Palm Sunday • Luke 22:1–23:56 • March 20, 2016
By Kent Burreson
Passing from one divine feast to another,
from palms and branches,
let us now make haste, O faithful,
to the solemn and saving celebration of Christ’s passion
Let us behold him undergo voluntary suffering for our sake,
And let us sing to him with thanksgiving a fitting hymn:
“Fountain of tender mercy and haven of salvation,
O Lord, glory to you!”
From Byzantine Vespers
The One Great, Holy Week
Through this liturgical text one senses the unified movement of participating in Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, realizing the opposition cast before him, and recognizing one’s complicity in his suffering and crucifixion by rebellious creatures. So the church enters into the Great, Holy Week of the Lord’s passion. The church should celebrate Holy Week as one unified liturgical experience centered in salvation’s great event, the Pascha of Jesus—the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Christ. The week culminates in the liturgical remembrance of and participation in the triduum (three days), of Jesus’s Passover from death to life. We participate in the passion according to St. John at week’s end on Good Holy Friday. We enter this great week on Passion Sunday by participating in the passion of a synoptic gospel, this year St. Luke’s. The church gathers as the people of Israel did, strewing palm branches (or branches from indigenous trees representing our contemporary participation in the great procession of the Lord) to greet the King who comes in the name of the Lord. The goal, as St. Andrew of Crete said, is that the baptized “may spread themselves under Christ’s feet.”
The Procession Gospel
As the week is one great liturgical event, so the Sunday of the Passion with the procession of palms is a unified liturgical experience at the week’s beginning. The palm procession found in the Lutheran Service Book Altar Book (502–504) serves as the entrance rite for Passion Sunday. This procession replaces the preparatory rite of Confession and Absolution (confession and absolution occurring on Maundy Thursday) and the entrance rite of introit/psalm/entrance hymn, kyrie, and hymn of praise. We are invited not only to praise the King and Lord who entered Jerusalem to establish his reign through his cross, but to greet the one who will come again “with trusting and steadfast hearts and follow him on the way that leads to eternal life” (Collect for the Procession of Palms). The default processional gospel is John 12:12–19. As the rubrics note, a gospel reading from one of the synoptics may be used: Luke 19:28–40 in series C. This is not the chief gospel reading of the day, but a gospel for the procession rite. Thus, normally one should not preach on this gospel exclusively. The passion reading ought to give shape to the day’s preaching. If one were to give substantive attention to the procession gospel, it should be in light of its leading the church into the passion remembrance. At the center of the passion is the establishment of the rule and reign of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection he will reign victorious over those opposed to God’s kingdom, ruling in peace, mercy, and love. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem the disciples acclaim, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Luke’s procession gospel announces that Jesus will establish his reign of peace, announced to shepherds in Bethlehem, both on earth and in heaven through his Pascha.¹ That reign only comes through Jesus’s great offering of himself through suffering in mercy and peace for a rebellious world.
Preaching the Passion
Great Week immerses the body of Christ into the mystery of salvation: the rule and reign of God that comes through the Lord’s Passover from death to life. The reading of and meditation upon the passion stories, Luke on this great day and John on Good Friday (with Matthew and Mark read during the week), should demand the attention and participation of the church. The reading of the Lucan passion should facilitate the people’s full participation in hearing the story of their Lord. Options for reading the passion, with multiple readers, are provided in the Altar Book (505). Serious consideration should be given to using one of these formats and the entire breadth of the nave and chancel in the reading. Effective reading requires preparation, practice, and attention to detail. While the reading of the full passion is desirable (Luke 22:1–23:56), the shorter version (Luke 23:1–56) may be used. The presider may omit certain sections of the liturgy in order to allow the passion to give shape to this Sunday: the Old Testament and/or second readings, the gradual and/or psalm, the creed, and the post-communion canticle. Choral music may be limited. Distribution of communion may be done at stations. Finally, the sermon should be focused and abbreviated, seven to eight minutes or less.
Preaching the passion demands opening the reading for the assembly’s full participation. The sermon should focus on the passion’s dramatic center: Christ and his suffering so as to establish his reign and rule of mercy and peace. There are numerous focal points in the narrative which the preacher might explore to open up the hearer to the experience. One example would be Jesus’s words from the cross that are unique to Luke. Ultimately, the preaching should focus on an aspect of the passion that allows the hearers to hear Luke’s depiction of Christ’s suffering and death through the lens of their own baptisms into Christ’s Pascha. For example, the preacher might form the sermon around the response of the centurion to Jesus’s death: “In reality, this man was righteous.”² The preacher should lead the hearer into seeing that through the righteous suffering of Jesus, God’s rule of mercy has come. Through baptism into the death of Christ as depicted by Luke, the baptized are made part of Christ’s reign. In preaching this way the words of the centurion are now spoken over the hearer: “In reality, you are righteous . . . in the Lord Jesus.” In Jesus’s passion the reign and rule of God has come: “the incarnation of God’s love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness for all, including God’s enemies.”³ Jesus’s passion is literally for you, the source of your story and life. Follow the procession of the Lord through his passion to the city of God, the rule and reign of God in the new Jerusalem!
¹ Arthur Just, Luke, Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 746–748.
² Ibid., 923.
³ Ibid., 933.