The Power of Holy Week: Its History and What It Means for Christians
Holy Week, the final week of Lent, stands at the head of the Christian calendar. Undoubtedly the holiest week of the entire liturgical year, Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and continues through Easter Sunday. This seven-day period powerfully encompasses and celebrates the Paschal Mystery, Christ’s passion and death, His victorious resurrection – triumph over sin and death – and subsequent glorification by His Father.
What you will first witness in most Churches during Holy Week is the color variations – each having its own meaning. Most decorations during this time are red to symbolize the blood of martyrdom. Some churches remove all decorations on Good Friday, veiling anything that cannot be removed in either black or purple. Holy water is also removed from the fonts in Churches on Good Friday and Holy Saturday in preparation for the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil. This removal also corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated.
A Little History
Holy Week observances began in Jerusalem in the earliest days of the Church. During this time, devout Christians traveled to Jerusalem at Passover in order to reenact the events of the week leading up to Christ’s Resurrection.
Egeria was a Christian woman who traveled widely during the period of 381-385 and wrote about Christian customs and observances in Egypt, Palestine, and Asia Minor. She described in detail how religious tourists to Jerusalem reenacted the events of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday afternoon, the crowds waved palm fronds as they made a procession from the Mount of Olives into the city. Of course, the observances must have begun quite a number of years before Egeria witnessed them or they wouldn’t have been so elaborate. What Egeria’s description depicts, however, is the earliest accounts we still have to date. Just think, these accounts are from the three-hundreds!
Holy week observances had spread to Spain by the fifth century, to Gaul and England by the early seventh century. But they hadn’t spread to Rome until the twelfth century.
So then what’s the purpose?
The primary purpose of Holy Week is to reenact, relive, and participate in the passion of Jesus Christ our Lord. It should be noted that Holy Week is the same in the eastern and western Church. Because eastern Christians use the Julian Calendar to calculate Easter however, the celebrations occur at different times. That stated, the following events in the week before Easter are the same, east and west, relative to the date of Easter:
• Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday), the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem.
• Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday), the institution of Communion and the betrayal by Judas.
• Good Friday, the arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus Christ.
• Holy Saturday, the Sabbath on which Jesus rested in the grave.
The time from sundown on Holy Thursday to sundown on Easter Day is also known as the Triduum, which is Latin for “three days.”
A more in-depth look
Palm-Passion Sunday is a dual feast. Palm Sunday because palm branches are blessed and carried in procession to commemorate the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem, and Passion Sunday because the Passion Narrative is proclaimed. It is the only Sunday when two separate gospels are read.
The Passion is the longest Sunday Gospel of the year. The Mass has two jarringly different moods, jubilation at the outset, then lamentation. Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem was exuberant as the people joyfully cheered Hosanna to greet Him; but moments later all is somber. First, we witness the Suffering Servant who gave His back to those who beat Him (Isaiah 50:6). Then, Jesus who obediently accepts death on the Cross (Philippians 2:8). Ultimately, the Passion and Christ’s agony, scourging, and crucifixion (Matthew 26:14-27:66).
The primary symbol for Palm Sunday is the palms. The palms signify the people regarding Jesus as their victorious King. There are many symbols for the Passion: a single cross, three crosses, the cup of suffering, thirty pieces of silver, a lantern, swords and clubs, a blade and a severed ear, handcuffs or shackles, a rooster crowing, a scourging pillar, whips, a crown of thorns, a reed, three nails, hammer and pincers, a rope, the INRI inscription, a sprig of hyssop, three dice, a tunic, a lance, a ladder, an urn for spices, a shroud or burial linens, and a skull.
What you can do for Palm Sunday
Take some palms home and use them to venerate a crucifix or decorate a statue, picture, or sacred object. Try to go off by yourself and re-read some or all of the Passion and meditate on it. If there are others at home, discuss what it would have been like to have been part of the Palm Sunday procession, to have been standing along the Way of the Cross as Jesus passed by, or at Calvary when Jesus was crucified.
The Easter Triduum
The Triduum is the most solemn moment of the church year. It lasts three days. It begins on Holy Thursday evening with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, continues with the celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, and reaches its culmination with the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday. It ends with Evening Prayer late Easter Sunday afternoon.
What you can do for the Triduum
These days are the “high holy days” of our Christian faith. As Jews would stream to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover in the Temple, Catholics stream to their local Churches to celebrate these sacred mysteries with their parish communities. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil are not holy days of obligation, but if there ever was a time that we should want to go to Church these three holy days would be it. The Triduum is a time to place other things in life on hold while our faith gets top priority.
Triduum Fasting: Part Two
With the arrival of Holy Thursday, the forty days of Lent and its disciplines are now over. Whatever a person’s special program was for Lent, whether it was to give something up, add extra prayers, do good deeds, or share alms, the spiritual disciplines are concluded. However, one must not relax too quickly. As soon as the forty-day Lenten fast ends, a new three-day fast begins. This is referred to as the Triduum Fast, a period of even more intense self-denial in immediate preparation for the greatest feast of all – Easter!
Yes, it is customary to extend the Lenten discipline three additional days. Many decide to make one or more key additions such as an extra holy hour of adoration, a special out-of-the-way visit to Church, an extended period of silence, no TV, or maybe three days of fasting from physical food. It also involves a spiritual fast. Good Friday is a powerful experience wherein there is not only no Mass, but the only day of the year when the Universal Church foregoes reception of the holy Eucharist altogether.
The Easter Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The Mass recounts the establishment of the Jewish feast of Passover and commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, priesthood, and foot washing. John’s placement of the foot washing, where the other evangelists place the Last Supper, conveys his belief that the real presence of Christ is found not only in the Eucharist but in service. Indeed, Jesus gave us His mandate: “You ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example. As I have done, so you should also do” (John 13:14, 15). Jesus is made present when disciples put aside their prideful aspirations, humble themselves and serve one another, even to the point of doing such “menial tasks” with a joy and zeal for the Lord.
The symbols of foot washing are a basin, water pitcher, and towel. The symbols of the Eucharist are a host and a chalice, wheat and grapes, a loaf or basket of bread and a jug of wine, and five loaves and two fish. The symbols of the priesthood are a stole, a book of the Gospels, a host and a chalice, and a censer.
What you can do on Holy Thursday
If your parish offers a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament after Holy Thursday Mass, consider taking advantage of the opportunity. Offer a prayer that your priest might be devoted to the Eucharist and a humble servant. Be on the lookout for someone who might need assistance and gladly help without drawing attention to yourself.
The celebration of the Lord’s Passion is a somber liturgy with three major parts: the proclamation of the Passion, the veneration of the Cross, and the reception of Holy Communion. In addition, there is an extended set of General Intercessions with ten petitions for some of the most important concerns for the Church and the world.
The symbol of Good Friday is the Crucifix, a cross with a corpus or body of the crucified Jesus. Other artistic forms of the cross are also commonly used. For the symbols of the Passion, see Passion Sunday above.
What you can do for Good Friday
It is worthwhile to set aside some silent time, particularly between the hours of 12:00 noon and 3:00 p.m. Be sure that at least one crucifix is prominently displayed in the home. Veneration of the cross is not just for Good Friday, but for every day of the year! Good Friday is an ideal day to offer Jesus a prayer of thanks for all He suffered on our behalf, and to renew our pledge to avoid the sins that we have committed that put Him on the Cross.
Weeks of fasting and self-denial are directed toward the highest point of the Church year, the Easter Vigil, the feast of the resurrection. It ranks first because our entire faith hinges on it. As Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:17). Indeed, the pillar of our faith is that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). In this firm conviction, the Church rejoices with all of the energy it can muster: Alleluia!
The Easter Vigil begins with the Service of Light, the lighting of the Easter Candle and the singing of the Easter Proclamation called the Exsultet. After an extended Liturgy of the Word, the Vigil continues with the Liturgy of Baptism during which the Litany of Saints is sung, the water of the font is blessed, baptismal promises are made, the candidates are baptized and, for the adults, confirmation is received. The Vigil concludes with the Liturgy of the Eucharist and first Holy Communion for the newly initiated members.
The primary symbol of the Vigil is the Easter Candle, also known as the Paschal or Christ Candle, as well as the symbols for baptism: water, a seashell, the font, oil, the white baptismal garment, the baptismal candle, a dove, and three interlocking fish which represent the Trinitarian formula.
Easter Sunday is the daytime celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord. The congregation is jubilant over the risen Christ and the triumph of His most holy Cross. The Church is festively decorated. The vestments are white and gold. The Glory to God and the Alleluia are now restored. Alleluia! The Creed is replaced with the renewal of baptismal promises, followed by a sprinkling rite. The Church resounds with a joyful sound: Jesus Christ is risen today! He is risen indeed!
Easter symbols include the Easter Cross, a plain cross without a corpus draped in flowing white or gold fabrics; three empty crosses; lilies; the palm of victory; an empty tomb; an empty sarcophagus; an empty casket; a pile of burial wrapping; the hand of God; the morning sun; a butterfly; a cracked Easter egg; a trumpet; a Phoenix; pomegranates; a peacock; and the Easter Candle.
What you can do on Easter Sunday
Celebrate! The Good News cannot and should not be contained! Share the Good News with someone today. Jesus preached love, and He died out of love for us. On Easter Sunday go out of your way to love someone with all your might because where there is love … there is the risen Christ!
Holy Week from the Biblical Text
Friday: Preparation Day – the Passover
The disciples arranged for the Passover meal, which took place after sundown on Thursday. We might call it Friday Eve, because by Jewish reckoning, the day begins with the previous sunset. That’s why we call 24 December “Christmas Eve.”
Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover in the upper room. They ate it early, which was not uncommon. In that era, most Passover Seders did not include lamb, because most Jews lived too far away from the Temple to obtain a lamb that was kosher for Passover. Therefore the disciples, who were from Galilee, would have been accustomed to a Passover Seder without lamb. Judas left during the meal. Jesus and the remaining disciples adjourned to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed and the disciples kept falling asleep. Judas arrived to betray Jesus, who spent the rest of the night being tried by the Sanhedrin and by Pilate.
The following morning, which was still the same day by Jewish reckoning, the Crucifixion significantly took place just as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple. Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:55-56, and John 19:31 all inform us that this took place on Preparation Day, which is the Jewish name for Friday. Mark and John explain that the next day was the Sabbath. Later the disciples realized that in giving them the bread and pronouncing it His body, Jesus Himself had been the Passover lamb at the Last Supper. Thus Jesus, our Passover lamb, was sacrificed for our sins on Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7), and His blood protects us from the angel of death. Jesus died on the Cross and was buried before sunset. So Friday was the first day Jesus lay in the tomb.
Saturday: The Jewish Sabbath
Jesus rested in the tomb on the Sabbath. According to Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1-3, and Luke 23:56-24:3, the day before the Resurrection was a Sabbath. This is the second day that Jesus’ body lay in the tomb.
Sunday: The first day of the week – the Festival of First Fruits
On the third day, Jesus rose from the grave. It was the first day of the week and the day after the Sabbath, according to Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1-3, Luke 23:56-24:3. John 20:1 says the Resurrection took place on the first day of the week. He does not explicitly say that the previous day was the Sabbath, but there is no room in his narrative for any intervening days. The first day of the week is the Jewish name for Sunday. Sunday is also the eighth day after the creation in Genesis, so Paul describes Jesus’ Resurrection as the first fruits of the new creation in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23.
• Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all inform us that the Last Supper and the Crucifixion took place on Preparation Day;
• Mark and John inform us that the next day, the day after the Crucifixion, was the Sabbath;
• Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John inform us that the Resurrection took place on the first day of the week;
• Matthew, Mark, and Luke inform us that the day before the Resurrection was the Sabbath, and John heavily implies it.
An even deeper look
Ancient Christian writers confirm this reconstruction. In The Apostolic Constitutions, Book V, Section III, it says that the Last Supper occurred on the fifth day of the week (Thursday), that Jesus was crucified on the next day (Friday), and rose on the first day (Sunday), and it explicitly states that this constitutes three days and three nights. The Apostolic Constitutions uses Roman-style midnight-to-midnight days, so this squares with the New Testament’s use of sundown-to-sundown days. It also says that Jesus gave the apostles a commandment to pass on to us, to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays – the first to commemorate His betrayal, the second to commemorate His passion on the Cross.
It is obvious therefore, that the Crucifixion took place on a Friday; that Jesus rested in the tomb on Saturday and rose from the grave on Sunday. You might ask why the Gospel writers didn’t just come right out and say that it was Friday, Saturday, and Sunday? The answer is – they did – for the circumstances under which they wrote. They were writing for an audience beyond Palestine and, in the Roman Empire of the first century, there was no general consensus about the names of the days of the week, number of the current year, names and lengths of the months, date of the new year, or time at which the day began. On that last point, the day began at midnight in Egypt, at sunrise in Greece, and at sunset in Palestine. So even though it is not what we are used to, the Gospels are really worded in such a way as to make the dates and times comprehensible to anyone in the Roman Empire … especially those familiar with Jewish Scripture.
Think of it this way: when you count days you get a different answer than when you subtract dates. If you go to a three-day seminar that begins on Friday, you expect it to end on Sunday, because Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are three days. However, if you subtract the date of Friday from the date of Sunday, the answer is two elapsed days. The ancients counted days instead of calculating elapsed time; in fact, Jesus Himself counted days this way in Luke 13:31-32. This is why the tradition is universal that Jesus spent three days in the tomb when He was buried on Friday and rose from the dead on Sunday. All intervals in the Jewish and Christian calendars are calculated the same way, which is precisely why Pentecost falls on a Sunday and not on a Monday.
Now then …
God Bless you! Enjoy this holiest time of year with prayer and thanksgiving. You are loved!