Welcome to Holy week, the climax of the Catholic Church. The week that helps us by grace to remember the love of our Lord Jesus Christ by recounting His life, death and resurrection. Holy week is the last week of lent, finishing off with Easter Sunday to close the gap between life and death. In order to enter into the week, I've put together a guide that can help us understand what we do during the Holy week celebrations, what to look for and why we do them.
Palm Sunday - Jesus' entry into Jerusalem
This Sunday observes the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem when people who were in Jerusalem for Passover greeted him by waving palm branches in the air and placing them on the road proclaiming him as the King, shouting "Hosanna in the Highest, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Matt 21:9) The Gospels tell us that Jesus rode into the city on a donkey, enacting the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. In doing so he emphasized the humility that was to characterize the Kingdom that he always proclaimed. The Irony is that the same crowd who proclaimed Jesus as the new Davidic King is the same crowd that would demand for his execution five days later in what we know today as "Good Friday" This should remind us of our own human tendency to turn away from God, Sin and accept him on our own terms.
What happens in the Liturgy?
The procession is done in many different ways and it's symbolic of Christ's entrance into Jerusalem. We remember Christ's presence that is always living in our hearts and we rejoice because of his presence into the city of our church, our communities and our hearts. Every Sunday, the procession should remind us that Jesus is entering into our lives through the celebration of the Eucharist. During Palm Sunday, the procession recounts a triumphant entry of Jesus as described in Matthew's account, with shouts of praise and waving of palm branches.
Palm Branches -
Matthew's account describes Jesus entry into Jerusalem as a "Triumphant" one, with people joyfully shouting and praising his name. It says that people cut palm branches off of the trees waved them in the air and placed them on the ground as Jesus made his way into the city. The blessing and use of palm branches reminds us of Christ's Kingship and our share in welcoming him as a the new King.
Today, we should remember the mercy that Christ offers us, and with that our faults, our sins. With Christ entering into the city of Jerusalem, not only does he triumphantly enter into the city but likewise he enters into our hearts, to rule with forgiveness, with mercy and with love.
Holy Thursday - The Lord’s Supper
Holy Thursday takes us to the final words and hours that Jesus shared with his Disciples. Specifically, the last gathering that was held to celebrate Passover, known as the "Last Supper"
Jesus would wash the feet of his disciples, encouraging
them to take up a life of humility and service, to live like he did. Jesus would then share a meal with his followers, asking them to remember him by saying "do this in memory of me" (Luke 22:19) This is the first mass ever celebrated in which Jesus not only institutes the priesthood by washing the feet of his disciples, but he also institutes the Holy Eucharist in order for us, his Church to remain ever close to him and him in us. However, later that night after the meal Jesus would be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas, one of the twelve, would betray Jesus just as he had foretold during the meal they shared.
What happens in the Liturgy?
Washing of the feet
- Symbolic of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. It reminds us that Christ asked us to serve all of those that we meet, to humble ourselves and live a life of sacrifice as Jesus did. Jesus in his love for our humanity, not only became man, but became lesser than man by kneeling down to wash the feet of his apostles. (John 13:3-5)
Look for a ritual that involves the priest washing the feet of some fellow parishioners. Here we remember that Christ prepares us on our christian journey, he cleanses us on our walk with Christ, and he endows us with gifts of humility, love and service that should be practiced in our daily lives.
Procession of the Eucharist -
After receiving communion, the Eucharist is placed in a reservation chapel. Many parishes will have a procession to a designated area that has been decorated before hand. This transition recounts Jesus' time of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane just before he is arrested. Once the Eucharist is placed in the reservation chapel or sanctuary, parishioners are encouraged to stay an pray quietly, to re-live the Jesus' request to "stay here and keep watch with me" (Matt 26:38) At this, the liturgy is over and continues on Good Griday, the day of Christ's passion and death.
Today, we should remember the final gathering that Jesus had with his disciples, he instituted the priesthood by washing their feet. Jesus sat with them, and dined with them, celebrating the first mass by giving the new church his own Precious Body and Blood through the Holy Eucharist.
Good Friday - Jesus’ Suffering & Death
The next morning after he is arrested, Jesus is tried in the courts of Pontius Pilate. With many people hollering, demanding that Jesus be crucified, Pontius Pilate condemns Jesus to death. He would be spat upon, flogged and beaten, bruised for our transgressions and crowned with thorns. Jesus would be nailed to a cross, and die a death that would release us from the bonds of death! On this day, the church commemorates Jesus’ suffering, death and burial.
Since services on this day are to observe Jesus’ death, and since Eucharist is a celebration of life, there are traditionally no Eucharistic consecration prayers said on this day (communion that is distributed has been consecrated on Holy Thursday.) Also, depending on how the services are conducted on this day, all pictures, statutes, and crosses are covered, the chancel and altar coverings are removed and altar candles are extinguished, many parishes might do this after or during the Holy Thursday liturgy. They are left this way through Saturday, but are always replaced with white before sunrise on Sunday. It’s a time of mourning, a time of sadness and a time of Jesus’ absence. Many parishes will offer an opportunity to pray the Stations of the Cross as a community.
What happens in the Liturgy?
Proclamation of Jesus’ Passion - there will be a reading of Jesus’ passion according to John. This reminds us once again of everything that has happened since this morning. We will hear of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, his condemnation by Pilate and the people and his death upon the cross. Some churches do this in the form of a play, such as a “passion play” or by dialogue with various people playing different parts. The intention is for us to rencounter the final hours of Jesus’ life of suffering with sorrow and sadness. Here, we re-live Jesus’ passion and death.
Veneration of the Cross - It may seem strange to non-Catholics that on this particular day we venerate the instrument that was used to crucify Jesus Christ. The beauty of the cross is that it brought us life by Christ’s death, it was Christ by his cross that redeemed the world and for that reason we venerate it on Good Friday.
"We adore you O Christ, and we bless you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world."
Usually, the time to venerate the Holy Cross happens before communion. This can be done by kissing it, bowing before it or touching it. The rite is also symbolic of us placing ourselves at the foot of the Cross on which Jesus died being completely mournful and sorrowful.
Today, we should remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for our sake. He was betrayed, tortured, beaten, spat upon and nailed to a cross to die. The ultimate sacrifice was made so that we might inherit eternal life one day with him. He did it willingly out of love, and with us in mind.
Easter Vigil - The Resurrection of Jesus
Finally the church has reached the high point of the liturgical season—the resurrection of Jesus. Three days after Jesus’ death he is risen from the dead. The Church celebrates this eventful day with many things happening in the liturgy. Since Thursday there has been silence in the church, darkness throughout the liturgies, with the Eucharist set away in the reservation chapel. Now, Jesus has risen and the seal of the tomb where he was buried has been removed. Light has shattered the darkness, life has pierced death, and joy has replaced sadness.
What happens in the liturgy?
Lighting of the Paschal Candle - In this liturgy, light is a common theme. Light signifies new light, the dawn after the night and life after death. The light pierces the darkness of the church, some churches can depict this in various ways, for example, a candle lighting, an Easter fire, procession of lights or the lights of the church will be turned on and more importantly, the paschal candle will be blessed and lit. Here we remember the light of Christ that lives within us throughout our journey. The candle will remain with us throughout the liturgical year. When a person is baptized, the priest will light the baptismal candle from the paschal candle as a sign of entrance into the community of faith. Today, however, the light of the paschal candle reminds us of Christ's presence inside a darkened tomb that will soon be opened. Look for fire and candles.
Easter Proclamation - the Easter proclamation or the Exsultet, is a song that is sung by a deacon, priest or cantor. At this time, the hymn is sung in the dark, with only the paschal candle lit. This song specifically commemorates the times that God has interceded for his people. From the Old Testament, the times that God remained with the Israelites as they crossed over the Red Sea and into freedom. The Exsultet particularly, commemorates this sacred night in which Jesus Christ will rise from the dead, conquer death and set us free once again. "Alleluia, Christ is Risen" will be sung before the Gospel reading and for 50 days up until Pentecost we will it ring in the Church as a celebration of Jesus' resurrection through the Easter season.
“This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.” (Exsultet Psalm)
Liturgy of the Word - There will be 9 total readings during the liturgy of the word (7 from the Old Testament and 2 from the New Testament), each one telling us the story of our Salvation History beginning with God creating the world. We will recount the story of God remaining with his people in the Exodus, God calling his people to a new covenant, the Church being called to prayer and baptism, and finally we will hear of the end of time when the fulfillment of God’s love will be revealed in his second coming. These nine readings should remind us of God’s faithfulness that has always been present throughout our history of salvation.
Liturgy of Initiation - At this moment in the liturgy, the community led by the priest or the bishop will welcome those who have been receiving classes to enter into the Church. Classes are in the teachings of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults commonly known as RCIA. Today, those catechumens will partake in the Sacraments of Initiation. They will be Baptized with water, Confirmed with the Sacred Chrism oils (same oil that is blessed by the local bishop during the “Chrism Mass” that takes place during Holy Week) and last but not least, they will receive the Holy Eucharist. Many adults and/or children will be wearing red as a sign of the Holy Spirit that seals them and confirms them as a people of faith, or white as a sign of new life, new birth within the christian community. Look for people wearing red or white, those are your new parishoners!
Liturgy of the Eucharist - After the readings, the proclamation, and the liturgy of initiation, the community celebrates the life of Jesus’ death by celebrating the liturgy of the Eucharist. Communion is distributed once again as a sign of Jesus remaining with us Body, Bood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist. The Eucharist unites us a community of faith and it unites us a Church throughout the world. We do this to remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us just as he commanded us to do. Today the Church rejoices by celebrating not only Jesus’ resurrection from death to life, but also the new life that God has brought through the death and resurrection of Jesus to every individual believer
Today, along with Easter Sunday we should rejoice in God’s promise of redemption. The promise that God will always win and defeat the death that holds us down. Remember God’s marvels, his deeds and his triumph over sin! Rejoice and be glad.
This Holy Week, may we each encounter Jesus in the way that would allow us to grow in deeper union with him, intimately connected to his love and his spirit of life in the resurrection. Blessings on your journey throughout this Holy Triduum!