Preaching on Palm Sunday poses some distinctive challenges. Perhaps the chief of these regards length. With the Blessing of palms at the beginning, the procession, and the lengthy Passion reading, the liturgy is already running a good bit longer that the usual Sunday Mass-goer is accustomed to. In my experience, the folks who turn out for the lengthy liturgies of Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil are the true liturgical enthusiasts who don’t mind being in church for over an hour. But the people who show up on Palm Sunday are more likely to be among those who show up only a few times a year and who are less adept at taking in a lot of information that is communicated verbally. So a Palm Sunday homily should ideally not contribute to the aural fatigue of the assembly, and to my mind is it probably better to keep the homily short and sweet (my Palm Sunday homilies are about half the length of one of my ordinary Sunday homilies).
At the same time, there is so much to say about Palm Sunday. One basic question is whether one focuses on the Triumphal Entry or the Passion. Of course, one can always link the two, but I think there are only so many times a congregation can be told that the crowd who shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday is the same one that shouted “crucify him!” on Friday. It’s a good point, but it’s been done to death. Often, than, one will want to choose to focus on one or the other, and for me the Passion usually wins out. Within the Passion narrative itself, however, there are many different possible angles one could take: focusing on a single figure, such as Peter or Judas or the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet; speaking of the significance of the death of Jesus in God’s plan of salvation; presenting ways in which the story of the crucifixion continues in our own day in those who suffer for their faith; looking forward to the celebration of the Triduum that is approaching; and many, many more. Add to that the marvelous readings from Isaiah and Philippians and one has an embarrassment of homiletic riches. Especially if one doesn’t feel constrained by time on Palm Sunday, it is tempting to try to cram in too much. So perhaps time constraints are a hidden blessing.
This year I chose to use my homily for Palm Sunday as a kind of introduction and invitation to Holy Week as a whole (for my parish context, see this earlier post). Thematically, it was inspired by John Chrysostom’s famous Easter sermon, in which he emphasizes the universality of the call to celebrate the resurrection. Prompted in part by how in my own life a variety of circumstances had led to a rather unfocused Lent (“My God, is it Palm Sunday already!“), I wanted to underscore that it is never too late for us to immerse ourselves in the Lenten Springtime, and that Holy Week is a time of grace, not a reward for those who have been diligent during Lent. As is often the case, I was preaching to myself as much as to anyone else. From some of the comments I heard after Mass, however, I was not the only who felt that Lent had somewhat slipped away. And lots of people wanted to talk with me about their own experience of kitchen renovations.