Holy Week begins with commemoration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, climaxing with the Last Supper and Passion of Jesus on Good Friday, ending with his Sabbath rest in the grave on Holy Saturday.
The resurrection of Jesus on third day, is celebrated as Easter, and marks the beginning of a new week, Easter week and the season of Eastertide.
Holy Week liturgies generally attract the largest crowds of the year. Many Christian cultures have different traditions like church attendance, floats, sculptures of Christ’s life, arrest and burial and contributing to the Great Feasts, to echo the theme of resurrection.
PALM SUNDAY (PASSION SUNDAY)
Holy week begins with Palm Sunday, which may also be known as Passion Sunday in some denominations. Traditionally, Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entry into Jerusalem described in all four canonical gospels. As described in the accounts, Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem was noted by the crowds present who shouted praises and waved palm branches. In the roman rite, before 1955 it was known simply as Palm Sunday, and the preceding Sunday as Passion Sunday.
In many liturgical denominations, to commemorate the messiah’s entry into Jerusalem to accomplish his paschal mystery, it is customary to have a blessing of palm leaves (or other branches, for example olive branches). The blessing ceremony includes the reading of a gospel account of how Jesus rode into Jerusalem humbly on a donkey, reminiscent of a Davidic victory procession, and how people placed palms and other branches on the ground in front of him.
Immediately following this great time of celebration over the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, he begins his journey to the cross. The blessing is thus followed by a procession or solemn entrance into the church, with the participants holding the blessed branches in their hands. The mass or liturgy of worship itself includes a reading of the passion, the narrative of Jesus’ capture, sufferings and death, as recounted in one of the synoptic gospels. (In the tridentate mass the passion narrative read on this day is always that of St. Matthew.)
Before the reform of the rite by Pope Pius xii, the blessing of the palms occurred inside the church within a liturgy that followed the general outline of a mass, with collect, epistle and gospel, as far as the Sanctus. The palms were then blessed with five prayers, and a procession went out of the church and on its return included a ceremony for the reopening of the doors, which had meantime been shut. After this the normal mass was celebrated.
Many churches of mainstream Christian denominations, including the Lutheran, catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Moravian and reformed traditions, distribute palm branches to their congregations during their Palm Sunday liturgies. Christians take these palms, which are often blessed by clergy, to their homes where they hang them alongside Christian art (especially crosses and crucifixes) or keep them in their bibles or devotionals.
HOLY MONDAY AND HOLY TUESDAY
The days between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday are known as Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, and Holy Wednesday (spy Wednesday). The gospel accounts are not always clear or in agreement on the events which occurred on these days, though there are traditional observances held by some denominations to commemorate certain events from the last days of Jesus Christ’s life. Among them
- On holy Monday, Jesus cursed the fig tree, cleansed the temple, and responded to questioning of his authority. Some observe the anointing of Jesus at Bethany (john 12:1–11), an event that in the gospel of john occurred before the palm Sunday event described in john 12:12–19.
- On holy Tuesday, some observe Christ’s predictions of his own death, as described in john 12:20–36 and john 13:21–38. (In the tridentate mass the passion according to St. Mark is read instead.)
Holy Wednesday (spy Wednesday)
On holy Wednesday, the story of Judas arranging his betrayal of Jesus with the chief priests is remembered; he was a spy among the disciples of Jesus (Matthew). For this reason, the day is sometimes called “spy Wednesday”. (In the tridentate mass the passion according to St. Luke is read instead.) Other events connected with this date include the events at the house of Simon the leper, especially the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany, the events of which directly preceded the betrayal of Jesus by Judas to the Sanhedrin.
Tenebrae (Latin for “shadows” or “darkness”) is celebrated within western Christianity during holy week, especially on spy Wednesday. Tenebrae is distinctive for its gradual extinguishing of candles while a series of readings and psalms is chanted or recited. Tenebrae liturgies are celebrated by some parishes of the roman rite of the catholic church, of the polish national catholic church, of the Lutheran churches, of the Moravian, of the Anglican, of the Methodist, and of western rite orthodoxy within the eastern orthodox church.
Maundy Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday) commemorates the last supper, where Christ lays out the model for the Eucharist or Holy Communion. During the meal, Jesus predicted the events that would immediately follow, including his betrayal, the denial of peter, and his death and resurrection. Events of the last supper play varying roles in commemoration liturgies depending on the denomination.
In the Catholic Church, on this day the private celebration of mass is forbidden. thus, apart from the chrism mass for the blessing of the holy oils that the diocesan bishop may celebrate on the morning of holy Thursday, but also on some other day close to Easter, the only mass on this day is the evening mass of the lord’s supper, which inaugurates the period of three days, known as the Easter Triduum, that includes good Friday (seen as beginning with the liturgy of the preceding evening), holy Saturday and Easter Sunday up to evening prayer on that day. the chrism mass, whose texts the roman missal as well as the rubrics used in the Lutheran churches now gives under Maundy Thursday, but before the paschal triduum, which begins that evening, may be brought forward early in holy week, to facilitate participation by as many as possible of the clergy of the diocese together with the bishop. This mass was not included in editions of the roman missal before the time of pope Pius xii. In this mass, the bishop blesses separate oils for the sick (used in anointing of the sick), for catechumens (used in baptism) and chrism (used in baptism, but especially in confirmation and holy orders, as well as in rites such as the dedication of an altar and a church).
The mass of the lord’s supper commemorates the last supper of Jesus with his twelve apostles, “the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and the commandment of brotherly love that Jesus gave after washing the feet of his disciples.
All the bells of the church, including altar bells, may be rung during the Gloria in Excelsis deo of the mass (the Gloria is not traditionally sung on Sundays in lent). The bells then fall silent and the organ and other musical instruments may be used only to support the singing until the Gloria at the Easter. In some countries, children are sometimes told:
The roman missal recommends that, if considered pastorally appropriate, the priest should, immediately after the homily, celebrate the rite of washing the feet of an unspecified number of men, customarily twelve, recalling the number of the apostles.
In the catholic church and in Anglican churches of an Anglo-Catholic churchmanship, a sufficient number of hosts are consecrated for use also in the Good Friday liturgy, and at the conclusion the blessed sacrament is carried in procession to a place of reposition away from the main body of the church, which, if it involves an altar, is often called an “altar of repose“. In some places, notably the Philippines and Malta, Catholics will travel from church to church praying at each church’s altar of repose in a practice called “Visita Iglesia” or seven churches visitation.
In Methodist and Lutheran churches, the altar has black Paraments or the altar cloths are removed altogether. Methodist custom holds that apart from depictions of the Stations of the Cross, other images (such as the altar cross) continue the Lenten habitude of being veiled.
At the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday liturgy in Lutheran churches, the “lectern and pulpit are [also] left bare until Easter to symbolize the humiliation and barrenness of the cross in the catholic church, the altars of the church (except the one used for altar of repose) are later stripped quite bare and, to the extent possible, crosses are removed from the church or veiled in the pre-Vatican ii rite, crucifixes and statues are covered with violet covers during Passiontide, but the crucifix covers can be white instead of violet on Maundy Thursday).
Some catholic parishes and protestant churches practice the foot washing (Maundy) ceremony on Maundy.
The evening liturgical celebration on Holy Thursday begins the first of the three days of the Easter Triduum, which continues in an atmosphere of liturgical mourning throughout the next day in spite of the name “good” given in English to this Friday.
For catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, reformed and Anglican Christians, Good Friday is widely observed as a fast day a handbook for the discipline of lent recommends the Lutheran guideline to “fast on ash Wednesday and good Friday with only one simple meal during the day, usually without meat”. Western Catholic Church practice is to have only one full meal with, if needed, two small snacks that together do not make a full meal. The Anglican Communion defines fasting more generically as: “the amount of food eaten is reduced.
In some countries, such as Malta, Philippines, Italy, and Spain processions with statues representing the passion of Christ are held.
- The church mourns for Christ’s death, reveres the cross, and marvels at his life for his obedience until death.
- In the Catholic Church, the only sacraments celebrated are penance and anointing of the sick. While there is no celebration of the Eucharist, Holy Communion is distributed to the faithful only in the celebration of the lord’s passion, but can be taken at any hour to the sick that are unable to attend this liturgy.
- Outside the afternoon liturgical celebration, the altar remains completely bare in catholic churches, without altar cloth, candlesticks, or cross. In the Lutheran and Methodist churches, the altar is usually draped in black.
- It is customary to empty the holy water fonts in preparation for the blessing of the water at the Easter vigil.
- The celebration of the passion of the lord takes place in the afternoon, ideally at three o’clock, but for pastoral reasons a later hour may be chosen.
- Since 1970, in the Catholic Church the color of the vestments is red. The Lutheran church, Methodist church, and Presbyterian church continue to use black, as was the practice in the Catholic Church before 1970. If a bishop celebrates, he wears a plain Mitre.
- The roman rite liturgy consists of three parts: the liturgy of the word, the veneration of the cross, and Holy Communion.
Liturgy of the word
Prostration of the celebrant before the altar.
The readings from Isaiah 53 (about the suffering servant) and the epistle to the Hebrews are read.
The passion narrative of the gospel of john is sung or read, often divided between more than one singer or reader.
General intercessions: the congregation prays for the church, the pope, the Jews, non-Christians, unbelievers and others.
Veneration of the cross: a crucifix is solemnly unveiled before the congregation. The people venerate it on their knees. During this part, the “reproaches” are often sung.
Distribution of Holy Communion: hosts consecrated at the mass of the previous day are distributed to the people. (before the reform of pope Pius xii, only the priest received communion in the framework of what was called the “mass of the presanctified“, which included the usual offertory prayers, with the placing of wine in the chalice, but which omitted the canon of the mass.) the good Friday liturgy is not a mass, and in fact, celebration of catholic mass on Good Friday is forbidden. It is the Eucharist consecrated the evening before (Holy Thursday) that is distributed.
- Even if music is used in the liturgy, it is not used to open and close the liturgy, nor is there a formal recessional (closing procession).
- The solemnity and somberness of the occasion has encouraged the persistence over the centuries of liturgical forms without substantial modification.
- It was once customary in some countries, especially England, to place a veiled monstrance with the blessed sacrament or a cross in a holy sepulcher
- If crucifixes were covered starting with the next to last Sunday in lent, they are unveiled without ceremony after the Good Friday liturgy.
In some parishes of the Anglican Church, Catholic Church, and Lutheran church, the “three hours devotion” is observed. This traditionally consists of a series of sermons, interspersed with singing, one on each of the seven last words from the cross, together with an introduction and a conclusion.
Another pious exercise carried out on Good Friday is that of the Stations of the Cross, either within the church or outside. The celebration at the Colosseum with participation by the pope has become a traditional fixture widely covered by television.
The novena to the divine mercy begins on that day and lasts until the Saturday before the feast of mercy.
Moravians hold a love feast on Good Friday as they receive Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday. Communicants of the Moravian church practice the Good Friday tradition of cleaning gravestones in Moravian cemeteries.
HOLY SATURDAY (BLACK SATURDAY
Holy Saturday is the day between the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection. As the Sabbath day, the gospel accounts all note that Jesus was hurriedly buried in a cave tomb after his crucifixion, with the intent to finish proper embalming and burial ceremonies on Sunday, after the Sabbath had ended, as the Sabbath day prohibitions would have prevented observant Jews from completing a proper burial. While daytime liturgies or commemorations of the day are rare in the western tradition, after sundown on Holy Saturday is the traditional time for Easter vigil.
In the catholic tradition, mass is not celebrated on what is liturgically Holy Saturday. The celebration of Easter begins after sundown on what, though still Saturday in the civil calendar, and is liturgically Easter Sunday.
On Holy Saturday the church waits at the lord’s tomb in prayer and fasting, meditating on his passion and death and on his descent into hell, and awaiting his resurrection.
The church abstains from the sacrifice of the mass, with the sacred table left bare, until after the solemn vigil, that is, the anticipation by night of the resurrection, when the time comes for paschal joys, the abundance of which overflows to occupy fifty days.
In some Anglican churches, including the Episcopal Church in the United States, there is provision for a simple liturgy of the word with readings commemorating the burial of Christ.
The tabernacle is left empty and open. The lamp or candle usually situated next to the tabernacle denoting the presence of Christ is put out, and the remaining Eucharistic hosts consecrated on holy Thursday are kept elsewhere, usually the sacristy, with a lamp or candle burning before it, so that, in cases of the danger of death, they may be given as viaticum.
The name of the Easter vigil, even if the vigil is held on what on the civil calendar is still Saturday, indicates that liturgically it is already Easter, no longer part of holy week, but still part of the Easter Triduum.
In the Anglican, Lutheran, catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian traditions, the Easter vigil, one of the longest and most solemn of liturgical liturgies, lasts up to three or four hours, consists of four parts:
- The service of light
- The liturgy of the word
- The liturgy of baptism: the sacraments of baptism and confirmation for new members of the church and the renewal of baptismal promises by the entire congregation.
- holy Eucharist
The liturgy begins after sundown on Holy Saturday as the crowd gathers inside the unlit church. In the darkness (often in a side chapel of the church building or, preferably, outside the church), a new fire is kindled and blessed by the priest. This new fire symbolizes the light of salvation and hope that god brought into the world through Christ’s resurrection, dispelling the darkness of sin and death. From this fire is lit the paschal candle, symbolizing the light of Christ. This paschal candle will be used throughout the season of Easter, remaining in the sanctuary of the church or near the lectern, and throughout the coming year at baptisms and funerals, reminding all that Christ is “light and life.”
The candles of those present are lit from the paschal candle. As this symbolic “light of Christ” spreads throughout those gathered, the darkness is decreased. A deacon, or the priest if there is no deacon, carries the paschal candle at the head of the entrance procession and, at three points, stops and chants the proclamation “the light of Christ” (until Easter 2011, the official English text was “Christ our light”), to which the people respond “thanks be to god.” once the procession concludes with the singing of the third proclamation, the lights throughout the church are lit, except for the altar candles. Then the deacon or a cantor chants the exulted (also called the “Easter proclamation”), after that, the people put aside their candles and sit down for the liturgy of the word.
The liturgy of the word includes between three and seven readings from the Old Testament, followed by two from the new (an epistle and a gospel). The Old Testament readings must include the account in exodus 14 of the crossing of the red sea, seen as an antitype of baptism and Christian salvation. Each Old Testament reading is followed by a psalm or canticle (such as exodus 15:1–18 and a prayer relating what has been read to the mystery of Christ. After the Old Testament readings conclude, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, which has been suspended during lent, is intoned and bells are rung
A reading from the epistle to the romans is proclaimed. The alleluia is sung for the first time since the beginning of lent. The gospel of the resurrection then follows, along with a homily.
After the conclusion of the liturgy of the word, the water of the baptismal font is blessed and any catechumens or candidates for full communion are initiated into the church, by baptism or confirmation. After the celebration of these sacraments of initiation, the congregation renews their baptismal vows and receives the sprinkling of baptismal water. The general intercessions follow.
After the liturgy of baptism, the liturgy of the Eucharist continues as usual. This is the first mass of Easter day. During the Eucharist, the newly baptized receive Holy Communion for the first time. According to the rubrics of the missal, the Eucharist should finish before dawn.
Easter day, which immediately follows holy week and begins with the Easter vigil, is the great feast day and apogee of the Christian liturgical year: on this day the resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated. It is the first day of the new season of the great fifty days, or Eastertide, which runs from Easter day to Pentecost Sunday. The resurrection of Christ on Easter day is the main reason why Christians keep every Sunday as the primary day of religious observance.
By Imelda Lihavi