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We’ve been alerted to the War on Christmas, but no one seems concerned about the War on Palm Sunday.

It’s not a new war. It’s been going on for as long as I’ve been a pastor. That’s nearly 40 years. It’s prevalent and probably spreading. 

Once upon a time, Palm Sunday was a glorious and triumphant day. More or less a warm-up for the big bash to come. An overblown mini-Easter. From glory unto glory. One high to the next. The music. The procession. The story itself. Sort of bombastic and kitsch. Sort of cute and kiddish. 

Then the critics started taking their potshots. The attacks came fast and furious. The War was on. 

They said (not without some merit) that those Palm Sundays of yore ignored the next six days. Hostility. Division. Betrayal. Torture. Trial. Abandonment. Suffering. Death. Confusion. Disappointment. Grief. Defeat. They claimed that “triumphal” isn’t especially accurate for someone who would be executed in just over 100 hours. 

Quietly feeding the War seemed to be some surreptitious distress that people no longer attended Maundy Thursday or Good Friday worship “like they once did.” Kids didn’t have the day off from school anymore. The once-common three-hour-community-preach-a-thon, where local pastors tag-teamed through the seven last words of Christ, was now virtually extinct. No doubt, if anything helped you understand suffering it was seven sermons in three hours. And if I didn’t know better, I’d swear I catch just the faintest whiff of nostalgia for Christendom in all of this. 

Still, pockets of resistance to the War on Palm Sunday remain. For example, someone recently complained that their church is “Eastering the crap out of my Lent.” And that “some churches can barely make it through two hymns with dead-Jesus” before quickly assuring everyone that everything turns out alright. It is precisely these sorts of experiences that the War on Palm Sunday seeks to eradicate.

Pompous Palm Sunday suits our superficial, pain-avoidant society — so it is said. Our churches are places with no space for and no training in lament. No doubt you’ve heard this before. Thoughts like these appear with some frequency here on this blog. In our death-denying, smiling-all-the-time culture, worship must have space for honesty and pain. Death and sorrow and disappointment were part of Jesus’ life. It’s okay if they are part of our lives and our worship.

The solution, then, is the War on Palm Sunday. Reign it in. Tone it down. A more muted Palm Sunday. If you’re not going to get Good Friday on Good Friday, you better get it on Palm Sunday. 

In some churches it becomes “Palm-Passion Sunday.” Perhaps some of the Good Friday story is read. And If not, at least the sermon should have a pensive conclusion, pointing toward the darkness of the coming days. In our congregation, for example, we often close with the hymn “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty,” singing “in lowly pomp ride on to die” and “the angel host beyond the sky look down with sad and wondering eyes to see the approaching sacrifice.” Some congregations close with “Were You There?” or “What Wondrous Love Is This?” Maybe, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”

(In case you couldn’t tell, my tongue was at least partially in my cheek for most of what you’ve just read. Actually, I understand and generally sympathize with the War on Palm Sunday. It’s pretty much what I’ve practiced as a pastor.)

Yes, But…

Still, I have some wonderings and conjecture about other factors at play in this war.

I’ve observed (including in myself) a wariness and a condescension toward joy among worship connoisseurs. Joy is secretly sneered at. Almost automatically, it is assumed that joy is cheap, shiny, and short-lived. This too is a factor in our refiguring Palm Sunday. I feel this even more in strict Advent observance. Four weeks of minor, morose music, but only twelve days of celebration.

Too much joy must be frivolous and shallow. Too much like entertaining, evangelical mega-churches. 

It brings to mind words of my mother to adolescent-me when after a long, crazy, rowdy summer day, I’d beg for one more excursion or event. “You’ve had enough fun for one day.” In my head, I’d murmur, “I didn’t know that fun was rationed.”

I agree that we aren’t very good at lament. But we can be rather good at savoring melancholy. And often we mistake the two. Somber worship is oddly satisfying for some of us. And oh so sophisticated. A little lugubriousness isn’t a bad thing, now and then. But almost always there is some gnostic-like elitism in our melancholy.

None of this is to say we should return to bombastic Palm Sunday. My aim, rather, is to push a bit on our motives, to cause us to explore where piety ends and pretension begins.  

Sometimes I even wonder if there isn’t something a little punitive in the War on Palm Sunday. “If you people aren’t going to be here on Thursday and/or Friday — to hear the rest of the story — then you’re going to get it now!” Of course, the rest of the story proves to be pretty important. 

“Take your medicine!” That medicine may be life-giving, but is there a smidge of sadistic glee in making people swallow it?

The Rest of the Story

Before all you aficionados of somber worship become too defensive, I’ll add still another ingredient to this mix. At last, the truth comes out.

I’m preaching and putting together worship this coming Sunday. We — my co-pastor wife and I — are down to eight or nine Sundays until retirement. We’re doing so many things for the last time. 

There is much to celebrate. Retirement. Twenty-four years of ministry here. The congregation is in a good and healthy place. Wonderful, bright successors. Much hope. Much joy. Much to trumpet. Much to parade.

Yet I know deep down there is also lots of sorrow that I’m afraid to touch. I don’t want to detract from all the good stuff. I don’t want to seem selfish. As I told someone, I’m afraid if I start crying I won’t be able to stop.

My sorrow and fear about leaving my congregation are not quite equivalent to Jesus’ suffering and death. Nor is my joy about imminent retirement on par with the glory of the resurrection. 

It feels a bit self-absorbed to use the events we will mark in the coming days as a template for my own journey. Being personal, honest, and vulnerable in worship — some is good. But can’t there be too much of a good thing? 

The War on Palm Sunday may actually be a war within me. I don’t want to blubber all through worship and send people home with a gray cloud above their heads. (Insert your thoughts about my needing to learn to lament in the comments below.) And I don’t want to pretend that it’s just “another, typical Palm Sunday” — when it isn’t.

Highs and lows. In worship. In Holy Week. In our lives. In our faith. They’re all a bit scary. 

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

6 Comments

  • Steve,

    Thank you for this. It is very thought provoking.
    My big objection is calling “Easter,” “Easter.” I prefer calling it the “Day of Resurrection” which better captures what it is we are celebrating.

  • Nancy Ryan says:

    Steve,
    Welcomed words! Thanks for the reminder to lament and celebrate. Hard to hold that tension, but WOW, your words resonate deeply.

  • Deb Mechler says:

    Goodness, Steve, it’s hard to think of Second church without you and Sophie there! I wonder if some of the reason that people don’t observe Good Friday, besides having so many other more appealing choices, is the narrow, transactional interpretation of the crucifixion. Yes, Jesus “died for my sins, I get it.” When there are so many more layers to it that can compel lament and deep gratitude.

  • Mary Kansfield says:

    Thank you, Steve.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Steve,
    You need to learn to lament!

    There, I did what I was told. 🙂
    Thanks for the excellent article. We’ve always done Palm Sunday at my church. I hold on and do Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, even if they are not well attended. At times, we’ve started our Easter service by going back and retelling the story, ending it with Christ the Lord is Risen today. Some people find that odd. It is I suppose, but if we end with shouts of acclimation and then when we next meet together we add more shouts of acclimation, it always felt like, why are we shouting.
    The truth is most people know about Good Friday, so knowledge isn’t really the issue. It’s something more than that. Not sure we ever get to that something deeper, but we try, and I know you and Sophie do as well.
    Congrats on retirement. I hope you finish well, as I know you will, and good luck with the next steps!

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    I like to use the Luke 19 version of events for Palm Sunday because it has both the joy and the sorrow. After people joyfully praise God in 38 & 39, we have Jesus weeping over Jerusalem in v. 41. The joy & sorrow go together.

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