Thursday, April 13, 2017

Let's Change the Lectionary

I've written a sermon for Maundy Thursday, which I will post later tonight. For now, I want to dive into some church geekery (you've been warned) and ask whether we are doing our people a disservice by presenting non-continuous lessons during Holy Week. In short, I think we need to swap the Easter Vigil and Easter Day gospel lessons, and here's why.

In the church geek circles where I love to reside, I have heard significant discussion on the gospel reading for Palm Sunday. "This is the Sunday of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem," it is argued. "Why would we skip to the end of the week and read the passion?" Good point. In churches where the Liturgy of the Palms is observed, we read the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey/colt while the people scatter their cloaks and tree branches along the road, but, during the Eucharist itself, the gospel is always the passion. I've heard many people argue that we should leave Palm Sunday as the Sunday of the entry and save the passion for Good Friday, where it belongs. Some have suggested that this passion-forward arrangement is a concession to those who cannot (or will not) make it to church during the week. Behind that argument seems to be a desire to recapture the way we used to do things and to quit giving people another excuse not to come to church on Good Friday by allowing them to experience the passion five days early. But how newfangled is that tradition?

The 1928 Prayer Book calls the Fifth Sunday in Lent "Passion Sunday" and uses it to inaugurate "Passiontide." Likewise, the gospel lesson appointed for Palm Sunday is Matthew 27--not the triumphant entry but the passion. There is no reading for the entry into Jerusalem. Guess what? That's been the lesson for Palm Sunday since at least 1662, when the BCP published that year also prescribed Matthew 27 as the gospel lesson (though there is provision for Matthew 21 and the triumphal entry if there is "more than one celebration," which presumes an additional service like our Liturgy of the Palms). So let's get rid of the "concession" argument. This isn't about yielding to overburdened schedules. This is about celebrating the Passion of our Lord on a Sunday--putting the principle sacrifice of Jesus on the principle day of worship.

But how do we follow that up? How do we connect what happens on Palm Sunday with what happens on Easter Day?

The gospel reading for Palm Sunday is always the passion narrative of whichever gospel account is featured during the year of the lectionary. In Year A (this year), it's Matthew; Year B is Mark; Year C is Luke. The people who come to church on Palm Sunday and hear the passion story, hear the synoptic version. But when they come back to church on Easter Day, they hear John's account of the resurrection. Granted, the synoptic account is a permitted secondary option, but the primary reading done in most churches on Easter Day is from John.

What about the triduum? What about the people who do come to church on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday? What about the people who celebrate the resurrection with the Easter Vigil? Again, there's a discontinuity. The first part of the three-day journey is from John. Maundy Thursday is the Last Supper in John 13. Good Friday presents the passion account in John 18 & 19. Holy Saturday disrupts that slightly with Matthew 27 as the primary option but does provide John 19 as a secondary choice. And the Easter Vigil? After journeying through John, John, and (optionally) John, we're back in the synoptic account: Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B, and Luke in Year C. But ask yourself who is more likely to attend the Vigil--those who only heard the passion on Palm Sunday or those who made the trip to church on Good Friday?

We are missing an opportunity for continuity. The resurrection story in John's account is not an option at the Vigil, and it should be. I don't mind having the synoptic option, but, for congregations that have made the intentional trek through John's telling of the story, to burst forth with an earthquake and guards guarding the tomb when we didn't hear any evidence of that in the passion story on Friday misses the chance to see the journey as a contiguous whole.

I'm sure there are good reasons for leaving it the way it is, but I can't think of them. If we're going to read the synoptic passion account on Palm Sunday, let's read the synoptic resurrection account on Easter Day. To the faithful who have journeyed through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday with John's telling of the story, let's allow them to hear the conclusion of the journey the way they started it--in John.

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