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Palm Sunday: Creative approaches

Dear Choralist,

This is, at last, a compilation of your responses for ideas on Palm Sunday. I
ended up making the Passion Gospel into a script, and had people minimally
dramatize the story. I interspersed it with the chorales "Herzliebster Jesu"
and " O Sacred Head", so that the congregation could optimally participate.

The most dramatic part was during the recounting of the taunting of Jesus,
with the crown of thorns, scarlet cloak and sceptered reed, for which we sang
"To Mock Your Reign" on the "Third Tune" of Tallis, the text by F. Pratt
Green, (# 170 Episc. Hymnal 1982). 'Jesus' was at the crossing and at each
verse an acolyte slowly walked down the middle of the chancel to perform the
action from behind (placing the crown, cloak and reed).

I felt fortunate to have found an anthem for the Offering based on the same
Tallis tune arr. by Donald Busarow that had an alternate text by Rev. Rolland
Schloerb, who had been a military officer, and the piece had a plea against
violence and war. So it was totally congruent given the present situation in
the world. The title of the piece was "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say". The
congregation sang the last verse with us as a doxology. All in all, people
were blown away and said it was the most powerful Palm Sunday service they'd
ever been to!

To the fellow who wanted me to check with my Rector about "creativity", the
Rector encourages creativity and was very moved himself.

Thanks to all who responded; your ideas follow:
Cynthia Powell

Have you seen "Liturgy of the Palms" by Jody Lindh, Choristers Guild
Publication? Is is a unison drama, including scripture reading at the
beginning We are also doing "All Glory Laud and Honor" for bells and chimes
with processional (which will include all the children bringing palm
branches in the processional to the front of the church); a short prelude
for bells and chimes; and opening hymn with bell, chime, and organ

I don't know if it is more dramatic from a theater perspective, but I am
doing a set of William Dawson spirituals that are centered around the
Lenten/Holy Week texts and themes.
Make the Palm Sunday liturgy MORE dramatic? I thought it's been pretty
dramatic for centuries, particularly with its processions (adults & children)
around local streets (or the church parking lot) and through the church's
main door and circling a few times around the pews with palms in hand,
singing some of the great hymns for that day, or reading a litany with the
congregation shouting "Hosanna" periodically. That's pretty HIGH church, if
you ask me. Whatever is done sets up the incredible happy contrast with the
sad events of the following Good Friday.

Have you consulted your priest? He might resent your "creativity".
We begin the service HIGH and CELEBRATIVE! The choir processes waving palm
branches. We follow the lectionary for Palm Sunday. Following the sermon,
we sing a Kyrie as a Response to the Word. Then at the offertory, we begin
"winding down" from celebrative to contemplative mode.......our anthem is one
focusing on Holy Week. No doxology. There is no recessional hymn. Instead,
the congregation is seated while the choir sings "On the Road to Jerusalem"
by Joseph Martin. The powerful text is printed in the bulletin. The final
words of the anthem are.........On the road to Jerusalem rides the Man of
Sorrows. 'Save us, King', the people cry. What will they cry tomorrow?"

Then, in silence, the crucifer and torchbearers and all acolytes lead the
choir and clergy in silent procession while a single bell is tolled on the
carillon. It is a moving moment.

The reason I went in this direction several years ago was because I realized
that many of our parish come to Palm Sunday services and do not attend any of
the Holy Week services. They return on Easter morning. So, that means that
they do not experience the profound depth of Holy Week. Instead, they go
from a big Palm Sunday service straight into a big Easter celebration. This
has had a far-reaching effect. The Maundy Thursday communion service and
Good Friday Tenebrae service attendance has steadily increased over the past
several years.
My church has done a readings/music service for several years on Palm/Passion
Sunday. We had several different readers do the scripture, and it was
interspersed with choir anthems and congregational hymns. Soloists would also
have been nice, but unfortunately there were none available last year. This
service lasted about one hour and mayn in the congregation found it very

Some years we have had a more dramatic presentation, kind of using the same
format, but instead of readings the story was acted out in a simple fashion
using just the occassional prop and some costuming but no scenery as such.
Once we had someone dressed as Jesus carry a large wooden cross down the
aisle. It was very moving.

My church is Presbyterian, by the way, but I would think this type of service
could fit in many different denominations. I hope this is helpful to you. I
think all of us church musicians keep looking for fresh ideas.
There are many ways to do this service. Not being in a church job at the
moment, I've lost track of what year we're in, but generally speaking the
actual reading of the Passion allows for creative variation. Instead of
reprinting the reading as is prescribed in the Prayer Book, edit it and give
each character a different voice. We've used a woman from India as Jesus
before -- very effective! We also had a legislator, who has been cast as
Pilate (much to her chagrin, but she has a great sense of humor!) Another
time we used a judge. Blessed with professional and amateur actors, we were
always able to put together a great and dramatic "cast." Of course, the
congregation is still the voice of the crowd, but pepper your congregation
with those who aren't afraid to "get into it" and really shout.

One year -- I forget which gospel it was: the one which ends "Truly this was
the Son of God" -- the choir rose on that last line and I gave the downbeat
for "Solus ad Victimam" by Kenneth Leighton. If you don't know the piece,
take a look. It is very dramatic, slow and chromatic, setting of a Peter
Abiliard (sp) text, around 11th century. It depicts Jesus dragging the
cross, and then becomes a wail of guilt over Christ's suffering for our sins.
Believe it or not, it is really not very difficult to teach, and the ending
is very dramatic.

AFter the gospel reading, we are plunged by the liturgy into Passion Week.
This is, probably, because so many parishes do not have full attendance for
during-Holy-Week services, so they have to prepare for Easter on Palm
Sunday. So use Passion pieces during communion. No donkey rides allowed
after the gospel.

If you are in the habit of singing At the Presentation of the offering
plates, use a verse from O Sacred Head, like "What language shall I borrow"
v. 4, instead of a doxological text. Or if you really want to pack a punch,
use the second or fourth verse of Ah, holy Jesus (H158). That'll REALLY get

Close with a Holy Week hymn, and if you want to "reprise" H158, let verse 2
be without accompaniment. That is always very effective; the congregation
feels like they are more personally involved in the singing, and they really
connect with the text.
What I have to start with is a book called, "Celebrating Special Days:
Worship Services for all Occasions.' It's published by Abingdom Press and
has the Matthew reading scripted for 12 people -- although that's adaptable.
I've gone through and found hymns (2 hymns from Gather, then other various
stuff I've found) and interspersed. It's nothing too exciting, but it may
make the reading more interesting.
Last year my church choir used the plainchant setting of the passsion gospel
for all the solo parts, and used the Orlando di Lassus settings for the
crowd. I thought it was pretty effective.
There are no limits. In several of the Lutheran churches I know, the
morning will begin with a PALM SUNDAY motif, with branches, parading, and
finally settling down. The rest of the service will focus on PASSION, with
a reading of the passion narrative from one of the gospels. I like to do
the reading responsively, with the congregation taking part as often as
possible, and readers projecting from different regions of the sanctuary.
These readings get interspersed with hymn tunes, maybe only a couple of
verses, so that several different tunes can all be used within 70 minutes
or so.
Generally, the gospel narrative gets the center. There are many passion
cantatas in our own time as well--Hopson, Wagner, Harlan, Butler, Martin,
Martin, Pote--and of course, lots of works from Bach on down. Using these
to intersperse gospel readings always seems worshipful. I always prefer to
be connected to a church with multiple services on these occasions, so the
choir and readers get to share more than once.

Your note is very open. Creating rich passion centered services is pretty
easy, given the availability of music.
At a meeting last evening, a member of our Liturgy committee suggested having
an individual come into the Church riding a donkey.... While the congregation
waves palms and sings....Interesting.... Is that what you meant? We're
planning to process around the Church, then to the altar to begin the regular
A few years ago, we adapted Hal Hopson's "Tenebrae: A Service of Darkness"
(Warner Bros. Publications) for use on Palm Sunday. After the procession
with everyone singing "All Glory, Laud, and Honor" we worked through the
events of Holy Week up to the Passion, using readings and music from this
piece. It can be done very effectively with a string quartet and oboe.