Jesus’ foretold coming and birth.

Palms and Passion

Theologically, we need the darker days of Holy Week. It’s immensely difficult for me to preach the Resurrection, and to teach about its import, without experiencing in worship the solemn displays of love on Thursday, and the heartbreaking sorrow of Friday. It’s hard to get my head around the anticipation of Sunday, if I don’t spend time in a space of desolation on Saturday.

Life is great. A God of Life is super. But a God of Life, victorious over Death: that’s Gospel. That’s worth hiring somebody to play brass, at the very least. At the most, that’s the vision that changes our lives and our world.

Over the course of my lifetime, churches have increasingly developed the practice of designing a Palm Sunday worship service that begins with the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, but then moves through the passion narrative. Our United Methodist Book of Worship offers several suggestions about how to do this, including dramatic readings of the gospel texts offered by several readers, or a sung passion offered by the choir. A lessons and carols service, designed similarly to those offered at Christmas, is also described.

I love the format of Lessons and Carols services, and find them even more effective at Holy Week than in the winter, given the temporal movement of the action in Jerusalem as Jesus arrives, teaches, meets with his friends, faces betrayal and denial and abandonment before going to die. Such a service also provides an opportunity to sing a lot of the wonderful passion hymns of our tradition. (Download the order of worship for the author’s Lessons and Carols below.)

Scripture and More

For both long-time attenders and the Chreasters, the passion readings can be difficult to engage. Translations other than the NRSV or KJV may jar those familiar with the story; even the NRSV often seems too distant or formalized to those unaccustomed to its narrative patterns.

A middle ground I have found intersperses biblical passion readings with poetry that brings to life the emotional, theological, and dramatic richness of this most holy of weeks. Most of the ones I use have come from only several sources: poet Ann Weems’ marvelous collection, Kneeling in Jerusalem; and Gifts of Many Cultures and the Imaging the Word series by Pilgrim Press, among them.

The poems move worshippers to hear the Passion story in new ways, from a variety of perspectives, and the poets often tie the events of that week to our lives in powerful and challenging ways. The familiar hymns ground us in the story we have known for so long and through which Christians interpret their lives and world.

Order of Worship

The pattern of worship is a little wonky (as I explained to my staff this week). Communion is celebrated (Palm Sunday 2012 is on the first Sunday of the month), but given that it commemorates the last supper, it comes a little earlier in the service than it might on a regular Sunday. The closing reading I’ve selected this year is actually “A Christmas Hymn,” but it refers to the end of the Palm Sunday reading in Luke, at which point some of the Pharisees tell Jesus to silence his disciples. He replies, I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out (19:40). The closing hymn, The Very Stones Would Sing (accessible on the songwriter's blog) sung to the tune of Beach Spring, calls us, like the disciples, to cry out in proclamation of Christ and his divine love and justice. Also, my friend, the Rev. Rachel Frey wrote it, so I like to use it whenever I can.

My husband always marvels over how much time we spend planning Holy Week worship: the story is compelling as it is; it pretty well tells itself. He’s right, of course; the Gospel doesn’t need much to be proclaimed. But it’s also an act of love and devotion to give all that we have to tell this story in a way that encourages worshippers old and new to gain ears to hear what God was doing in Jerusalem that week, and what God is doing yet today.

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