Holy Week is most definitely a very sacred time of the year, for it is now that we will commemorate and remember the last week of Jesus’ life on this earth. These are the days leading up to the great Easter Feast. The Lenten season of sacrifice and self-denial is about to come to an end, but this coming week is extremely important for all Christians. The greatest focus of the week is the Passion (suffering) and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the events that led up to it. Especially important for Catholics is the Easter Triduum. This is the three days just before Easter.
The Days of Holy Week: The Easter Triduum
Easter Triduum is a term used by the Roman Catholic Church to denote the three days from the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday. The Triduum (in Latin, “three days”) begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper and ends after evening prayers at sunset on Easter Day.
The term was used at the Second Vatican Council, when the revised liturgical calendar set the final part of Holy Week apart from Lent proper. Previously, these three days had already gained distinction from the rest of Holy Week with an observance of silence, which were also known as “the still days.” During Mass, music was not to be played and all church bells were silenced. People were also encouraged to observe silence in their homes during this time.
Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, but not part of the “three days,” the Triduum. Every year on the Sunday before Easter – the sixth Sunday of Lent – the church celebrates “Palm Sunday.” Most general calendars list the day as “Palm Sunday,” but if you look closely at a liturgical calendar you will see that it is actually called “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.” The name is appropriate as it celebrates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem but also commemorates the beginning of Holy Week and Jesus’ final journey to the cross.
The liturgy for the day begins with a reading of one of the gospels describing Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem when the people greeted him with shouts of “Hosana” and waving palms. Traditionally, we bless and distribute palms for the people to raise and wave during the entrance procession. In the Liturgy of the Word, the gospel is a reading of the Passion of Jesus from Mark, Matthew or Luke.
Holy Monday. Usually there are no special liturgies on this day, but in the narrative of Holy Week Jesus visits his friends at Bethany and Mary anoints him with precious oil, preparing him for his burial.
Holy Tuesday. The week continues closer to Jesus’ Passion and on this day the liturgy focuses on Jesus announcing Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial.
Spy Wednesday. The day before Jesus is betrayed, Judas visits the chief priests of the Temple and promises to give them Jesus in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. This day is traditionally called “Spy Wednesday” in reference to the “spy” or “traitor,” Judas.
The first celebration of the Triduum is the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. This Mass celebrates the last meal Jesus shared with his Twelve Apostles and disciples before his death. (cf. Paul the Apostle recounted in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, as well as the synoptic Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke)
After the homily on Holy Thursday, we imitate our master in the washing of feet. This ritual reminds us that our baptismal commitment means we are to be servants of one another. In the time of St. Ambrose in Milan, those who were baptized also had their feet washed, because of Jesus’ words to Peter: “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed” (Jn 13:10). Many scholars have seen a baptismal reference in those words.
Per se, the Mass does not end. There is no dismissal or final blessing. The evening’s celebration concludes with a “stripping of the altar” in which not only are all decorations removed, the Blessed Sacrament is taken from the tabernacle on the main altar and processed to an altar of repose outside the main body of the church. The sanctuary candle or paschal candle is extinguished or darkened, and not relit until the Easter Vigil. Eucharistic Adoration is common after the Holy Thursday Mass and continuing until midnight. It is reminiscent of waiting with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Also, in Roman Catholicism, images of saints are either kept or veiled until the Easter Vigil. Votive lights before these images are not lit. Crucifixes that are movable are hidden, while those that are not movable are veiled until the Easter Vigil.
On this day, Christians ritually recall the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus. Mass is not celebrated on this day, however, Holy Communion (reserved in the tabernacle on the altar of repose from the previous evening) is distributed at the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion. The celebration traditionally occurs at 3 pm and consists of three parts: liturgy of the Word, veneration of the cross, and Holy Communion.
The first part, the Liturgy of the Word, consists of the reading or chanting of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9, and the Passion account from the Gospel of John. The second part of the Good Friday liturgy is the Veneration of the Cross: a cross is solemnly displayed to the congregation and then venerated by them, individually if possible. The third and last part is Holy Communion. The Eucharist consecrated at the Mass of Holy Thursday is distributed at this service. At the conclusion, the priest and people depart in silence, and the altar cloth is removed, leaving the altar bare.
Following Good Friday, Holy Saturday is a commemoration of the day that Jesus lay in his tomb. In the Roman Catholic Church, daytime Masses are never offered. It is a time of waiting.
Easter Vigil (Saturday after sunset)
Held after nightfall of Holy Saturday, or before dawn on Easter Day, in anticipation of the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. The Easter Vigil consists of four parts:
- The Service of Light
- The Liturgy of the Word
- Christian Initiation and the Renewal of Baptismal Vows
- Holy Eucharist
The Service of Light
The Vigil service begins outside the church around a large fire. This new fire symbolizes the radiance of the Risen Christ dispelling the darkness of sin and death. The Paschal candle is blessed and then lit. 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.”
Once the candle has been lit there follows the ancient and dramatic rite of the Lucernarium, in which the candle is carried by a priest through the nave of the darkened church, stopping three times to chant an acclamation such as ‘Christ our Light’ to which the assembly responds, ‘Thanks be to God.’ As the candle proceeds through the church, the baptized light their candles from the flame of the Paschal candle. As this symbolic “Light of Christ” spreads throughout those gathered, the darkness is dispersed. Once the procession has reached the sanctuary of the altar, with the church lit only by candlelight, the Exultet (Easter Proclamation) is intoned.
The Liturgy of the Word
The Liturgy of the Word consists of seven readings from the Old Testament, although it is permitted to reduce this number for pastoral reasons (if reduced, it is customary to use readings 1, 3, 5 and 7). Each reading is followed by a psalm and a prayer relating what has been read in the Old Testament to the Mystery of Christ. After these readings conclude, the Gloria is sung for the first time since before Lent (with the exception of Holy Thursday, which is the only time it is heard during the 40 days of Lent), and the church bells and the organ, silent since that point on Holy Thursday, are sounded again – The opening collect (prayer) is read. A reading from the Epistle to the Romans is proclaimed, followed by the chanting of Psalm 118. The Alleluia is sung for the first time since the beginning of Lent. The Gospel of the Resurrection is proclaimed.
The Rite of Christian Initiation
People desiring to full initiation in the Church who have completed their formation are formally initiated as members of the faith the Church through the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist; the latter is celebrated during the Liturgy of the Eucharist). The Initiation celebration consists of the Baptismal Liturgy (litany of the saints, blessing of the baptismal waters, Baptism celebration, and Confirmation celebration, and a renewal of Baptismal vows of all present.
The Easter Vigil then concludes with a Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Holy Week observances began in Jerusalem in the earliest days of the Church, when devout people traveled to Jerusalem at Passover to reenact the events of the week leading up to the Resurrection.
Egeria was a Christian who traveled widely during the period of 381-385 and wrote about Christian customs and observances in Egypt, Palestine, and Asia Minor. She described 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. It’s just that Egeria’s description is the earliest we still have. The tourists took the customs home with them. Holy week observances spread to Spain by the fifth century, to Gaul and England by the early seventh century. They didn’t spread to Rome until the twelfth century.
The purpose of Holy Week is to reenact, relive, and participate in the passion of Jesus Christ.
Holy Week is the same in the eastern and western Church, but because eastern Christians use the Julian Calendar to calculate Easter, the celebrations occur at different times. However, 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.
Reconstructing the Holy Week from Scripture
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 first day that 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 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.
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.
Therefore, it is obvious that the Crucifixion took place on a Friday, that Jesus rested in the tomb on Saturday, and rose from the grave on Sunday. So, you might ask, why didn’t the gospel writers just come right out and say that it was Friday, Saturday, and Sunday? The answer is that 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, the number of the current year, the names and lengths of the months, the date of the new year, or the 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 who was familiar with the Jewish Scriptures.
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 why Pentecost falls on a Sunday and not on a Monday.