Holy Week - the final week before Easter day - is the holiest week of the Christian year. It is that week where we as the Church - the people of God - experience the “last days of Jesus’ life here on earth, as well as the time and events leading up to his resurrection.”
Beginning with Palm Sunday and ending at sundown on Saturday, with the Great Vigil of Easter, we join countless other present-day Christians as well as Christians relating back to the earliest days of Christianity, as we make our pilgrimage together toward Calvary.
The celebration of Holy Week, or the Great Week as it was called by ancient Christians, dates back to at least the 4th Century, where the pilgrim Egeria, possibly a Spanish nun on pilgrimage to the Holy Land sometime between 381 and 384 AD, joined the Christian community of Jerusalem on the afternoon of Holy Thursday when they began celebrations of the seasonal liturgy of the Easter Triduum in the Church of the Eleona, on the Mount of Olives. For more about Egeria, check out this article: http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/301-600/egerias-pilgrimage-blessed-the-ages-11629681.html
There are many and varied special devotions celebrated during Holy Week. Some churches offer services every day of the week, and our own lectionary provides special readings for each day (Monday through Saturday) should you wish to include them in your daily prayer cycle. Some churches, including our own St. John’s Cathedral, offers a Tenebrae service - a monastic office similar to matins and lauds, but structured around 15 sets of psalms, readings, and responsories. It is a truly awe-inspiring service. I admit, I cry each time I go, it is that moving.
The special liturgies we at Holy Comforter celebrate this week includes the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday and the Triduum.
The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday (commonly known as just Palm Sunday) is actually two services in one. We begin outside with a Liturgy of the Palms, and this liturgy focuses on Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. We join together in the waiving of palms and cries of Hosannah! as we parade around the church property ending at the door to the sanctuary, where we begin the Liturgy of the Passion. It is a dramatic, schizophrenic shift as we go from the joy of the palms to the experience the Passion Gospel of Jesus’ final hours.
The hallmark of Holy Week, however, is the Triduum or Triduum Sacrum - meaning three (triduum) sacred (sacrum) days - consists of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. Although they appear as three separate services, they are all, in actuality, one continuous prayer service. You will note that after the opening greeting of Maundy Thursday, there is no dismissal by Deacon Linda until the Great Vigil of Easter. Early Christians remained at their churches or holy sites for the entirety of the three days in constant prayer and reading of scripture.
The Triduum begins on Thursday evening with Maundy Thursday, where we commemorate the institution of the Lord’s Supper and remember Christ’s example of love through the humble act of foot washing. The term Maundy, it is believed, comes from the Latin for Jesus’ new command to love one another (mandatum novum), or possibly the verb to wash (mundo). At the conclusion of that liturgy, we strip the altar as an act of spiritual remembrance of Christ’s betrayal and humiliation. The church is left bare, and we are left to walk alone with Christ the rest of the way to the cross. Therein, we find Christ’s presence an inescapable comfort. In the darkened church, we sit and sing that we will remain and stay with Jesus during these last few hours in Gethsemane.
On Good Friday, we enter into the mystery of Christ. We experience the abandonment felt by the first disciples who thought that Jesus’ ministry ended with his death. We hear once again his Passion, this time from the Gospel of John, we kneel at the foot of his cross, and we sit in the silence and darkness of the tomb, recalling our own own sense of abandonment and despair, which we all experience from time to time. As we do so, we discover that we are not alone, but rather share this pain with each other, and with God, who also shares - and redeems - our loss and pain.
The Triduum concludes at sundown on Holy Saturday, which marks the beginning of the final day - Easter day. We gather outside where the Church lights new fire with hopeful anticipation the resurrection brings. We light the Paschal candle - the sign of the resurrection - which is then brought back into the church. The Light of Christ spreads throughout the pews, lighting our way. We hear Deacon Linda proclaim the coming of Easter in the Exsultet. We retell our most sacred stories and welcome four new Christians (Andrew and Julia, Ryleigh and Emma) in the sacrament of Holy Baptism (by candlelight!). Beginning with a rumbling from the Hook Organ, the Great Alleluia is proclaimed the church is flooded with light, bells chime and we all celebrate that “Alleluia, the Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia! Alleluia!” The tomb once occupied is empty, death is conquered!
Often people tend to skip Holy Week, desiring to head directly to Easter Day. However, I have often heard that this is like going directly from the appetizer to the dessert. You miss the beauty and the joy, the communion and relationship that comes from the main course! We walk this journey not alone, but with each other, in a great cloud of witnesses that have come and gone before us from the earliest of days. Most importantly, we walk this walk with Jesus, our ever present guide, teacher, and companion in the way. Come and experience that which is the holiest week of our church year, and then enjoy the spirit of resurrection! Amen.
The Reverend William Stanton