Palm/Passion Sunday, the great transition. . .
Music for Palm Sunday moves us from triumphant celebration–complete with lively, energetic organ preludes and wild palm-waving by the children in a special parade at the start of worship–to the somber realization that all is not well. . .at least not yet. For all our exuberant Hosannas, for all our easy naming of Jesus as triumphant "King for a Day," the fact remains that the Lord of Life has come to die, and it is because of us–because of our grievous transgressions–that this is taking place.
By the time we get to our Offertory music, which includes Buxtehude’s beautiful organ setting of O Sacred Head at 8:30, and Mozart’s intensely driving setting of Psalm 130 (De Profundis) sung by the Chancel Choir at 11:00, the Hosannas are beginning to die away as worship shifts to an altogether darker place. Because April 1st is also Communion Sunday, the celebration of the Eucharist aids in our sorrowful transition, providing space for solemn reflection as we begin the walk to the cross.
The De Profundis is one of a number of ancient Penitential Psalms (also called Psalms of Confession), so-called because they are especially expressive of sorrow for sin. Traditionally, they include the following Psalms: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. Four were already known as Penitential Psalms by St. Augustine in the early 5th century. Psalm 51 (known as the Miserere) was recited at the close of daily morning worship in the early church. Musically, Psalms 51 and 130 are the most significant, having served as vehicles for a great deal of wonderful music through the centuries. In our hymnal, see Hymn 240 for a wonderful example of a Lutheran chorale based on Psalm 130. Its ancient melody, Aus tiefer Not, is intentionally complex and uncomfortable. Along with texts like the Lamentations of Jeremiah, these powerful Psalms quickly took their places as important traditional elements of musical expression during Holy Week. If you attend Maundy Thursday worship, you’ll notice that Psalm 130 appears again, this time as an ancient Hebrew chant with only the Psalm’s first two verses as text. The Chancel Choir will sing the haunting melody as a round, and the effect is powerful indeed.
Our final hymn on Palm/Passion Sunday, O Sacred Head, contains all the pain and agony of Christ’s crucifixion. This famous chorale is the epitome of the Holy Week struggle and a fitting lament to lead us into Christ’s Passion. The final Amen (O Lamb of God) and the organ postlude both reinforce the somber power of this dark anticipatory glimpse into the agony of Holy Week, a difficult, but necessary part of our journey into eventual Easter joy.