Today, Palm Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week, the week before Easter. It includes Palm Sunday, Holy (Maundy) Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The earliest allusion to the custom of making this week as a whole with special observances dates back to the the third century.
Of the special observances, the first to come into being was naturally Good Friday. The next was the “Great Sabbath” (Holy Saturday) with its vigil, which in the early church, was associated with an expectation that the second coming of Christ would happen on an Easter Sunday.
Holy Week begins with what Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and Methodists call Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. In the Roman Rite, before 1955 it was known simply as Palm Sunday, and the preceding Sunday as Passion Sunday. From 1955 to 1971 it was called Second Sunday in Passiontide or Palm Sunday. Among Lutherans and Anglicans, the day is known as the Sunday of the Passion: Palm 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. 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 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 service 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.
A special observance that happens during this week is Tenebrae. Tenebrae (Latin for “shadows” or “darkness”) is celebrated on the evening before or early morning of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
On Maundy Thursday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper occurs, which inaugurates the period of three days, known as the Easter Triduum, that includes Good Friday (seen as beginning with the service of the preceding evening), Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday up to evening prayer on that day. 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. In the Roman Catholic Church and (optionally) in the Anglican Church, a sufficient number of hosts are consecrated for use also in the Good Friday service, 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 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.
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 Roman Catholic and Anglican Christians, Good Friday is a fast day. 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.”
- 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 Service of the Passion of the Lord, but can be taken at any hour to the sick who are unable to attend this service.
- 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.
- 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 of Christ, 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.
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, is liturgically Easter Sunday.
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, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian traditions, the Easter Vigil, one of the longest and most solemn of liturgical services, 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
(I go into greater detail on the Vigil in an earlier post).
Easter Sunday, 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 Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. The Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday is the main reason why Christians keep Sunday as the primary day of religious observance.
This week is the greatest of all weeks in the church calendar when we go through Christ’s last days on earth and his Passion. As my priest said today, it is to be celebrated prayerfully. Through prayer and fasting, we prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mysteries on Easter.