Tomorrow marks the beginning of the most important week in Western Christianity, usually dubbed Holy Week (Eastern Christianity’s calendar and holy days are a bit different). The earliest records we have where this week consists of various services date from the middle of the third century (~260 AD), with the focus being initially on what would become Good Friday, followed by Easter and the Easter Vigil.
The best description of what the various services of the week were like comes from The Pilgrimage of Egeria, which dates to about 380 AD and is the account of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem of a woman named Egeria, who remained in Jerusalem for three years. She describes the liturgical practices throughout the church calendar there, including those during Holy Week. It is pretty interesting to see how similar those practices were to what is practiced today, and that records of even earlier practices/liturgies correlate so well with the more established and fleshed out practices Egeria describes. The continuity of the fundamental practices/liturgies between our earliest records, those described by Egeria, and today, is pretty impressive given the passage of time and variation in cultures. For those so interested, I highly recommend Andrew McGowan’s book Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective.
Most people are familiar with Palm Sunday and Easter, but I’d like to take a moment and highlight some of the other days within the week – liturgies which I find to be more intimate and moving than the big two most people know about. I’ll also briefly describe Palm Sunday and Easter, and do all of this from an Anglican perspective, though the Holy Week liturgies of Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian traditions are almost identical. If you are so inclined, you can read the liturgies in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. I’ll link to the relevant portions as I discuss each service.
The observance of Palm Sunday marks the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, his trial, his interaction with Pontius Pilate, and his death on the cross. The observance of Palm Sunday in Jerusalem was witnessed by Egeria, where the people processed down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, waving palm fronds or the branches of olive trees as they walked. They also sang psalms, including Psalm 118, and shouted the antiphon, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Today the service begins with the blessing of the palms outside the building’s nave, followed by a procession of congregants singing a psalm as they enter the nave. The liturgy recounts Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and then moves to a recounting of his Passion. Typically there are several people assigned to read the various parts in the Gospel accounts of the Passion, with the congregation taking the role of the crowd.
You can read the liturgy here.
Chrism Mass and Renewal of Ordination Vows
On either Tuesday or Wednesday during Holy Week, the bishop meets with the priests and parishioners to consecrate oil (called chrism) for anointing the newly baptized with the sign of the cross at baptism. At this consignation, the bishop or priest says to each newly baptized person that “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever”. Chrism is olive oil mixed with some fragrant ointment, usually basalm.
Also during the week, the clergy renew their ordination vows, and this is usually done in the same service as the consecration of the chrism.
Stations of the Cross
Stations of the Cross is a set of prayers and meditations which accompany pictures depicting Jesus on the day of his crucifixion. This service is usually observed on Wednesday of Holy Week.
A service derived from an old monastic practice, structured around psalms, readings, and responsories. A distinguishing characteristic of this service is the series of readings from Lamentations which appear early in the office. The distinctive ceremonial of Tenebrae includes use of fifteen lighted candles, often set on a special, triangular stand. One candle is extinguished as each of the fourteen appointed psalms is completed. The fifteenth candle, symbolic of Christ, is left lighted at the end of the final psalm. But it is carried away to be hidden, which signifies the apparent victory of the forces of evil. A sudden loud noise is made at the end of the service, symbolizing the earthquake at Christ’s death. The lighted candle is then restored to its place, suggesting Christ’s eventual triumph. This service takes place on Wednesday.
Maundy Thursday takes place, obviously, on Thursday in Holy Week. The name comes from the Latin mandatum novum, “new commandment,” from John 13:34. The ceremony of washing feet was also referred to as “the Maundy.”
This service celebrates the commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus, and includes a ceremonial washing of feet. Sometimes the washing of feet is performed by clergy, and sometimes it is performed by laity. It is followed by the Eucharist, which will be the final Eucharist until it is celebrated on Easter.
Following the washing of feet and Eucharist, the altar is stripped of all candles, flowers, or anything else, and crucifixes are covered, to symbolize that Jesus has been betrayed and arrested.
This is my favorite of the Holy Week services because of the intimacy and symbolism of it all. It is a reenactment of Jesus’ final act before he was betrayed, which was when he gathered his motley crew of disciples together, not to preach a sermon to them, but to share a meal with them and ask that they meet together in like manner after he has left them. He then washed their feet and taught them the nature of true love.
Many people are reluctant to attend this service because they don’t want their feet washed; however, one need not go up and have one’s feet washed, but more importantly, our feet typically represent a part of us for which we are embarrassed. They’re dirty, smelly, and usually not attractive. Yet in this service we lay bare that for which we are embarrassed and let someone we know cleanse it with the water of love. It is powerful, and a ritual for which our society is in deep need.
You can read the Maundy Thursday liturgy here.
The service of Good Friday takes place on the Friday of Holy Week and commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus. The liturgy of the day includes John’s account of the Passion gospel and a solemn form of intercession known as the solemn collects (dating from ancient Rome). In the early church those preparing for baptism began a fast on Good Friday.
You can read the liturgy of Good Friday here.
The Saturday after Good Friday recalls the day when the crucified Christ visited among the dead while his body lay in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. The liturgy consists of a short prayer and readings from scripture. Those preparing for baptism continue their fast. Holy Saturday ends at sunset.
You can read the liturgy of Holy Saturday here.
This liturgy is intended as the first (and arguably, the primary) celebration of Easter. It is also known as the Great Vigil. The service begins in darkness, sometime between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter, and consists of four parts:
- The Service of Light (kindling of new fire, lighting the Paschal candle, the Exsultet)
- The Service of Lessons (readings from the Hebrew scriptures interspersed with psalms, canticles, and prayers)
- Christian Initiation (Holy Baptism) and the renewal of baptismal vows
- The Eucharist
This liturgy is in line with an ancient practice of keeping the Easter feast. Believers would gather in the hours of darkness ending at dawn on Easter to hear scripture and offer prayer. This night-long service of prayerful watching anticipated the baptisms that would come at first light and the Easter Eucharist. Easter was the primary baptismal occasion for the early church to the practical exclusion of all others. This practice linked the meanings of Christ’s dying and rising to the understanding of baptism.
This service is my second favorite. I was baptized during this service. The scripture readings and Psalms are intended to walk one through the ways in which God has been at work among humans since the beginning, so the readings begin in Genesis, and include scriptures about Abraham, Moses, Israel, etc. Performing baptisms and the renewal of baptismal covenants at this time is pregnant with meaning, as we remember our own death and resurrection as disciples of Jesus Christ.
You can read the liturgy for the Easter Vigil here.
The celebration of Easter takes place on Sunday and is a time of celebration. Jesus has been resurrected and our time of mourning is over. This service usually has a lot of fanfare, with large choirs, trumpets, and other elements of celebration. In fact, it is so meaningful that the celebration of Easter continues in the liturgical calendar until Pentecost, 50 days later.
Holy Week is to be Experienced
If you have never experienced any of the liturgies of Holy Week, I highly recommend that you rectify that and experience them. Technically, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil are one, large liturgy. The entire thing is intended to bring one into the life of Jesus and, through ritual, cement in one’s mind the Good News of Jesus’ atonement.
Holy Week utilizes all of your senses:
- sight through the reading of liturgy and the beauty of the spaces where you worship;
- sound through hearing prayers and music;
- speech through the recitation of prayers and scripture, and the singing of psalms and hymns;
- touch through the washing of feet, the reception of the emblems of Eucharist, and the rustling of liturgy bulletins;
- taste through the drinking of wine at Eucharist;
- smell through the use of incense;
- and movement through standing up, sitting down, and kneeling.
All of these elements of ritual are intended to reinforce in our minds the work of Christ and orient us as his disciples to our true calling as ministers of reconciliation. It is to create a space where God can get at us, form us, and heal us.
I highly recommend that you make the time to experience this most holy week in the Christian calendar, and remind yourself of what the kingdom of God truly is.