Holy Week begins Sunday, and is often called Palm Sunday or The Sunday of the Passion. The Passion [of the Christ] biblically follows Jesus’ last moments through Jerusalem, the Roman courts, and the streets on the way to the cross. Holy Week is exactly what it says: It is the holiest season within the Christian calendar.
On Palm Sunday, many congregations will gather outside the doors of the church with literal palms in hand and will welcome The Messiah – Jesus Christ into the city of Jerusalem through a Biblical reading, as well as with songs and shouts of Hosanna’s, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords; but once the congregation enters into the space of the church building the drama will heighten around the reading of the Passion of Christ (This year’s reading comes from the Gospel according to Matthew). Listening to this Gospel, one will quickly notice the joyous Hosanna’s sung outside have turned into angry shouts to ‘crucify him’ on the inside. Although the joys of The Lord’s Supper will continue to be celebrated on this day, the liturgical service will end somewhat solemnly as those gathered remember that our Lord was betrayed [into the hands of sinners].
Next comes Maundy Thursday – the first of three services that make up what is referred to as The Triduum. Although there are three different services on three different days, don’t be fooled into thinking they are separate services. The Triduum is one service divided up into three parts (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and The Great Vigil of Easter). Think of The Triduum as a three-act play where each act has its own theme, but points to a greater whole.
Act I is Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday is the 38th day of Lent, and sets the tone that the end [of Lent] is near, and resurrection is on the horizon. Traditionally, Maundy Thursday celebrates the initiation of the Church’s Holy Eucharist – a.k.a. Holy Communion, and this supper is the last communion before Easter. Maundy in Latin means command, and this day the Church remembers Jesus’ command to his disciples to, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ His command ‘to love’ is made explicit in the service of The Lord’s Supper, as well as when those gathered participate in foot washing – a further reminder that Jesus acted as servant to his friends, and asked his followers to never forget this (‘Love one another as I have loved you’). Finally, the evening ends with the stripping of the Altar. All the fashions found in and around the sanctuary will be taken away – symbolic of the clothes and dignity that were stripped away from Our Lord. After the Maundy Thursday liturgy is concluded, some churches hold an all-night vigil until Good Friday morning where the remaining bread and wine that was consecrated (or blessed) on Maundy Thursday will be consumed Good Friday morning. Stations of the Cross (another tradition within the church) usually takes place at Noon, Good Friday. The symbol here recollects the Passion of Christ once more, and the hour in which this liturgy takes place is the traditional hour of Jesus’ time on the cross.
Act II is Good Friday. There is no Eucharist because there is no Lord. Put bluntly: God is dead, and this service is a day of great solemnity, devotion, self-examination, and prayer; however, it is also a day of restrained anticipation, promise, and hope (to paraphrase Bishop J. N. Alexander). It is also a day the Church remembers the cross in all its messiness, and at the same time its glory pointing us heavenward.
Act III is the Great Vigil of Easter, but before this evening service begins a small morning service called Holy Saturday is administered. Holy Saturday is a service asking us to simply slow down and take all of what has happened and is happening into consideration before we participate in the Vigil. The evening Vigil is a long, but a powerful liturgy in 4 parts: 1. There is the Service of Light. 2. The Service of Lessons. 3. Christian Initiation (a.k.a. Holy Baptism). 4. The Holy Eucharist with the administration of Easter Communion. I won’t go into detail about this service, but it is one not to miss. To me, the Vigil captures everything that is good, holy and beautiful about Christianity and Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. If you are curious about any of these services, I invite you to read them before hand. They can all be found in the Book of Common Prayer. The Palm Sunday liturgy begins on page 270. A link can be found here.
This is a small introduction to the ceremony, liturgy, drama, and pageantry of Holy Week. It is truly a gift of the Church, but words and descriptions of the services do not do it justice. To truly get a feel for its beauty, you have to participate in it for yourself, and let each day help to mold and make you into who God already knows you to be. May Holy Week remind us all of the mystery of Christ and His Church, and that there is still mystery wrapped up in the world around us.