The Bible is steeped in drama. Consider Jesus’ bold reading of Isaiah in the synagogue (Lk. 4:18-19), or Solomon’s liturgy climaxing in the LORD’s glory filling the temple (1 Ki. 8). Paul may have directed a performance of Jesus’ death: “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!” (Gal. 3:1c). Dramatic structure serves to sharpen our focus and draws us into narrative as imagined and experienced co-conspirators.
Within the Episcopal Church’s liturgical corpus no service may be more deeply involving than that of Palm Sunday. To begin, the congregation gathers outside the church. Palm fronds are distributed. Then the priest reads the opening prayer: “Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality.” But perhaps “upon the contemplation on” ought to be replaced with “by our participation in.” We’ll soon see why.
The liturgy invites the congregation to follow in the footsteps of these early faithful. A joyful hymn-singing and palm-waving procession ensues either (somewhat disappointedly) directly into the church or, as in the case of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, around two city blocks with the help of police escorts blocking off the otherwise busy streets. This latter interpretation appreciates best the public nature of the spontaneous performance of Jesus’ day.
The congregation files into the pews with a sense of elation and a heightened sense of commitment to their inner faith made visible for (slightly confused) Sunday morning joggers and New York Times-reading balcony sitters to see. But the tone shifts with startling swiftness in the prayer that “we may walk in the way of [Jesus’] suffering.” (Wait, was that what the waving of my already-wilting palm branch meant?!) The crowds of the gospels scatter. Many of us in the church secretly wish we could too, for what follows is deeply disturbing: betrayal, trial, and grisly crucifixion.
The public reading of the passion gospels may form the basis for proto-theatrical public performance as far back as the Middle Ages. Then, as now, they contain the seeds of pernicious anti-Jewish sentiment that has, over centuries, led to deadly individual and communal acts of race-based violence and genocide. They also narrate the church’s most perplexing mystery: why the Son of God was made to die, and gruesomely. More careful examination of the historical circumstances is beyond the scope of this piece; it is enough to say that the situation was complicated, Jesus was Jewish, and Roman soldiers crucified him with the permission of a Roman procurator.
The explanatory rubrics of the Palm Sunday service relate that “The Passion Gospel may be read or chanted by different persons. Specific roles may be assigned to different persons, the congregation taking the part of the crowd.”
Why the crowd? Well, because the sticky complication of the story, as told in the gospels, was that the Roman procurator allowed his soldiers to crucify Jesus because he was persuaded (even scared of) the crowd. Of Jews. By casting the congregation as the crowd, however, we not only identify with our very human potential to condemn those who threaten the status quo, but we might imagine that Gentiles rubbed elbows with Jews in the crowd that chaotic day (even if our gospels’ authors failed to “see” them).
“Crucify him!” we scream together, channeling an ancient violence that we experience self-consciously with shame. Minutes earlier, fronds whirling in the cool morning air, we had shouted “Hosanna!” Could some of the same people participated back then in both proclamation and condemnation? Yes, our liturgy concludes, for humans together reach in their frenzy dizzying heights and debasing depths. Participation in both moments today involves us—our senses, our emotions, our consciences—in a way that a pew-limited mere reading-at-the-podium never could.
Playwrights place their characters in dire situations; how a character responds shows the audience who she really is. We too sense an examination at work, first carried out by ourselves, but implied in the collective penitence of the church and the renewed awareness of a human’s radical ability to do evil. Indeed, the liturgy invites “the faithful to bring to consciousness the uneasy coexistence between their celebration of Christ’s ministry and their reluctance to follow in the same path.”
Yet the performative nature of the service ensures that our experience is not solely psychological. French playwright Antonin Artaud writes that theater is characterized by “the revelation, the bringing forth, the exteriorization of a depth of latent cruelty by means of which all the perverse possibilities of the mind, whether of an individual or a people, are localized.”
Participation in the passion narrative grants permission for the congregation’s interior viciousness to become known and shown. We hear ourselves scream in judgement, and we hear the screams of those around us as well. Such a ritualized manifestation of evil greatly intensifies our contrition as humans trapped by the limits of our fundamental condition. The “enacted theology” of the Palm Sunday liturgy so deeply stirs us because we cannot help but see, hear, and feel ourselves as Jesus’ own, even as we mortally disown him, to our horror. Gratefully, the empty tomb awaits.
Colin Mathewson and his wife Laurel served as a Sojourners interns from 2006-07. Both are now seminarians at Sewanee: University of the South studying to become Episcopal priests. Check out their blog at colinandlaurel.blogspot.com or follow him on Twitter.