Embracing the awkwardness: Liturgy for Palm/Passion Sunday

The liturgy below includes a sample homily, found here. Together, they form a complete Palm/Passion Sunday worship experience. 

In one scene of the movie "Keeping the Faith," Rabbi Jake Schram (played by Ben Stiller) is preparing a young congregant for his bar mitzvah. The boy’s voice cracks horribly as he practices his recitation, badly enough that even Rabbi Schram cannot hide his misery. The boy, completely embarrassed at his pubescent squawking, complains that they will take his yarmulke away because he “sucks.” Rabbi Schram agrees, he does suck, but he also reminds him, "This isn't a talent contest, this is a rite of passage.”

He dares the boy to take up the challenge, to press into his awkwardness and own it. "Embrace the suckiness. Just say, 'I love that I suck,’” Rabbi Schram tells him. They begin to chant together, “I love that I suck, I love that I suck,” building the boy’s confidence with each repetition. At the end of the movie, when the boy comes forward to lead the congregation, his recitation is no less pitchy, but he has certainly embraced the awkwardness.

Something about this scene reminded us both, as worship leaders, of the awkwardness we have felt in celebrating what we have come to know as “Palm/Passion Sunday.” On face, it sometimes feels that no matter what you do with that day, the liturgy is just going to be a mess, a confusing suckiness that can never seem to find its pitch. The sounds are too jarring, almost off-putting. All the commotion of Palm and Passion sounds like that pubescent screeching and squawking, as if the church’s own voice is cracking and out-of-control.

Perhaps this dissonance is why so many have turned to bemoaning the awkwardness of the day. There are always those who wish we could return to the days of just Palm Sunday, or that we could find some way to creatively sync the two pieces to make a more cohesive liturgy, one without the awkward adolescent immaturity.

Facing the unavoidable ungainliness of the day, many of us feel like Rabbi Shram’s student as we approach Palm/Passion Sunday, wondering “How can we get through this without embarrassing ourselves?”

Perhaps, like Rabbi Shram, the most faithful pastoral move is to help the people of faith embrace the stumbling movement this liturgy embodies. Perhaps the question isn’t, “How do retain all the beauty of Holy Week in spite of our people’s busy lives?” Perhaps the question is, “How do we still proclaim the awkward truth of God entering Jerusalem on a donkey only to walk those streets with a cross?”

Perhaps the liturgy of Palm/Passion Sunday isn’t an awkward day to be fixed or avoided, but an invitation to proclaim the constancy of God’s Passion painted on the backdrop of humanity’s fickle passions. Perhaps this is a great way to begin Holy Week.

The awkwardness this liturgy engenders is actually much older than we think. Even though the Sixth Sunday of Lent became “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion” only in 1970, it reflects a much older tradition from at least the 4th century of recounting the Passion story on the first day of Holy Week. If it seems that this combining was a liturgical concession for congregants who don’t show up for Good Friday and therefore skip from “Hosanna” to “Allelulia,” then it is likely true only because liturgical leadership has failed to offer a better imaginative option.

For anyone who has in fact celebrated Palm/Passion Sunday, there is an incredible power in that unevenness. The congregation that day cannot miss the awkwardness of singing “Hosanna!” and shouting “Crucify!” only moments later. You cannot miss the awkwardness of being reminded that this is how we respond to the Lord when he shows up. You cannot miss how quickly and how easily we turn violent when our illusions of control are challenged, how our cries of “Blessed is the King” turn so easily to the mocking “Hail, King of Jews!"

Above all, the awkwardness reminds us that our actions are not the most important part of the story. The triumphal entry could never actually stand alone from the Passion, as much as we might like them to. The palms mark the Passion’s beginning, the glory that only becomes possible in the darkness of the Skull Place.

So, how do we, like a Jewish kid preparing to tell the sacred story of God’s covenant with Israel, embrace the awkward? We sing of God’s love.

The liturgy included here is a sample of how to help the church find its voice. It begins with the community gathered just outside the worship space, palms in hand, listening to the story of the Triumphal Entry. After they enter together singing loud Hosannas and lay their palms at the foot of the communion table, they move into a brief homiletical introduction. The beauty of the day lies in the preaching: the Evangelist tells the story. So the preacher’s task is to introduce Saint Luke and then get out of the way.

The Passion reading is broken up, following the guidance of "The New Handbook of the Christian Year," and interspersed with the mournful words of “Were You There.” Ending with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the people depart in silence as Holy Week begins.

For those who dare to follow Jesus into Jerusalem, this is the week that our humanity and God’s divinity come clashing together in events that still mark the body of Christ. This week will be filled with sacred meals and sharp nails. This is the week that we will watch ourselves do our worst to God, only to discover that our worst is no match for God’s best.

This is the week that the awkwardness of our sin is supplanted by God’s grace, and it begins here on Palm/Passion Sunday.

A Service of Word and Table for Palm/Passion Sunday


Begin by gathering outside the worship space, distributing palm branches to congregation.

Words of Welcome

*The Triumphal Entry    
Luke 19:28-40

*Processional Hymn: All Glory, Laud, and Honor

Include words of the hymn in the order of worship. Worshippers are invited to process up to the table and place their palm branches around the base of the table.

Leader: The Lord be with you.  People: And also with you.  Leader: Let us pray: Almighty God, on this day your Son Jesus Christ entered the holy city of Jerusalem and was proclaimed King by those who spread their garments and palm branches along his way. Let those branches be for us signs of his victory, and grant that we who bear them in his name may ever hail him as our Lord, and follow him in the way that leads to eternal life.

In his name we pray. Amen.


*Prayer for Illumination
Leader: Let us pray: 
People:  God our Redeemer, you sent your Son to be born of a woman and to die for us on a cross. By your Holy Spirit, illumine our lives with your Word so, as the Scripture is read and proclaimed this day, we may be reconciled and won wholly to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


With the readings below, multiple voices are strongly encouraged. One recommendation would be to alternate readers, or to have seven separate readers.

*First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9

*Song: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

*Second Reading: Luke 22:14-30

*Song: Were you there when they sold him for a price? Were you there when they sold him for a price? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they sold him for a price?   

*Third Reading: Luke 22:31-46

*Song: Were you there when he prayed in Gethsemane?  Were you there when he prayed in Gethsemane? Oh!  Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.  Were you there when he prayed in Gethsemane?   

*Fourth Reading: Luke  22:47-71

*Song: Were you there when his friends left him to die? Were you there when his friends left him to die? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when his friends left him to die? 

*Fifth Reading: Luke 23:1-25

*Song: Were you there when the crowds yelled crucify? Were you there when the crowds yelled crucify? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when the crowds yelled crucify? 

*Sixth Reading: Luke 23:26-43

*Song: Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?   

*Seventh Reading: Luke 23:44-56  


Creed: The Apostles’ Creed

Invitation to the Table
Prayer of Confession
Declaration of Pardon and Peace 
The Great Thanksgiving
Communion Music
Prayer After Communion

Recessional Hymn                          
Dismissal With Blessing
Depart in Silence


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