Celebrating Palm Sunday with Matthew’s Passion Narrative

Thomas O’Loughlin

The voices we hear reading the Passion during Holy Week can enhance the liturgical occasion, but alongside the opportunities there are pitfalls to avoid, writes Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

Twice each year, on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the reading of the gospel becomes visibly a liturgical event in its own right. On these occasions the dramatic reading with several voices may replace the solitary tone of the deacon/priest. Yet in most parishes this is not only a missed opportunity to do something which can enhance the whole celebration, but can become something counter-productive to good communication. At the very least it can become a shambles of voices coming in off-cue, lines-lost, or confused mumbling (‘Whose line is it?’ ‘Who’s that voice supposed to represent?’). At worst it can send hidden signals to the congregation about how we view the Passion, the Jews, and the ministry of proclamation.

The traditional format of using several voices to read the Passion has much to recommend it: the unusual style picks out this reading as special; and given that the Passion on Palm Sunday is the longest Sunday reading of the year, the variety of voices makes the story easier to follow and less monotonous. However, some points should be noted about reading it in this way. First, if people are ‘following it’ in booklets, then they are not listening but engaged in a kind of semi-reading / semi-listening that has the disadvantages of both activities, without the particular benefit of either.

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