Holy Week Leads to Easter

Christians around the world use the term ‘Holy Week’ to describe the week leading up to Easter. It is called ‘Holy’ because it is the week in which Christians commemorate with special ceremonies the most sacred events which they believe have brought them salvation – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Holy Week – History: 
Holy Week, as we now know it, originated in the 4th century. For a time it was variously known as the ‘Greater Week’, ‘Passion Week’ (the week of Jesus’ suffering and death), ‘Paschal Week’ and ‘Week of Salvation’. Originally Holy Week referred to Friday, Saturday and Easter Sunday – three days that were called the Sacred Triduum (Triduum is Latin for a 3-day period). Thursday became part of Holy Week late in the 4th century, when a Mass commemorating the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist was introduced on what is now called ‘Holy Thursday’ or ‘Maundy Thursday’. Christians who participate in this Week’s ceremonies are reminded of all that Jesus has done for them, so that they in their turn might try to imitate his example of generosity and readiness to serve others. 

Palm Sunday:
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, also called ‘Passion Sunday’ (today’s gospel describes the sufferings - or Passion - of Jesus Christ). In many places Mass today is preceded by a procession with palms, re-enacting Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds welcomed him by laying palm branches at his feet. 

Chrism Mass:
On Tuesday of Holy Week the Mass of the Chrism (Mass of the Oils) is concelebrated by the local bishop and the priests of his diocese. This concelebrated Mass is an expression of their unity with one another in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. During Mass three types of oil are consecrated for use in local parish churches during the coming year: oil of Chrism (for baptism and confirmation), oil for anointing the sick and oil of catechumens (for baptism). 

Holy Triduum : 
This refers to the three days at the end of Holy Week – Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The liturgy of these three days celebrates what is called the ‘Passover’ of the Lord – his passing from death on Good Friday to life on Easter Sunday. It marks, too, our own and the Church’s ‘Passover’ to new life by our sharing in the resurrection of Christ.

Passover is the central feast of the Jewish year. Jewish people remember and celebrate the great event in their history, when God delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and led them to freedom and settlement in the Promised Land. They commemorate the night in Egypt when Yahweh passed over the Israelite houses marked with the blood of a sacrificial lamb – the sign that would spare them from destruction. They mark these great events in their history by eating a paschal lamb, standing up and dressed for a journey, as their forebears did before fleeing from Egypt to freedom. 

The death of Jesus occurred during the Jewish Passover of that year, and the Christian liturgy has borrowed some Passover themes from the Jewish festival. It relates the Jewish Passover to the ‘Passover’ of Jesus, the ‘Paschal’ Lamb, from death to life in the resurrection on Easter Day. During these days Christians share not just in a re-enactment of historical events, but in ceremonies which, as the liturgist J.D. Crichton says, “make present to people in the here and now the redeeming power of Christ’s saving acts in the past”.

Holy Thursday: 
Over the centuries this day has been variously known as ‘Maundy Thursday’, ‘Thursday of the Lord’s Supper’, ‘Birth of the Chalice’ and ‘Birth of the Sacrament’. ‘Holy Thursday’ is now the commonly used title. It commemorates the Last Supper – the last meal Jesus had with his disciples before his death – when he instituted the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the memoria Passionis – the memorial of the Passion, or suffering, of Christ. 

Today’s liturgy recalls the commission (or mandatum, the Latin word from which ‘Maundy’ comes) which Jesus gave his disciples to follow his example, when he washed their feet. By this act – the act of a servant – Jesus was saying to them that they too are to be servants, who are to practise the charity displayed in this act which he did for them. The Church tries to carry out this commission especially through its various charitable works serving the needy. In the Mass today the priest, imitating Jesus, washes the feet of twelve people, reminding all present that charity and service should animate all who participate in the Eucharist. 

Hosts for communion on Good Friday are consecrated at this Mass and carried in a procession to what is called the Altar of Repose, where they remain until they are distributed on Good Friday. The main altar is stripped bare of cloths, candles, flowers and any other decoration. The tabernacle is left wide open and empty. 

People are invited to follow the tradition of spending time this night at the Altar of Repose ‘watching with the Lord’. This practice recalls the appeal Jesus made in the Garden of Gethsemane to Peter, James and John to watch and pray with him, while he went through the agony of anticipating the sufferings he was to endure the next day.

Good Friday: 
From its earliest years the Church has invited its people to observe Good Friday as a day of mourning for the death of Jesus. The altar and the liturgy reflect this sombre mood: there are no lighted candles and the altar is bare. Although it is a day of mourning, the Church also celebrates the ‘triumph’ of the Cross – on the cross Jesus overcame sin and death, bringing forgiveness and new life and hope to the world. 

Today’s reading from Isaiah – about the suffering servant – and the Passion narrative set the theme and atmosphere for today’s remembrance of the death of Jesus and its meaning for us. The readings and the ‘Bidding Prayers’ for various causes are followed by the veneration of the Cross, with Communion concluding the liturgy. 

Holy Saturday: 
Throughout Holy Saturday, up until the Easter Vigil in the evening, Christians are, in a sense, waiting in anticipation for the Lord’s resurrection and victory over death. The forty days of Lent have come to an end. Now we are ready to celebrate the Easter event - the resurrection of the Lord. Thus begins the most important feast in the Christian calendar. 

Paul J. Duffy S.J. 
Hawthorn Parish