In spite of the fact that we are not able to gather in person to observe it, the Season of Lent nevertheless concludes this week in what is known as Holy Week. Holy Week has been observed since the earliest days of the Church, and reflects what is known as Christ’s Passion, or suffering, on the way to the cross.
Holy Week begins the Sunday before Easter and ends on Holy Saturday at sundown, when Easter technically begins (though it is generally not celebrated until sunrise Sunday morning).
The Sunday before Easter is known alternately as Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. This is the high point, from which the rest of the week descends into the progressive darkness of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. Palm Sunday reflects the events of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the people hailed Him as the coming king and placed palm branches on the road before Him in honor of His place as the Messiah (Savior). The people shouted “Hosanna,” which means “Save us.” Just a few days later, many of those same people would shout “Crucify Him!” Many churches observe Palm Sunday by handing out palm branches, which are waived whenever the word “Hosanna” is spoken during worship.
Holy Week concludes with the Triduum (three days), the three days of Christ’s Passover. By the way, this is a good opportunity to answer a Frequently Asked Question:
If Jesus died on a Friday and rose 48 hours later on a Sunday, why does the Bible say He rose on the third day?
It’s actually fairly simple, it’s just not the way we think about things today. Forget about the 48 hours. In Jewish culture, the day begins at sundown the day before. So Friday actually begins on Thursday evening. Jesus died on Friday morning and was buried prior to sundown in order to honor the Sabbath which would begin at that point. He was, therefore, “in the grave” on Friday (day 1), Saturday (day 2) and Sunday (Saturday night, day 3), until He rose on Sunday morning. Thus, after three days “in the grave,” He rose “on the third day.”
So, the Triduum begins on Maundy Thursday (what we would consider Wednesday evening), on the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion . The evening began with a Passover celebration in an upper room, where Jesus did two incredible things: He washed the disciples’ feet as an example to them of service, and He instituted the Holy Sacrament of His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins – the Lord’s Supper. It is in and through this supper, filled with His presence, that Jesus continues to show His love for us by strengthening and preserving our faith in Him. These are also the reason Thursday is known as Maundy Thursday, which gets its name from the Latin word relating to mandate, or command. On this night, Jesus told His disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). From the upper room, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, where He engaged in intensive prayer before being betrayed by Judas and arrested by the temple guard. From there He was taken to a sham trial, where Peter denied knowing Jesus in the courtyard. After the trial He was taken to Pilate, who allowed for Jesus to be crucified, acquiescing to the demands of the Jewish authorities.
Maundy Thursday service in the church takes place on Thursday evening, since we do not keep days the way that the Jews did. Worship traditionally involves the celebration of Holy Communion, followed by the “Stripping of the Altar” of all vestments and elements, leaving it bare. This is done to symbolize the stripping away of Jesus’ garments and His honor by His captors, and the abandonment of Jesus by His disciples.
Good Friday follows Maundy Thursday, with the altar remaining bare as the Church descends into the darkness of repentance over the sin that sent Jesus to the cross. This service, in particular, may contain many ancient elements, including the reading of the entire Passion account, a cross processional, a long back-and-forth responsory prayer known as the Bidding Prayer, and moments of silence throughout. As the service progresses, it can be especially powerful to practice Tenebrae (“darkness”), where the lights of the church are progressively dimmed and extinguished until the service concludes in darkness.
Incidentally, why is the day of Christ’s death called “Good” Friday? Because of the victory Jesus won for us on the cross in His innocent death, which atoned (paid) for our sins. In other words, though Jesus’ death was certainly not a good thing in that it happened, it is an eternally good thing in that it needed to happen, for our sake. You can read more here.
Holy Saturday concludes the season of Lent and Holy Week, and leads into Easter Sunday. One of the most powerful ways to observe Holy Saturday is with the Easter Vigil, which actually bridges the gap between Lent and Easter in the worship service itself! To “hold vigil” means to “keep watch,” and this service keeps watch for Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Beginning in darkness, the lights are progressively added throughout the service as various readings take us through the Old testament from Creation to the Flood to the Exodus to the time of the Exile before Jesus’ birth. The service concludes with the lights on full as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and take communion together, fulfilling the purpose of the vigil and making the full transition into Easter from Lent.
Easter Sunday, then, is the highest holy day in the Church year (yes, more so even than Christmas), as we celebrate the new life we have in Jesus through His death and resurrection. For Jesus died for our sins on Good Friday, but on Easter He rose again from the dead. By his dying He destroyed death, and by his rising He restored to us everlasting life. Easter celebrations are usually glorious and grand, with churches breaking out anything from an extra trumpet to full orchestras, worshiping in a way that gives the ultimate glory to God for the new life we have in Jesus. Many churches have a “Sonrise” service, which celebrates the resurrection of the Son of God concurrent with the rising of the sun in the sky at dawn.
If you haven’t already, let this be the year you look for a church home during Holy Week – and yes, even though online is the only option available.
Let yourself be taken through the darkness of the passion, so that the light of Easter will be all the brighter by comparison, and thus more meaningful.
Don’t go to church on Easter because you have to – go because you need to; better yet, go because you want to.
Because in this world of partisan politics, where every news report is too full of slant and bias to know where the truth lies, where the internet is filled with instant reactions of anger and hate, where threats of super-viruses and corruption have us worried about the end of the world, wouldn’t it be great to hear a message of hope?
Because the Word of God, the promises of God, have never changed – they remain as true today as they were when first spoken. In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven, and for all who believe in Him, there is more than just the fear and suffering and death that this world offers, there is eternal life.
In the midst of the darkness, come back to the Light of Christ.