by The Rev. Eric S. Cooter
“Holy Week” for Christians has been and is just that, the holiest of weeks in our liturgical calendar. Through the liturgies of Holy Week, we experience a tradition that is centuries old. Palm Sunday, the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil), all lead us to the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord. The richness of these liturgies move us from “Hosanna” to the “Triduum” to the “Feast.” It is important to understand the history and deep meaning embodied in the ancient rituals of Holy Week, which recall the Passion of Our Lord.
The liturgy of Palm Sunday begins the journey of Holy Week. On this Sunday, there are really two services (The Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion). A discontinuity in these two liturgies provides a tension between the shouts of Hosanna, as Our Lord entered the City of Jerusalem, and the Passion Gospel that provides the narrative for the Crucifixion of Our Lord. The Liturgy of the Palms usually begins in a place apart from the church. The procession to the sanctuary itself, helps the participants to rediscover how a procession works on the body. The actual movement in some communities covers some distance and it helps us to experience the reality of the distance traveled when Jesus entered the city. The moment the congregation enters the church facilitates a shift in focus and at this point, the Liturgy of the Passion narrative begins. It is this prelude in the liturgy that sets the tone for remainder of the week, the “Triduum” which is to come, the liturgies that prepare us for the great feast of Easter.
The “Triduum” represents a complete liturgical narrative of the Passion. The primary focus in the past in many churches, seems to rest merely on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but the Easter Vigil, the first Eucharist of Easter is the culmination of this week of ritual and mystery. The “Triduum,” the three days of Holy Week are a complete, interconnected liturgical journey that expresses the dramatic narrative of the Lord’s Passion. The Triduum has its roots in the fourth century when Christians made pilgrimages to the Holy Land in commemoration of the Feast of the Resurrection. As these Christians moved about the city, special observances (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil) developed over time, and when the pilgrims returned home, these liturgies began to take root throughout the Roman Empire, and they werethe forerunners of the liturgies we often observe today.
Maundy Thursday (from the root word “Mandatum”) is representative of Our Lord’s command to “Love one Another.” This command is expressed in the liturgy of the “foot washing.” The emphasis on this night is on community, the washing of the disciple’s feet by Our Lord, and our call to serve one another. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are a seamless whole and is usually expressed as such, because there is no dismissal on Maundy Thursday. We move directly from the foot washing, to the last celebration of the Eucharist until sundown Saturday, to the stripping of the altar and then to our exit in silence, to await the liturgy of Good Friday. The church remains bare throughout Good Friday until the first Eucharist of the year at the Great Vigil of Easter. Some parishes observe a “Gethsemane Watch” right after this service. The reserve sacrament (the Body and Blood of Our Lord) remains in an open tabernacle overnight, and pilgrims are invited to stay and observe a “Holy Watch” of devotion Our Lord. This can be a very moving, special time for reflection, prayer, and silence.
Good Friday recalls the death of Our Lord. Most Christian churches do not offer the Great Thanksgiving on Good Friday however, at this service, some congregations offer the elements of the Body and Blood of Our Lord from the sacrament, which was consecrated at the Maundy Thursday service and reserved in the tabernacle. The liturgy of Good Friday itself is subdued and solemn. While the congregation is kneeling in silent prayer, the clergy enter the nave in silence. There is no musical procession during this entry. The gospel readings offered on Good Friday, remind Christians that Jesus was in charge of the events of his passion, and it sets the tone for the liturgy. The focus is on remembering that Jesus offered himself for the rest of us. The ritual moves from the entry into the sanctuary, to the Liturgy of the Word, and then to the Solemn Collects. These are the oldest prayers known in the Christian tradition, and they are the ancient form for the intercessions, offered by the congregation. The congregation stands and these prayers begin with a ‘bidding’ said by the clergy. Next, with all kneeling, a lengthened silence is observed. Next, with all standing again, a collect is offered by the clergy. In some congregations, after the Solemn Collects are said, a large wooden cross is brought into the church and placed near the altar. The congregation kneels in silence and is invited to express some form of veneration of the cross. Some people come and kneel at the cross, some kiss the cross or touch it, and some remain kneeling at their seats. This is a very powerful moment in Holy Week. The Good Friday service can continue with the Confession of Sin, the Lord’s Prayer, Communion from the reserve sacrament, and then the final prayer. There is no blessing or dismissal, the clergy process in silence and the congregation leaves in silence.
The Great Vigil of Easter has been observed in many different ways, and with different fervor and commitment, depending on the church and its history. Historically, this service has been one of the most important of the week, as it represented the first Eucharist of Easter. The timing of the Eucharist of the Great Vigil of Easter has traditionally been set after civil twilight, which begins at sunset and ends when the geometric center of the sun reaches 6° below the horizon. Because it is usually observed in darkness, the beauty and richness of this liturgy, stands in contrast to the liturgy of Christmas Eve. In some churches, outside the doors of the church a “New Fire” is ignited and from it, the Paschal Candle is lit. The clergy, servers, and the congregation together, behind the Paschal Candle, move into a completely darkened sanctuary. The Paschal Candle, the “Light of Christ” is placed in its stand and from it, the congregation lights their individual candles, and the Exsultet (an ancient chant is said or sung. From this point, all present take their seats and patiently listen to the “History of Salvation” which includes readings from Exodus and other biblical narratives, interspersed between chants or readings of the Psalms. If there are candidates for baptism, the Great Vigil is an appropriate day. From this point in the liturgy, the words “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” is shouted, all the lights in the Nave are ignited, and the joyous celebration of the first Eucharist of Easter begins. The Great Vigil of Easter traditionally stands as the culmination of Holy Week and most appropriately, stands as the Great celebration of Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If you have never attended the liturgies of Holy week, I encourage you this year, to come and experience the deep richness and celebration of these ancient and beautiful liturgies.
The Rev. Eric S. Cooter