Ars Praedicandi: Preaching on Palm Sunday

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.


  1. Here’s my offering:

    I agree with you about length. I actually had a vision of two-paragraph homily (probably about 150 words), but ended up going about three times that length. I can only be so ruthless with myself as an editor!

    Praying with Mark’s passion this week the twin themes that kept presenting themselves to me were abandonment and presence (which I had hoped I could evoke in two paragraphs each, but it wasn’t to be).

    I also often try to be conscious of advice we were given in seminary of having homilies point forward to the table, and that seemed to fit here.

  2. We had no homily today – just a short period of intentional silence, so I appreciated Fritz Bauerschmidt’s homily on a couple of levels, though I’m wishing I’d been less disciplined and read it (and so remembered John Chrysostom’s Easter homily) BEFORE I finished my reflection on the last of the OT Easter Vigil readings this afternoon, which alas isn’t destined to be preached next weekend, but published on Tuesday, and therefore now beyond revision.

    What I appreciated about the homily (and about Adam Booth’s) was the assumption that underlies their very existence: that no matter how familiar the scripture there is always more to uncover, always more that we need to hear, that the Word is indeed alive and among us.

    I always feel like I’m drowning in the Scriptures this week — I start to feel like I’ve been co-opted into binge watching Biblical Big HIts. My preference (particularly post the Ignatian Exercises) is to slow down and dig in. But both these homilies succeeded in keeping me from getting mired in meditation, and moving forward with Lent, with Easter, with the mystery that is ever at work.

    1. @Michelle Francl-Donnay – comment #2:
      For many years my parish had no homily on Palm Sunday or Good Friday. The argument was that the Passion reading was so rich that it stood on its own (I can’t help but think that length was also a concern). But about 6-7 years ago we began having a brief homily on Palm Sunday and my sense is that people appreciate it precisely because the Passion is so rich that a homily helped them bring a particular aspect into focus.

  3. I must disagree completely … Palm Sunday deserves a solid homily … and we heard one this morning … ten minutes plus long.

    What Palm Sunday, read that as “any Sunday, any liturgy” does not need is minute upon minute of commentary, explanations, humor and general confusion created by lack of preparation. Haul out the dead air, the unneeded suspirations of forced breath and you will have time … plenty of time. On how many Sunday’s does it take longer to get to the Collect than will be spent on the homily … or the homily is the second one given at that service.

    Oh, btw … Mass started in the parish hall, we all processed outside, down and across the road, rushed nothing, cut nothing, had an excellent homily, the Roman Canon and were singing the dismissal seventy-two minutes later.

    Oh sorry … we did cut some things … the chatter, the weather report, the late starts, and all the last minute running around trying to make it come together … and they were NOT missed.

  4. “One basic question is whether one focuses on the Triumphal Entry or the Passion.”

    Really??! Never a concern here. Our gifted pastor follows the suggestion that’s in the Missal. He gives a 2-3 minute homily after the triumphal entry gospel pericope. He later gives (in today’s case, the deacon) gives a 4-5 minute homily after the Passion account.

    As Fritz suggests: it’s too rich not to offer something. And no one minds. People stand for the Passion accounts, too. Singing songs and processing from the lobby. And despite the concern suggested above, people come year after year, knowing Mass will be just under 90 minutes long. In fact, it gets more full each and every year. As has often been said here in variety of ways: a good homily can always be longer; a poor homily is always too long.

  5. Brief observation-
    When the Passion is chanted well, there are moments, particularly in the Voice part, when the focus and power of the recreated moment in the narrative is magnified hugely. For example, the repetition of “Crucify Him” when the second iteration is done with a crescendo. Or when the narrator echoes that with “The King of the Jews.”
    OTOH, when a celebrant delivers a 20 minute homily after a recited version whose narrator seems like the president of Bob and Ray’s “Slow Talkers of America” with pretentious dramatic pauses, water-boarding might seem a more preferable way to “get” the Passion for the hostage congregants.

  6. I long ago dispensed with the always less than successful efforts to gather people in the parish center for the opening rite and the procession to the sanctuary. It never “worked” because it is so out of sync with the way “normies” live and think. Starting near the baptisty the intro rites, blessing, and gospel move smoothly into the opening prayer following the song and procession. I also use the short version of the Passion. This leaves adequate time for the call to celebrate the Paschal Mystery in the Sacred Three Days. About 75 minutes from start to finish and all were satisfied.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehiloy – comment #7:
      I don’t know why the shorter form of the Passion is not used by more communities.

      I preached a short homily after the Palms gospel and a brief homily (which is what the Roman Missal calls for) after the Passion.

      1. @Fr Jack Feehily (#7), @Lee Bacchi (#9):

        Not to derail this conversation, but I don’t know why there’s even the option of a short form of the Passion. Since Good Friday is not a holy day of obligation, Palm Sunday is the one time in the year that people are guaranteed to hear the Passion at the liturgy. What possible reason can there be to purposefully deprive the faithful of half the story – to eliminate the Last Supper, Gethsemene, the betrayal of Jesus, His trial by the Sanhedrin, Peter’s denial, and the burial of Jesus? And depriving them using a lectionary that purportedly provides “richer fare” and “more lavishly” opens up the Scriptures, no less (cf. SC 51)!

        IMO, unless you’re somewhere like, for example, Syria, there is absolutely no excuse to use the short form of the Passion. (Just as there is absolutely no reason to not have all seven OT readings at the Easter Vigil.)

      2. @Matthew Hazell – comment #12:
        Well, when you are a circuit rider priest and have to travel some miles between parishes and do the solemn entrance or procession at each or some of those 5 Masses, the short form of the Passion may be all you can do. Besides, if the Church says it is possible (for serious reasons, just like eliminating one of the first two readings), maybe it is aware of more pastoral situations than you could ever imagine.

  7. This year I decided to tackle the difficult question: “Why did Jesus die on the cross?” Growing up, I picked up the impression that it was to save us from our sins, for this reason: We offended God, and the only thing that could wipe that out was the sacrifice of the innocent Jesus, God and man. It was a very legalistic understanding, based on the common human model of retributive justice: You did the crime, so you (or in your place, Jesus) do the time/punishment, so that God will accept you and love you again. This makes out God to be a cruel God, even abusive, demanding that his own son die before God will take us back. Jesus saves us from God.

    This, I think, is not far from how a great many people have understood how it works. It is a question I have been asked more than once.

    For this year, to prepare for Holy Week, I tried to paint a different picture. The God of whom Jesus spoke is not the God described above. Jesus does not have to persuade or bribe God to forgive us and to love us. Jesus came not to change how God thinks about us, but about how we think about God. God does not operate the common human model of “justice.” The God of mercy and compassion is with Jesus in his darkest hour; that same God is also with us. That God transforms the worst that human beings can do, and the darkest suffering, into new life, Resurrection. Yes, I am a sinner, but sin has no power over me: I know this because of Jesus. His story is mine.

    This is how I want to enter Holy Week. It is how I invited our people here to enter Holy Week.

    I did not feel helped by the words of the Preface: “Though innocent, he suffered willingly for sinners and accepted unjust condemnation to save the guilty.” This can, with some effort, be taken in the sense I proposed, but the predominant understanding tends towards what I outlined at the start. I can understand the words, but are they pastorally good?

    Is there anyone else who was somewhat uncomfortable with the words of the Palm Sunday Mass as we have them in our current…

  8. Long ago my seminary liturgy professor pointed out that Passion Sunday is one of the only times the Missal (then Sacramentary) gives specific instructions about preaching, and then it is to say that a BRIEF homily MAY be given. He told us we should take the hint and trust that the rituals themselves, when they are well done, speak at a profound level that doesn’t always need more words. And so I strive to trust that the delight of people from children to grandparents waving palms and red streamers at passersby in a parade that stretched around the block, as well as the deep stillness that settled over the assembly as we all knelt in a long silence at the death of Jesus in the passion proclamation will live in hearts long after anything i might say.

  9. I too think that Palm Sunday deserves a solid (and full-length, whatever one takes that to mean) homily. Between that fact that the readings point us directly to some of the most important and central realities of Christian faith and the fact that this liturgy represents our entry into some of the most important days of the Christian year, it seems fitting that the homilist help us to be aware of and reflect on all of that.

    No one interested enough get themselves to church on Sunday morning is going to begrudge a preacher speaking for 8 or 10 minutes on this day, if the homily is a good one. It’s that latter clause, of course, that is the clincher.

  10. I must admit that I had never noticed that the Missal specifies on Palm Sunday “a brief homily, if appropriate” (implying that a homily might not be appropriate). Interestingly, on Good Friday the Missal does not seem to make the homily optional.

  11. @Lee Bacchi (#15):

    1) If time is that tight (and I am unsure whether that counts as a ‘pastoral’ reason anyway!), then read the full Passion and omit the homily afterwards, as the rubrics of the Missal allow one to do. There is very little one could say in a homily that is more important than the Passion!

    2) Re. omitting one of the readings: one can only do that if the conference of bishops has allowed it (cf. General Introduction to the Lectionary, no. 79). Has the USCCB decreed that the use of only two readings at Sunday Mass is permitted (I can’t find any information online)?

    I’ll also point out that, while the second edition of the GIRM mentions that “for pastoral reasons and by decree of the conference of bishops the use of two readings is allowed in some places” (no. 318), in the corresponding paragraph of the third edition any mention of two readings being permissible is omitted, as is any mention of the conference of bishops (cf. no. 357). Indeed, the sentence “These readings should be followed strictly” is added!

    3) Just because something can be done does not mean that it ought to be done. For instance, one can use EP2 on Sundays, but one really ought not to (cf. GIRM no. 365). IMO, the use of the short form of the Passion falls into this category.

    1. @Matthew Hazell – comment #16:

      Has the USCCB decreed that the use of only two readings at Sunday Mass is permitted (I can’t find any information online)?

      Not the USCCB but Rome itself. Try the 1973 Directory on Masses with Children, paras 19 (often overlooked), 42-44 (especially 42) and 46 (final sentence). This very pastoral document and the EPs for Masses with Children that followed in 1974 paved the way for pastoral adaptations for adults, too, though few bishops’ conferences have taken heed of those implications (the Canadians spring to mind).

  12. @Paul Inwood (#17): I find myself at a loss as to how a Directory that mainly deals with Masses where “only a few adults are present” (Puer. Bap., n. 20) has anything to do with whether it is permissible to have only two readings on a typical Sunday where adults are in the majority.

    1. @Matthew Hazell – comment #18:

      Matthew, have you read the document? Para 19 that I cited is part of Chapter Two, “Masses with Adults in which Children Also Participate”, and it says “Wherever the bishop permits, in addition to the adaptations already provided in the Order of Mass, one or other of the particular adaptations described later in the Directory may be employed in a Mass celebrated with adults in which children also participate.” In other words, even if children are not in the majority, you can still use adaptations provided in the later chapters.

    1. @Matthew Hazell – comment #20:

      Indeed. I think you’ll find that many clergy operate on the pastoral principle that what has not been forbidden is permitted.

      My purpose in mentioning DMC was to demonstrate that GILM and GIRM are not the end of the story. People forget that there are other documents in play, too, rather like proponents of the Graduale Romanum who forget about the Graduale Simplex or proponents of GIRM who forget about the Cermonial of Bishops. The canvas is often broader than we think.

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