Holy Week is the last week of Lent, the week immediately preceding Easter, and a week marked by special observations on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Many Christian churches use this time to commemorate and re-enact the suffering and death of Jesus through various observances and services of worship. Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and concludes with the Triduum (the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday/Easter Even) that leads to Easter Sunday.
Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday): Holy Week begins with the sixth Sunday in Lent. On this Sunday we observe the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. As Passover brought many to the city, the crowds in Jerusalem met Jesus waving palm branches and proclaiming him the King of the Jews. The palms, symbols of victory, were strewn in his path. The Gospels tell us that Jesus rode into the city on a donkey, enacting the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, and in so doing emphasized the humility that was to characterize the Kingdom he proclaimed. This Sunday is also known as Passion Sunday to commemorate the beginning of Holy Week and Jesus’ final agonizing journey to the cross. The English word passion comes from a Latin word that means to suffer, the same word from which we derive the English word patient. On Palm Sunday, the color in the Church changes from Lenten Purples to Red.
The Prayer Book rubrics (Latin for “red” because in the old Prayer Books, instructions were printed in red while service text was printed in black) direct that the people shall hold the “branches in their hands” during the process. The ancient hymn Gloria, laus et honor (“All Glory Laud and Honor”) is sung in procession (this is unusual as the rubrics only prescribe particular hymns three times in the Prayer Book). At Redeemer, on Palm Sunday the entire congregation processes from the parish hall around the Church to the Galilee Door where the Crucifer knocks on the door to let the congregation enter. With the choir singing, we enter the church, we find our seats, the Rector moves to a station (a “suitable place where the procession may halt”) and the Collect is recited. This ends the first part of the Palm Sunday Service. The second part of the service is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Palm Sunday’s Liturgy of the Eucharist is in almost every respect like a normal Sunday Eucharist, except the Passion story–which replaces the Gospel reading–is re-enacted by assigned members of the congregation.
From Sunday to Thursday, during these few days, Jesus and His disciples had steadily journeyed. In the sunlit countryside, Jesus was popular, the crowds were friendly and the future was bright. Even his entry into Jerusalem on Sunday had been marked by a joyous welcome. But by Thursday in Jerusalem, Jesus and the disciples saw signs of trouble as crowds began to draw back from the man who spoke of commitment and servanthood.
Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday: There were a number of events that cluster together on this last day before Jesus was arrested. The disciples had a last meal together, which was probably a Passover meal; the institution of Eucharist or Communion; the betrayal by Judas (because of the exchange with Jesus at the meal); and Jesus praying in Gethsemane while the disciples fell asleep. We focus on the meal and Communion as a way to commemorate this day.
On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus ate a final meal together with the men who had followed him for so long. This day has become known as Maundy Thursday (the term Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum usually translated “commandment,” from John’s account). After they had finished the meal, as they walked into the night toward Gethsemane, Jesus taught his disciples a “new” commandment that was not really new (John 13:34): “I give you a new commandment that you love one another.” This day commemorates the Lord’s Supper, and specifically our Lord’s institution of the Holy Eucharist, and because it is a joyful observance, the color of the day is white. At Redeemer, we observe this day by sharing a simple dinner of wine, cheese, figs, dates, and breads; bringing small potted flowering plants for the Lady Chapel; and the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet, commemorating the act of servanthood performed by Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciples, as recorded in John 13:1-14.
At the end of Maundy Thursday service, the Blessed Sacrament, in the form of the hosts (communion wafers) consecrated in the service, is carried in procession to an “altar of repose” (customarily in the Lady Chapel). The consecrated elements are placed on the altar among the potted flowering plants brought by the congregation. This scene becomes symbolic of Jesus’ retreat to the Garden of Gethsemane. After the procession to the altar of repose, the main altar is stripped of all adornments–candlesticks, linens, altar hangings, etc.–in order that the church in its barrenness may suggest the desolation of the place of our Lord’s Death, at the Good Friday services on the following day. During the stripping of the altar, the clergy changes into purple stoles, and Psalm 22 (“My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) is sung by the choir.
Good Friday, or Holy Friday: Good Friday is the most solemn day of the church year. On this day, the church commemorates Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and suffering, death, and burial. Because services on this day and Holy Saturday are to observe Jesus’ death, the Eucharist is never celebrated on these days.
The rubrics direct that the ministers enter in silence. The color of the day is black. Traditionally there are four parts to the Good Friday Liturgy: 1) the lessons, including the solemn singing of the Passion of St. John; 2) the solemn Collects, in which we pray “for the holy Catholic Church of Christ throughout the world” 3) the Veneration of the Cross, during which anthems are said or sung; and 4) Communion from the Reserved Sacrament, using hosts consecrated for this purpose on Maundy Thursday. Because only hosts are reserved, communion on this day is in “one kind”–which is to say the chalice of wine will not be offered.
Holy Saturday, or Easter Even: We observe the resting of Christ’s Body in the tomb. It culminates in the Great Vigil of Easter. In the early church, the Vigil was kept all through Saturday night by the catechumens, those being prepared for Holy Baptism, which normally took place at dawn on Easter Day. The Vigil has been shortened to a ceremony on Holy Saturday, which ends with the sacrament of Baptism and the first Eucharist of Easter. The service has four parts: the Service of Light, including the lighting of the Pascal (or Easter) Candle; the Service of Lessons; Holy Baptism (and/or the renewal of vows); and the Holy Eucharist. The dramatic service of light begins with the kindling of the new fire, symbolizing the light of Christ coming into the world. From that fire, the Paschal Candle is lit. That candle burns during every service that takes place during Eastertide (i.e. the Great Fifty Days of the Easter Season, culminating on the Day of Pentecost) as a visible symbol of the presence of the Risen Christ. The lighted Paschal Candle is carried into the church piercing the darkness by the deacon or priest who intones three times “The Light of Christ.” The Paschal Candle is then placed on its stand, at which time the Exsultet, a song of Easter praise, is sung. The prophecies follow–as many as nine may be read. The prophecies ended, we will renew our baptismal vows. The Easter Vigil ends with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. It begins with the Easter acclamation, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”–the first time that the word “alleluia” has been uttered since before Lent, on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). As bells are rung, the Gloria in Excelsis, another joyful hymn suppressed during Lent, is sung. At this moment, in the old words of an Easter hymn, “Lent’s long shadows have departed.” We now are free to “celebrate with unbridled joy Jesus’ Resurrection,” a celebration made more joyful because we will have walked the way of the Cross during Holy Week.