Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Two Passions Each Year

(Warning: this blogpost is more about liturgy and lectionary at Pascha than it is about music, although those who make music in the liturgy will want to at least think about these matters, especially if they make music on Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and definitely if they serve as a cantor for a sung Passion.)

Each year the questions arises: "Why does the lectionary appoint a reading of the Passion on Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday and another on Good Friday? Isn't one Passion enough?" It is true -- the Revised Common Lectionary recovers the more ancient pattern of reading the Passion from the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) on Sunday of the Passion, and the Passion narrative from John on Good Friday. Some remember a time when Palm Sunday included only the gospel narrative of the entry to Jerusalem and never took the paradoxical turn that the liturgy appointed for us now takes. Here are a few reasons why I think we need both Passions each year:
  • The four gospels tell the story of Jesus in remarkably different ways, but the differences are most vividly seen when one compares the stories surrounding Jesus crucifixion in the synoptic gospels with the story from John's Gospel. In John, Jesus' divinity is proclaimed. In the synoptics, Jesus' humanity is proclaimed. To quote from Worship Guidebook for Lent and the Three Days:
The synoptic accounts stress the humanity of Jesus, and each tells in its unique way about his sufferings. Yet, paradoxically, we read of his sufferings on a Sunday, the same day in which we celebrate his resurrection. On Good Friday we proclaim his trial and crucifixion as told by John. John's gospel stresses that Jesus is the incarnate God who goes to reign from the cross. Again, paradoxically, on the Friday of Jesus' death, we proclaim the gospel that boldly announces the divinity of Christ... Christian doctrine teaches that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine, and each year we strengthen this faith by listening to the passion in both the synoptic gospel and John. We hear the more sorrowful story on Sunday and the more triumphant story on Good Friday.
  • Although it may appear to be so at first glance, the liturgical year is not a chronological walk-through of Jesus' earthly life. (i.e. Advent = Jesus in Mary's womb; Christmas = Jesus is born; Epiphany and Time after Epiphany = Jesus' earthly ministry gets started; Lent = walk with Jesus to Jerusalem; Easter = Jesus dies and is raised; Pentecost and the Time after Pentecost = the Spirit is poured out on the churches) Instead, the church year is shaped first by the Sunday-after-Sunday encounter with the risen Christ in word and sacrament, over which two annual cycles are laid: the incarnational cycle around the winter solstice, and the paschal cycle around the first full moon of the spring equinox. The lectionary is "our way to read the bible against our experience of time on this globe we call earth." (Lathrop, from an unpublished lecture) People who argue that Palm Sunday should be dedicated to the entrance into Jerusalem and the narrative of the crucifixion be reserved for Good Friday are often arguing from an expectation that the lectionary be a chronological calendar, which it is not.
  • "We always need at least two things to tell the truth about anything." Telling a biblical story two different ways saves us from the trap of reading the bible as though it were a newspaper report of how things actually happened. Telling the story of Christ's passion two ways each year protects us from pretending to be Mel Gibson creating a movie of the "way it was." Having two stories each year helps us not read the bible as literalists, but instead helps us to read the stories that we might believe -- not because we have the facts, but because the paradoxically different stories give space for us to find hope and comfort. So -- read Luke on Christmas Eve and John on Christmas Day; read John's narrative of Easter morning at the Vigil of Easter and the synoptic story on Easter Day. Christians tell our most important stories in at least two ways.
One final opinion, and this is a word about the lectionary in general:
  • There is a remarkable witness made when congregations around the globe make use of a common lectionary. This witness speaks of the unity we share as Christians beyond denominational lines and beyond the borders of country and continent. Certainly the current lectionary we share is not perfect, but it is the best we have right now, and is far better than what we had before. Biblical, liturgical, and other theological scholars today are right to share insights concerning how the lectionary might be reformed in the years ahead. But local congregations should be careful about discarding the lectionary because of an article here or a lecture there. Let lectionary reform happen among the consensus of the churches -- but until then: keep the lectionary. By making a commitment to keep the calendar of readings and psalms, regardless of whether we're feeling up to proclaiming it or not, makes a statement about our commitment to unity among our churches, and the unity we have in Christ Jesus.


  1. Mark: Correct as usual, and wonderfully expressed. So wish that we could be sharing a cup of bad coffee in the moldy chapel at LTSP and planning the Broadway Mass. . . . But I learned a lot there and am grateful for every bit of it. Thanks for your witness and if you ever come to Western Mass, I have a pulpit that could use a guest preacher.

  2. Thanks, Nancy. I will be in Mass in October, but more in Worcester than Western Mass. There are days when I miss the moldy chapel, but not often, as I have a wonderful place to make music in Houston. I miss the classroom a whole lot, so I'm trying to satisfy my thirst with a little of the teaching or thinking I would do in the classroom on this blog. Thanks for checking it out.