Non Solum: The Passion Narrative

A reader writes in:

The Passion narrative always receives careful consideration in our liturgy planning. We have found that the differences between the three synoptic gospels make it undesirable to use the same approach every year.

The role of the assembly is always a consideration. Because our parishioners want to have some role and we value their participation, we have done a number of different things. This year, they will say the words of Pilate, which will be projected at the appropriate times. Pilate’s words consist of a series of questions; this puts the assembly in dialogue with Jesus and may prompt them to consider who Jesus is for them.

How do others handle the role of the assembly in the Passion narrative? How do others handle the differences in the gospels in planning from year to year?

Please comment below.


  1. Interesting idea.
    I never liked the choice of giving the people the role that cries, “Crucify him!” In the past we divided the narrative into pericopes (technically periscope for the purists out there) and assigned them to several readers, including the presider. The people were given musical selections, a la the Bach Passions. The music broke up the narrative and gave the congregation an opportunity to respond to what was being proclaimed. This allowed for a more dramatic reading as our readers practiced and would narrate a whole scene at a time. The sense you got was that various speakers were recounting individual episodes from the Passion text.
    It was well received.
    I’m not sure why the differences in the synoptics “make it undesirable to use the same approach each year.” Could you elaborate?

    1. @Bruce Janiga – comment #1:

      The synoptics are similar, but there are some clear differences.

      Mark: Up to the Way of the Cross, Mark uses a series of parallels – two plans, two suppers, two betrayals, two trials (as well as two scenes involving disappointing performances by Peter – in the garden and in the courtyard). A periscope approach can accentuate these parallels that appear to be a conscious construct by Mark. Mark also roughly presents eight of the fourteen stations.

      Matthew: There are only a few differences between Mark and Matthew. Matthew adds a few particular characters – the disciple who cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant and Pilate’s wife – and scenes – the guilt and suicide of Judas, the opening of tombs, and setting a guard on Jesus’ tomb.

      Luke: The differences between Luke and the other two are far more substantial. Luke omits a few things – the supper and anointing at Bethany, the false witnesses at the trial before the chief priests, and the mocking of the soldiers. He also adds a number of distinctive elements – Jesus’ statement that this would be his last supper, Jesus’ prediction of Judas’ betrayal, the purse and swords, the angel and drops of blood in the Garden, Herod, the women of Jerusalem, the two crucified criminals.

      These differences in characters and scenes have affected how we have divided up the proclamation of the Passion. With Luke’s version, one approach that has worked well is to divide it into three parts: the last supper and the garden; denial and trials; and way of the cross and crucifixion. Musical or quiet interludes can be used after each part.

      1. @Jan Larson – comment #3:
        Actually, the Lectionary provides for the saying of the Passion Gospel by parts or roles, partly to accommodate the traditional manner of saying it (with three deacons). Since it is silent on the matter of whether the crowd could be one of the three deacons, the choir, or the congregation, it is perhaps a discretionary measure.

        Then again, I am opposed to dramatic readings at this point, which has been the unfortunate practice in my country for the past couple of decades. There is something to be said for the traditional chanted versions.

      2. @Ren Aguila – comment #4:

        Most of the rubrics for the reading of the Passion are actually found in 1988 ‘Passio Domini Nostri Iesu Christi’ (listed as a separate liturgical book in Liturgiam Authenticam), rather than the lectionary, the missal or any other documents such as Paschale Solemnitatis. It provides several additional and clarificatory ceremonial details in the Praenotanda.

        It is quite clear that they mean three deacons who are individual persons. If there are not enough deacons, then priests read, and if there are not enough deacons and priests, then lectors. The Latin manifests a preference for keeping to the general custom of the Gospel being read/sung by ordained ministers, and does not have an option for any congregational participation.

        The English versions (which strangely enough, do not number their rubrics) have introduced two larger modifications to the Latin rubrics. In the first place, “The Passion of the Lord” has divided by the “Synagoga” into two possible parts – “Voice” and “Crowd” and permitted the congregation to take the crowd parts. This rubric is not given in the Latin.

        The English musical book (put out by GIA – a noble book, BTW, IMHO very simple and elegant ) has made musical ability its principal guiding point, and allows complete substitution of ordained ministers lacking musical ability by lay persons (i.e. no requirement for an ordained minister to take the part of Christ, as I recall, although I have to check that book again).

  2. “Legi potest etiam a lectoribus” (Palm Sunday rubric 21)
    Unless one is going to make the case that each any every one of the assembled faithful is an extraordinary lector, assigning lines to the assembly doesn’t fly. That said, considering that the musical tradition, at least, has found a place for more than simply 3 deacons/lectors, and the practice of congregational participation is both widespread and decades-old, I think one could mount a plausible case for custom contra legem.

    In my own parish we follow the footsteps of the Bach Passions by singing the Passion with the part of Christ given to, this year, a deacon (none of our priests really sings well enough to pull this off), the chronista to a cantor, and the synagoga distributed either among the full choir for crowd parts or individual voices for solo lines. Though, as I said, I think this is a stretch (and I very much like the simple three-deacon chant), I do feel it is well-enough precedented to pass muster.

  3. What happens when the assembly is given a “part” in the “script” is that it spends more of its time waiting for its “cues” than immersing in the Gospel. Even putting aside the issue of liceity, as a substantive matter it’s very dubious.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #6:

      This is exactly right. When people are reading along, waiting for the next time they have to come in, it changes the way in which they listen. The read-along-and-shout-Crucify-him Passion is really not a good idea. In general, read-along readings are not a good idea. I am fond of telling people that no one watches the news on TV with the script in their hand — and this is the Good News! The analogy for the Passion would be watching the news with the script in your hand and additionally shouting at the TV from time to time!… I would discourage the use of missalettes altogether during Holy Week, except perhaps for those with hearing difficulties.

      In Year C, the year of Luke, it is particularly bad. Quite some way into the reading, the first thing that the crowd has to say is a grumpy “No!”. A little later, “Lord, we have two swords”, followed soon after by “Lord, shall we use our swords?”. The whole thing just descends into bathos.

      I would not agree with the original post that the synoptic gospels are different. They are all similar, basic narratives, as opposed to John on Good Friday (see below). In my experience, the best way of dealing with the crowd parts is to have those reading the parts of Peter, the maidservant, etc, combine to form the crowd.

      For the assembly, many parishes have introduced three or four musical interludes to punctuate the narrative, giving time for reflection and to draw breath, as others have already mentioned. Particularly effective are single verses of “O sacred head”, or the refrain of Stephen Dean’s “Father, if this cup”.

      It seems to me that the Passion of John is markedly different from the synoptics. It has a more meditative character about it. My best Good Friday experiences have been of a single reader, sitting alone in a chair at the front of the sanctuary, telling the story. The assembly also sit and listen. Of course, you need an excellent reader who can do this and hold the congregation. The atmosphere of prayerful reflection is tangible.

      1. @Paul Inwood – comment #9:
        I would discourage the use of missalettes altogether during Holy Week, except perhaps for those with hearing difficulties.

        In a diocese where over 90 languages are spoken, missalettes also assist those for whom English is not their primary language.

      2. @Paul Inwood – comment #9:

        Paul — 100% accurate re people’s experience of hearing the Passion story and responding in song through out narrative.

      3. @Paul Inwood – comment #9:
        Let me express my support for a single reader as well – acknowledging that the Roman rite has long encouraged in its chants a division of roles. Readings do not read themselves, as we have realized week after week. They either fill our time idly before the homily or they drive us into the mystery the homily must then address. Division into parts, at least without the joint preparation that almost never takes place, leaves the reading as a mere backdrop while listeners rehearse their own encounter with the Lord. But don’t we seek a retelling that leads to deeper communion among us? The faith-ful reader with storytelling skills can certainly engage the assembly for the few minutes that the Passions take. I have seen it and have done it.

  4. I would be sorry to see the congregation’s cry of “Crucify Him!” go away in the name of rubric or to “keep it fresh.” Pious literature bulges with stories of mystical experiences around that shout. Three people have mentioned to me, non-fictionally, that “something happened” to them at that moment on a Palm Sunday.

  5. On Good Friday we do more or less what Bruce Janiga describes above, with the congregation singing a verse “What Wondrous Love is This?” at three points during the reading (the text goes very well with John’s Gospel.” In my 17 years in the parish we’ve always done “pericopes” rather than “parts” and the congregation has never shouted “crucify him.”

  6. I was struck anew during our Palm Sunday rehearsal how wonderfully proclaimable Mark’s passion is. It propels the reader along and is dramatic. It crackles.

  7. I have found that the use of a few readers rotating proclaiming sections (not character parts) of the Passion with a Passion Acclamation used after each section provided a reflective and powerful experience of the Passion Story. Not every parish has 3 deacons (some don’t even have one priest!), so accommodations needed to be made.

    The funniest situation I remember — a priest in my home parish presided at the Good Friday service, but asked me (not ordained at the time) to read the part of Christ, so he could read the narrator’s lines. The reason? “The narrator has more to say than Christ.” Go figure!

  8. Are we talking about Palm Sunday or Good Friday? On Palm Sunday the congregation says “Crucify him!”–this is after they sing and enter in a procession at the beginning of Mass.

    On Good Friday the readings are sung by three cantors. I do not think the congregation says anything at all.

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