The Preacher's Toolbox: Preaching from the Sidewalk—The Palm Sunday Procession

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When we celebrate ceremonies like the Palm Sunday procession, faith makes its way more deeply into our bones.

Palm Sunday presents an opportunity for your entire congregation to preach. Not that folks will be lining up at the pulpit, open-mic style, no, it is preaching we take to the streets. I would like to encourage you to consider a Palm Sunday procession, outdoors, around the church, shoot, around the block, if you can swing it. Just get God’s people moving.

Christians have practiced processions for more than 1700 years. According to historian Francis X. Weiser, once Christianity became a recognized religion by the Roman Empire in the fourth century, believers celebrated their newfound freedom by re-enacting the Savior’s solemn entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before Easter. Already in the ninth century, the same hymn accompanied the pilgrims that we sing in our processions today, Gloria, Laus et Honor:

All glory, laud, and honor
To You, Redeemer, King,
To whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring.

 In addition to recalling the historical events of Jesus’ triumphal entry, though, what is the significance of the Palm Sunday procession? As with so many of the Church’s ceremonies, there is more going on here than meets the eye. Inasmuch as it is forming the faith of the faithful and bearing witness to the King, the Palm Sunday procession is preaching. Let us look at some of the ways it does so.

  1. Palm Sunday processions dramatize faith.

There is an aspect of the Palm Sunday procession in which it is a sort of sacred play-acting, a pageant involving the whole people of God. Some might wish to downplay this dramatic aspect, thinking it detracts from the solemnity of the service, but I disagree.

Faith is an embodied thing. It is not merely a matter of the head, but of the heart and hands as well. When we celebrate ceremonies like the Palm Sunday procession, faith makes its way more deeply into our bones. This is especially valuable for children, but in truth, all of us benefit from a more dramatic expression of our Christianity. Palm Sunday is a chance to do so without even using a cheesy chancel drama.[1]

Faith is an embodied thing. It is not merely a matter of the head, but of the heart and hands as well.

  1. Palm Sunday processions aid personal devotion.

The palms generally, and the Palm Sunday procession in particular, can also be an aid to personal devotion. In the Middle Ages, Christians began the tradition of folding their palms into the shape of a cross. These would oftentimes be placed over the entry of the home as a good luck charm which warded off malicious forces.

We can retain the spirit of this practice without continuing its more superstitious elements. I remember my home growing up always having a palm frond pressed behind a cross or picture of the Lord, and my family continues this custom today (though the palm might not make it through the whole year). This is another way to keep the message resounding in the hearts and homes of God’s people.

  1. Palm Sunday processions honor the martyrs.

There is another feature to the Palm Sunday procession that is easily missed, which is its connection with and commemoration of the martyrs of the faith. In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John receives a vision of the saints and angels gathered around God’s throne. He writes this:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb (Revelation 7:9–10)!

As you make your way around the church parking lot with palm branches, extolling “our good and gracious King” (as the hymn puts it), you join the company of the faithful who confessed their faith, even at the cost of their lives.

  1. Palm Sunday processions make public profession.

The Palm Sunday procession makes the story of the Gospel accessible, and even fun. It recalls the heroes of the Church and provides an aid to personal devotion. But inasmuch as it is also done outside, on the sidewalks and in full view of your neighbors, it also makes a public profession of our faith.

The Palm Sunday procession makes the story of the Gospel accessible, and even fun.

Author Timothy Maschke writes, “Early Christians understood such processions as a churchly enactment of the coronation processions held when kings or emperors were crowned.” It is a token way of publicly professing our Lord’s kingship, and subtly signals to the congregation that they are similarly sent to carry this message outside the walls of the church and the hours of Sunday morning.

Proclaiming Another City

In a seminal essay published nearly two decades ago, “The Church as Culture,” historian Robert Louis Wilken reflected on how Christ Jesus incarnates Himself in these ceremonial and, indeed, cultural expressions of the faith. He wrote:

If Christ is culture, let the sidewalks be lit with fire on Easter Eve, let traffic stop for a column of Christians waving palm branches on a spring morning, let streets be blocked off as the faithful gather for a Corpus Christi procession. Then will others know there is another city in their midst, another commonwealth, one that has its face, like the faces of angels, turned toward the face of God.[2]

As Christians, we are resident aliens, citizens of another Kingdom. When we process with palm branches in our hands, singing out “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” we proclaim anew our allegiance to King Jesus. That is a message worth preaching from the housetops... and the sidewalks.


[1] I am not hating on chancel dramas, just the cheesy ones.

[2] To get a feel for what this looked like, check out Episode 1 of the British documentary series “Tudor Monastery Farm.” It is available on Amazon Prime.