Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ride on to die

It's Palm Sunday again, and I was reminded anew of the incredible power of this service - the reason why we asked students in "Religion & Theater" to attend a Palm Sunday service. One begins in high festive mood, clergy vested in a bright red, crucifixes festooned with palms, and children handing out palm fronds to everyone in the congregation. We sing the joyous hymn "All glory, laud and honor to thee, Redeemer, King!" and process outside the church. When we return, the lights in the church have dimmed; the clergy are taking off their bright garments and stripping the altar, as red cloth - suddenly not bright but bloody - is stretched over all images of Christ; and we sing this terrible hymn:There's an older setting, but this modern one is full of strange and painful modulations (minor and also major); the organ crashes through them, its final sounds before falling silent for the duration of Holy Week. (It will return, accompanied by brass, with the return of light in the festive turn of the Easter Vigil.) The Palm Sunday service has only begun - soon follows a dramatic reading of the passion. The sorrow of the dimming of the lights will be drawn out at Tenebrae Wednesday night, ending with the light of a single candle. The brutality of the stripping of the altar will be repeated on Good Friday. But there is something aw(e)fully powerful in the opening of the Palm Sunday liturgy, the whole terrible mystery lived out in Holy Week compressed into one thing... all of it but Easter.

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