“Holy Week: From ‘Hosanna’ to the Triduum to The Feast”
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 though, can be overlooked as we move from “Hosanna” to the “Triduum” to the “Feast.” Therefore, it is important for us to understand the history and nuances of deep meaning, which Holy Week embodies, as we recall the Passion of Our Lord.
Palm Sunday gets us into the 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 should begin in a place apart from the Nave. The procession itself helps us to rediscover how a procession works on the body. The actual movement that covers some distance and helps to make present the reality of the day when Jesus entered the city. The entry into the church provides a shift in our focus and at this point, we move into the Liturgy of the Passion. This part of the liturgy sets the tone for the “Triduum” to come, which prepares us for the remainder of Holy Week.
The “Triduum” represents a complete liturgical narrative of the Passion. The focus in many parishes has been on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but the Easter Vigil, the first Eucharist of Easter, has fallen into a lesser place of devotion. These three days are a complete, interconnected liturgical journey that expresses the dramatic narrative of Holy Week. 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 stand as the forerunners of the liturgy we have 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 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 Body and Blood of Our Lord remains in the open tabernacle overnight, and pilgrims are invited to stay and observe the watch with Our Lord. This is a special time for reflection, prayer, and silence.
Good Friday recalls the death of Our Lord. We do not offer the Great Thanksgiving on Good Friday however, at the service we do receive the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Lord from the reserve sacrament, consecrated at the Maundy Thursday service and stored in the tabernacle. The liturgy 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 remind us 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 offers himself for the rest of us. From the entry, then to the Liturgy of the Word, we move to the Solemn Collects. These are the oldest prayers that we know about and they are the ancient from for the intercessions offered by the congregation. The form that these prayers take begins with all standing and a ‘bidding’ said by the clergy, then with all kneeling, a lengthened silence is observed, and then with all standing again, a collect is offered by the clergy. After the Solemn Collects, the service concludes with the procession of a large cross, brought into the Nave and placed near the altar. The congregation kneels in silence and is invited to express some form of veneration to 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, and your personal sense of piety should dictate how you respond to this invitation. We then move to 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 parish and its history. We have to remember that this service is one of the most important of the week, as it represents the first Eucharist of Easter. Remembering that in Jewish tradition, the next day begins at the sundown of the previous day, the Great Vigil of Easter really is 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. On that Saturday in 2011, official civil twilight begins at 8:24 p.m. and thus, the service begins at 8:00 pm so that the Eucharist will not be celebrated prior to civil twilight. The beauty and richness of this liturgy, stands in contrast to the beauty and richness of Christmas Eve. Outside the doors of the church, the “New Fire” is ignited and from it, the Paschal Candle is lit. The procession consisting of the clergy, servers and the congregation, join together behind the Paschal Candle and move into the completely darkened nave. The Paschal Candle, the “Light of Christ” is placed in its stand and from it, the congregation lights their individual candles, and the Exultant is said or sung. From this point, all present take their seats and patiently listen to the “History of Salvation” with readings from Exodus and other biblical narratives, which are interspersed with chanting of the Psalms. If there are candidates, the Great Vigil is an appropriate day for baptism however; the Renewal of Baptismal Vows takes the place of the Nicene Creed on this night. 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 Great Vigil of Easter, I encourage you this year, to come and experience the deep richness and celebration of this service.
As we move through the next few weeks of Lent, I encourage all of us to prepare for Holy Week with prayer and anticipation. I also encourage all of us to participate fully in every service of Holy Week, especially the “Great Vigil of Easter” and the “Stations of the Cross” at noon on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week. As we enter our own pilgrimage in Holy Week, just as those early pilgrims made their pilgrimages, may God bless you and keep you, and may the Love of God and the peace, which passes all understanding, remain with you always.