March 26, 2015 Gene Schlesinger

Holy Week: A Primer

Holy Week is the highlight of the Christian year. It has the highest concentration of liturgical observances, and it commemorates the central events of the Christian faith. All the rest of the Christian year, from Christmas to Pentecost takes its basic meaning from what we celebrate during Holy Week.

During this week, we trace the last week of Jesus’s earthly life and celebrate his resurrection,[1] because it was in the drama that unfolds this week that our salvation was achieved. The best way to “understand” Holy Week is by experience, participating in its liturgies. So this primer is not going to be a play by play. Instead, it’s a basic orientation to help you know what to expect so you can engage as fruitfully as possible.

Palm/Passion Sunday

Sunday in Holy Week corresponds to Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We will begin our service with a procession with palm fronds,[2] recalling the way Jesus was greeted when he came to Jerusalem for the last time. The Eucharistic liturgy for the day looks ahead to how this week will end, though, with readings that focus on Christ’s passion. The movement from jubilance to solemnness should leave us with a sense of dissonance that characterizes the week as a whole.

The Triduum (Three Days)

The main action of Holy Week unfolds during the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. These are one continuous action, broken up over three days,[3] and for the full effect you should come to all three.

Maundy Thursday [4]

On this day we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist, which Jesus established on the night before he suffered. On this night he also washed his disciples feet and commanded us to do the same for one another. And so we wash each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday. This is a humble and humbling act.[5]After the Eucharist, the altar is stripped and all the decorations of the church are removed or shrouded. This corresponds to Jesus’s gradual abandonment by even his close friends before his suffering. He goes alone to accomplish our salvation. We depart in silence.

Good Friday

On this day we recall especially Jesus’s death on the cross. There is a reading of the Passion from John’s Gospel, in which we all take part, which emphasizes the fact that we all have some responsibility for Christ’s death, and that he came to die for all of us. A cross is brought into the church for us to contemplate and to venerate.[6] According to ancient custom, the Eucharist is not celebrated on GoodFriday, so we have communion from the elements consecrated on Maundy Thursday.[7] We depart again in silence.

The Easter Vigil

The Easter Vigil is the most significant, most pregnant with meaning liturgy of the entire year. Nothing I write here could do it justice. Very briefly: we begin in the darkness with which Good Friday left us, and in which Jesus spent Holy Saturday. The lighting of the paschal candle brings us an anticipation of Jesus’s Easter triumph. We walk through the Old Testament to see the history of how God has saved his people. We initiate new Christians into the church by baptism, chrismation, and their first communion. We celebrate the triumph of Jesus’s resurrection![8] Lent is over, and the 50 Day party known as Easter begins tonight!

Easter Sunday

On Easter Sunday we’ll have a simple said Eucharist followed by a far less simple Easter brunch.



[1] However, to be precise, we must note that Holy Week is not a reenactment of this week. We enter anew into an already completed drama. Jesus has been raised, and so he doesn’t die again, for instance.

[2] Fun fact, the ashes from Ash Wednesday are from Palm Sunday’s palms.

[3] This is indicated, for instance, by the fact that there are no dismissals on Maundy Thursdayor Good Friday. Each service begins in the silence with which the last one left off.

[4] Maundy Thursday takes its name from the new commandment (mandatum) that Jesus gives his disciples: to love one another.

[5] Some people are weirded out by this idea. While you certainly don’t have to do it, we can speak from experience and say that it’s a very moving experience, and you probably won’t regret it.

[6] To venerate something is to show it respect and honor. This may include bowing or kissing. You may or may not feel comfortable with this, but please do take the time to meditate on the glories of the cross.

[7] This underscores the unity of the Triduum as well.

[8] With what’s called the “holy noise.” You’ll want to bring bells and other noise makers. The louder the better.