We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you; because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
–From the Way of the Cross Liturgy
Since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have kept the days before Easter with the greatest solemnity and have regarded them as days set apart from the rest of the year. Because of this and the nature of the seven days before Easter, Christians have traditionally referred to this time as Holy Week and have made extra effort to walk the way of the Cross with their blessed Lord throughout these very important days.
As the Roman Empire began to adopt Christianity as the state religion after the age of persecutions, Roman emperors in both Rome and Constantinople, proclaimed edicts that forbade not only amusements and games during Holy Week, but also work in trade and business. The courts were closed. Pardon was granted to many in prison in honor of our Lord who was unjustly imprisoned. Slaves were granted freedom. People were set free from all worldly occupations in order to better devote themselves to the contemplation of Christ’s betrayal, passion, and resurrection.
In medieval days kings and other rulers retired from all secular business during Holy Week. The nobility even took a break from hunting. Farmers set aside their plows, carpenters put down their tools, and schools were closed. There were no secular songs sung and no dances danced. It was a quiet and holy week, but one filled with activity as people flocked to churches and cathedrals to hear again and again the story of our salvation.
While it is unfortunate that in our own day stores remain open throughout Holy Week and Easter has become an excuse to oversell low quality candy, nevertheless, the Church still offers the world many opportunities to worship our crucified, resurrected, and risen Lord and to, ‘enter with joy upon the meditation of those mighty acts whereby [he] has given us life and immortality.’ The following is brief description of some of the services the Church traditionally offers during this special week and a schedule of those offered by the Church of the Advent this particular Holy Week.
The biblical roots of Palm Sunday are found in all four of the canonical Gospels. When our blessed Lord entered into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover before his death, crowds gathered with palm branches- signs of victory- and rightly recognized him as the true King. They spread their branches and clothes on the ground to prepare the way for him as he rode in on a donkey. The Church, with blessed palm branches in hand, proclaims with the crowds of that first Palm Sunday, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Shortly after this proclamation the entire passion narrative is read from one of the Gospels. While there is a significant juxtaposition here, it is important to note that it did not take long for the crowds that shouted ‘Hosanna!’ on Palm Sunday to shout ‘Crucify him!’ on Good Friday. This stands as a reminder for ourselves that we who are quick to proclaim Christ as King are also quick to deny His reign when we seek our own selfish and sinful ways.
Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Holy Week
It is a long standing tradition of the Church to have simple Communion services with distinct readings on the first three days of Holy Week. At these services one of the passion narratives from the Gospels are read in part or in whole. In the Anglican Prayer Book tradition, the passion narrative from the Gospel According to St. Mark is read on Monday and Tuesday and Luke or Matthew is read on Wednesday. These are further opportunities for churches to gather and hear the story of the Crucifixion once more.
The prayer service known as Tenebrae developed from the early morning monastic services celebrated on the last three days of Holy Week. In medieval monasteries, these services were held between sunset and sunrise and so they took place in chapels lit mostly by candles. The lighting (or lack of lighting) gave these services the name Tenebrae, which in Latin means shadows and/or darkness. Psalms with antiphons (refrains) are read along with readings from Scripture and the Fathers of the Church, all framed around the reading of the Old Testament book Lamentations (commonly known as the Lamentations of Jeremiah). The lament over the destruction of Jerusalem symbolizes the destruction of Christ. Candles are extinguished after each reading and shadows and darkness take over the church symbolizing the removal of Christ, the true light, from the world. After all but one of the candles are out, that final candle is hidden for a moment and then returns, symbolizing the resurrection. The service ends in complete silence and no one is to speak until they have left the church. This service is often held on the Wednesday of Holy Week in Anglican churches in order to set it apart from the proper liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
On Maundy Thursday the church recalls the events surrounding the last supper. The biblical stories of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, the last supper along with the institution of the Eucharist, and the betrayal of Christ are all important aspects of this service. Maundy is an English corruption of the Latin word Mandatum which means commandment. As Jesus washed the feet of His disciples he gave them and us the commandment to love one another. At this service it is customary for the clergy of a church to wash the feet of some or all of the members of their congregation. Bishops wash the feet of other clergy or of the poor.
After the foot washing, Holy Communion is celebrated for the last time until Easter. (Extra bread is consecrated and reserved for Good Friday.) When all have communed, the altar is stripped and washed and the ornaments of the church are taken down. These actions symbolize our Lord’s betrayal and His removal from our midst. There is often an all night vigil in the church and people are given the opportunity to pray in silence and ‘keep watch’ with the Lord.
Good Friday is the day Christ was crucified on our behalf. It is a day of strict fasting and self-denial. American tradition suggests that we consume at the most black coffee and plain bread. Irish tradition is perhaps more strenuous: water and tea. In England the fast included rice with milk and/or bread and water. In central Europe some local customs allowed for vegetable soup at lunch and bread and cheese for an evening meal.
The principal service on Good Friday is a service from noon to three o’clock- the time Jesus was on the cross. This service is made up of music, special prayers (the Solemn Collects), readings, meditation on the seven last words of Christ, adoration of the Holy Cross, and communion from the reserved sacrament.
Because many people are unable to attend the midday service, in whole or in part, churches tend to offer both morning and evening services in addition to the midday service. This ensures that everyone has the opportunity to be in church on Good Friday.
There is no celebration of the Eucharist on Holy Saturday and in the earliest days of the church the faithful fasted from Good Friday until the Easter Vigil (a post on the Easter Vigil will follow). In the Anglican Church a short and simple service is offered in remembrance of our Lord’s descent to the dead. The descent of Christ to the dead is an article of the Apostles’ Creed and is mentioned throughout the New Testament. Much could be said about this event in salvation history, but here it is sufficient to say that in order to conqueror death for us Christ had to die in the same manner as we do. While his body was in the tomb, his soul was in the abode of the dead where he proclaimed the Gospel and set free all of the righteous dead. This is best proclaimed by an anonymous second century sermon, which is usually read on Holy Saturday.
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In a world like ours that is so seemingly busy and that fails to stop for anything of real importance, it may seem overwhelming to see so many service offered by the church in one week. For those accustomed to only attending church on Sundays it may seem quite odd at first. In the Anglican tradition none of these services are obligatory, but are offered for the benefit and building up of the body of Christ, the Church. These services are a great gift that the Church offers to a world that is too wrapped up in itself. In a busy world such as ours, it may be more necessary than ever for the doors of our churches to be open so often. There are so many stories vying for first place in our hearts and most of these stories are opposed to the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are bombarded with stories that tell us to consume and to think about ourselves. We need to be bombarded with stories that teach us to love one another with self-sacrificing love. This is the story that we hear over and over again during Holy Week. This is the story Jesus showed us when he, out of His great love for the world, took up the cross and gave Himself for the life of the world. May we hear it and may it take root in us and shape our hearts and make us and all the whole Church a fellowship of self-sacrificing lovers.
ASSIST us mercifully with thy help, O Lord God of our salvation; that we may enter with joy upon the meditation of those mighty acts, whereby thou hast given unto us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.