The days between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his resurrection are the high point of the Biblical narrative. Large portions of each gospel focus on what Jesus did and said during those days, and some of his most famous teaching comes from this week. Most of all, this week focuses on the story of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.
Christians all over the world celebrate these stories with worship services during Holy Week, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Each service focuses on a different theme, using ritual and symbolism to rehearse the story of salvation. As we head to Holy Week, let’s explore each of the traditional services and their message.
Just a note: I am most familiar with the Western worship tradition, that is the Catholic Church and the churches that follow her traditions. While the Orthodox have a rich worship tradition, I don’t know anything about it. So, the following will focus primarily on the Western church.
Palm Sunday or The Sunday of the Passion is the Sunday before Easter. The service focuses on two different themes: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the story of his crucifixion.
The Palm Sunday service begins with a procession to symbolize Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Jesus comes with his disciples to the outskirts of Jerusalem, and he sends them into the city to get a donkey. They bring the donkey out to Jesus, and he rides into the city on it.
As Jesus rides into the city, the crowds gather to see him. They start to throw their outer garments on the ground in front of him. People cut down palm branches and place them on the road before him.
They shout, ““Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” The crowd expects a king to save them, and God gives them one, Jesus. He’s a king who comes to suffer for their sins.
Many churches celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem with an entry procession of their own. Many churches gather the congregation outside the church building. The pastor may bless the palms, and then he reads the story of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem from John 12. Then the congregation processes into the sanctuary to continue in worship.
Some congregations have a children’s procession instead of the whole congregation. They give them palms to wave while they walk down the center aisle singing.
Depending on local tradition, the Palm Sunday procession can be a really big deal. Catholics in Madrid mark the whole week with several processions. On Palm Sunday, they march through the streets with palms in their hands. Many people carry large floats on their shoulders with scenes from Holy Week. Their clothes are also unusual. Many people wear tall conical hats, called capirote . Unfortunately, they look like a KKK hood, but they date from the middle ages.
Palm Sunday in Nairobi is just as big a deal, though they don’t have the crazy clothes. The members of the congregation march around the town with palm branches in their hands. So many people gather that they fill the streets.
After the procession, the worship service turns to focus on the whole passion story. Congregations that follow the Revised Common Lectionary read the story of Jesus’ betrayal and death from Matthew, Mark, or Luke. They read the whole story from the Last Supper to Christ’s death.
Why such a long reading? Many people don’t come to worship services on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, or Holy Saturday. Each of these services focus on one piece of the passion story. If you miss those services, you miss the worship services that emphasize the most important stories in the whole Bible.
Even if you attend all the services of Holy Week, the Sunday of the Passion lets you hear the story all at once. The services during the week focus on each piece of the story, but this Sunday gives you everything in one shot. Sometimes we spend so much time on the parts of the story that we forget the examine the whole.
Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion, begins the celebration of Holy Week. It takes us from Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem all the way to the cross. It’s an overview of the whole story of the passion to prepare us to focus on each part during the rest of the week.
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