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Rev. Kenneth Saunders
For the Salisbury Post
“Holy Week” is the last week of Lent, the week immediately preceding Easter Sunday. It is observed in many Christian churches as a time to commemorate and enact the suffering (or Passion) and death of Jesus Christ. This is done in many different ways through various observances and services of worship. Some church traditions focus specifically on the events of the last week of Jesus’ life. However, many of the traditional services and liturgies symbolize larger themes that marked Jesus’ entire ministry. The observances during this last week of Lent range from daily services in churches to informal meetings in homes in order to participate in a Christian version of the Passover Meal (or Pesach Seder).
In the Catholic traditions (this includes Episcopal, Anglican, and Lutheran), the conclusion to the week is called the Triduum (a triduum is a space of three days that usually accompanies a church festival or holy days that are devoted to special prayer and observance). Some liturgical traditions, such as Lutherans, simply refer to the Triduum as “The Three Days.” The Triduum begins Thursday evening of Holy Week with Eucharist and concludes with evening prayers Easter Sunday. These are considered the most important services of the church year, and the three days constitute one continuous liturgy, building up to the proclamation of Easter and the celebration in the joy of our salvation brought by the risen Christ.
Increasingly, some evangelical churches that once looked with suspicion on these seemingly traditional observances of Holy Week, are now realizing there is real value in Holy Week services, especially on Good Friday. This has a solid theological basis both in Scripture and in the traditions of the Faith. The Holy Week observances call us to move behind the joyful celebrations of Palm Sunday and Easter, and focus on the suffering, humiliation, and death that is part of Holy Week. It is important to place the hope of the Resurrection, the promise of newness and life, against the background of death and endings.
As Christians, we can truly understand the light and hope of the resurrection on Sunday morning after in walking through the shadows and darkness of Holy Week and Good Friday. The solomn walk reveals to us the horror and magnitude of sin and its consequences in the world incarnated in the dying Jesus on the cross, only in contemplating the ending and despair that the disciples felt on Holy Saturday, that we can truly understand the light and hope of the resurrection Sunday morning!
New beginnings come from endings. Many people are able to draw a parallel from their own lives and faith journey from the observances of Holy Week. It helps provide people the opportunity to experience the truth of the death and resurrection of Christ in liturgy and symbol, and the services become a powerful proclamation of the transformative power of the Gospel, and God at work in the lives of people.
The entire week beginning with Palm Sunday and continuing through Holy Saturday is included in “Holy Week,” and some church traditions have daily services during the week. However, usually only Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday are times of special observance in most churches. Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday)
Palm Sunday observes the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem marked by the crowds, who were in Jerusalem for the Passover. They waved palm branches and proclaimed Jesus as the messianic king. In this traditional service, worshippers enact the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem by waving of palm branches and singing songs of celebration. Sometimes this is accompanied by a procession into the church. In many churches, children are an integral part of this service since they enjoy processions and activity as a part of worship.
This Sunday is also known as Passion Sunday to commemorate the beginning of Holy Week and Jesus’ final agonizing journey to the cross. The English word passion comes from a Latin word that means “to suffer,” the same word from which we derive the English word patient.
Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday
There are a variety of events that are clustered together on this last day before Jesus was arrested. They are commemorated in various ways in services of worship. These include the last meal together with Jesus and the twelve, which was most likely a Passover meal, the institution of the Last Supper (Eucharist or Communion), Jesus washing their feet, the betrayal by Judas (because of the exchange with Jesus at the meal) and Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane while the disciples fell asleep. However, most liturgies focus on the Last Supper meal as a way to commemorate this day.
Thursday of Holy Week is remembered mostly as the time Jesus ate a final meal together with the men who had followed him for so long. We do not have to solve any historical questions to celebrate in worship what Jesus did and taught and modeled for us here.
Traditionally in the Christian Church, this day is known as “Maundy Thursday.” The term Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum (from which we get our English word mandate). The term is usually translated “commandment,” from John’s account of this Thursday night. According to the Fourth Gospel, as Jesus and the disciples were eating their final meal together before Jesus’ arrest, he washed the disciples’ feet to illustrate humility and the spirit of servanthood. After they had finished the meal, as they walked into the night toward Gethsemane, Jesus taught his disciples a “new” commandment that was not really new (John 13:34-35): “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, you also ought to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Good Friday, or Holy Friday
Friday of Holy Week traditionally has been called Good Friday or Holy Friday. On this day, the church commemorates Jesus’ arrest (since by Jewish customs of counting days from sundown to sundown it was already Friday), his trial, crucifixion and suffering, death and burial. Since services on this day are to observe Jesus’ death, and since Eucharist is a celebration, there is traditionally no Communion observed on Good Friday unless it is distributed from the reserved sacrament.
There are a variety of services of worship for Good Friday, all aimed at allowing worshippers to experience some sense of the pain, humiliation and ending in the journey to the cross. Usually, a Good Friday service is a series of scripture readings, a short homily and a time of meditation and prayer, veneration of the cross and communion from the sacrament that was blessed on Maundy Thursday. One traditional use of Scripture is to base the homily or devotional on the Seven Last Words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel traditions.
Some churches use the “Stations of the Cross” as part of the Good Friday Service. This service uses paintings or banners to represent various scenes from Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial and death, and the worshippers move to the various stations to sing hymns or pray as the story is told. There is a great variety in how this service is conducted, and various traditions use different numbers of stations to tell the story
Another common service for Good Friday is Tenebrae (Latin for “shadows” or “darkness”). Sometimes Tenebrae is the general term applied to all church services on the last three days of Holy week. It is used as the Service of Darkness or Service of Shadows and is usually held in the evening of Good Friday. Again, there are varieties of this service, but it is usually characterized by a series of scripture readings and meditation done in stages while lights and/or candles are gradually extinguished to symbolize the growing darkness not only of Jesus’ death but of hopelessness in the world without God. This service ends in darkness, sometimes with a final candle, the Christ candle, carried out of the sanctuary, symbolizing the death of Jesus. Often the service concludes with a loud noise symbolizing the closing of Jesus’ tomb. The worshippers then leave in silence to wait.
Holy Saturday
This is the seventh day of the week, the day Jesus rested in the tomb. In the first three Gospel accounts, this was the Jewish Sabbath, which provided appropriate symbolism of the seventh day rest. While some church traditions continue daily services on Saturday, there is no communion served on this day.
Some traditions suspend services and scripture readings during the day on Saturday, to be resumed at the Great Vigil of Easter after sundown Saturday. During the day, Holy Saturday is traditionally observed as a day of quiet meditation, as Christians contemplate the darkness of a world without a future and without hope apart from God and God’s grace.
The Easter Vigil begins at sundown on Holy Saturday and usually includes four parts: 1. Service of Light including the lighting of the paschal candle (symbolizing the “light of Christ”) from a new fire and proclaiming that Jesus Christ is risen. 2. Lessons read from the history of Salvation. 3. Baptism and the renewal of baptismal vows. 4. The first Eucharist (communion, or Lord’s Supper) celebration of Easter.
This article is not all inclusive of the different ways Christian churches celebrate “Holy Week.” However, it does provide a broad overview of some common observances and minor explanation of why different churches do different things.
Holy Week Services observed at Christ Church in Cleveland:
– Palm Sunday n 10:30 a.m. (Liturgy of the Palms n procession starting at the children’s chapel)
– Maundy Thursday n 7:00 p.m. (Foot Washing, Celebration of the Last Eucharist before Easter, and stripping of the altar)
– Good Friday n 12:00 noon (Stations of the Cross)
– Good Friday n 7:00 p.m. (Veneration of the cross, Communion from the reserved sacrament)
– Great Vigil of Easter n 7:30 p.m. (Lessons, Renewal of Baptismal vows, and celebration of the first Eucharist of Easter)
– Easter Sunday n 10:30 a.m. (Festal Eucharist)
For more information on this and other events at Christ Church, visit us online at www.christchurchclevelandnc.org or e-mail us at welcome@christchurchclevelandnc.org
The Rev. Kenneth Saunders is the priest at Christ Church in Cleveland.

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