In defence of Thomas: a doubting sceptic? or a passionate firebrand? (John 20; Easter 2A)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday provides the name by which this Sunday is often known in church tradition: it is Thomas Sunday. (The reading is John 20:19-31.)

We all know about Thomas: he had to have proof … had to see with his own eyes … had to touch to know it was real … did not have faith without tangible proof. Thomas often gets a bad rap: oh he of little faith! … why did he not believe straight away, like the others who followed Jesus? … why was he in the thrall of doubt at precisely the time that faith was called for?

Thomas wants to pin the matter down, to have the evidence produced, to know without question what has taken place. We remember him from this story, as the doubting sceptic.

Let us reflect a little on this: Thomas was not alone. All the other early witnesses, followers, and writers, in the movement of people clustered around Jesus, had the same need to pin the matter down. There were many sceptics in this movement. They needed some form of proof. They looked for evidence. They sought signs that would validate the new way that Jesus was in their midst.

The endings of the Gospels testify to this. The earliest Gospel ended with an open narrative, hanging on those words: the tomb is empty — he is not here! (See

Subsequent compilers of the narrative about Jesus could not live with the uncertainty of an open-ended story, with an absent Jesus who would appear only in a distant, remote, unimportant location (Galilee). No; they had to have him come to the women, the travellers, even the inner core of disciples, in or near to Jerusalem. Indeed, Luke explicitly reports that the risen Jesus provided them with “many convincing proofs” after his resurrection (Acts 1:3).

Thomas, of course, is the disciple whom we most closely associate with doubt, not with faith, derived from this very report of his encounter with the risen Jesus. “Unless I see, I will not believe”, the sceptic Thomas says, in John 20. “Unless I can put my finger in the mark in the side of my master, I will not believe that he has risen”, declares Thomas.

And in the modern scientific era, where we operate by testing, questioning, doubting, and seeking to prove hypotheses, this kind of approach has a certain attractiveness. For some Christians in the present time, in the period of probing scientific hypotheses and seeking historical certainties, Thomas has become a kind of patron saint—a saint of doubting, questioning, and proving. “Unless I see, I will not believe” is the mantra of such a saint.

But Thomas appears in two other places in John’s Gospel. One is at the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers, when Thomas asks Jesus a question: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” This question provokes one of the most well-known sayings of Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:5-7). It is thanks to Thomas that we have this saying of Jesus!

The other time that Thomas is mentioned in this Gospel provides us with another insight into the character of Thomas. He appears early on, in the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, as told in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel. In that story, we encounter a rather different Thomas. In that incident, Thomas was a man on a mission who was filled with faith. He spoke with Jesus with the intensity of a fervent believer. He declared that he was prepared to follow Jesus, whatever it cost him.

Faced with a request to travel to Bethany, near Jerusalem, because of the death of Lazarus, Jesus and his followers discuss whether they should make this trip. John’s Gospel tells us that the message of Jesus was so provocative to the southerners in Judea, that they had already mounted a number of attempts to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31).

So the disciples were convinced that if Jesus travelled close to Jerusalem, he would be walking to his death. What to do, they wonder, when this urgent message comes from friends in Bethany: “Lazarus is dead; please come; we need you here!” (John 11:1-8).

At that moment, Thomas springs into action. There is no doubt about it, he declares:  Jesus needs to go there; and the disciples need to go with him. “We need to get moving! Come on, why are we waiting?” And from the mouth of Thomas come these incredible words: “We should go too, and die with him” (John 11:16).

Thomas utters the excitable words of a zealous follower of Jesus; he gives a fervent declaration of commitment and trust in the one who had been his guide for many months now. Thomas was not paralysed by fear, not distressed by doubt; here, Thomas was fired up by faith, and committed to a journey that could well lead to death. If Jesus, our master, is going to die—then we, too, should be prepared to die with him! (See

This portrayal of Thomas as a committed follower, as a passionate firebrand, is not how we normally remember him, because the story from chapter 20 of the Gospel holds sway. Yet in this earlier story in chapter 11 of the Gospel, it is clear that Thomas has faith, even if it is somewhat unusual, and it is abundantly clear that he is prepared to put his life on the line for what he believes.

So, perhaps we should place this Thomas, the passionate firebrand of John 11, alongside the hesitating, doubting figure that we imagine him to be like, courtesy of John 20. Where are the signs of this passionate, committed, fervent, zealous man of faith, in this encounter? Where was the fiery partisan Thomas living out his faith in the risen Jesus?

I like to imagine (and it is only an imagination … a speculation … as the biblical txt is silent on this point) … I like to imagine that, as the disciples gather behind locked doors, paralysed by their fear, Thomas was not to be found in their midst, because he was back into his regular life, living out his faith in the public arena.

Even after Jesus had been raised from the dead, the transformation of Easter, as we know it, had not really kicked in for the disciples. They were locked into their fear. Where were the disciples living out their faith? It seems they took the line of least resistance, and shared their faith only in the safety of their own group, hidden away, safe in the seclusion of a private home.

And where was Thomas? He was not there. He was out beyond the locked doors, out in the community, in the full gaze of the antagonistic authorities. What was he doing? We are not told; we have to imagine.

Is it feasible to imagine that Thomas was back into his regular routine, going about his business, attending to his daily tasks? That he was seeking to live out his faith, not cowed by the threat of persecution, but firmly holding fast to his belief in Jesus in public? That he was continuing to live as that fiery, fanatical believer who was still willing to put his faith on the line? It is a tempting, enticing way to imagine him.

If Thomas was really the passionately committed believer whom we met in the Lazarus story, then it is quite plausible that this is why he was not with the other disciples, behind locked doors, hiding out of fear.

Perhaps Thomas was wanting to demonstrate his faith to those who did not yet believe. Something had happened to Jesus—the tomb was empty, believers were testifying that he was risen—so he was wanting to show others that his faith had not been shattered.

Where was Thomas living out his faith? In his everyday life, amidst acquaintances and friends—and even enemies. Now that is a model that we would do well to ponder, and imitate, in our lives!

(The image is of Saint Thomas, by Georges de La Tour, a French painter of the 17th century.)

See also

The resurrection calls us to pay attention to this life (Easter Sunday)

On Easter Sunday, all attention is rightly on Jesus, risen from the dead. “Christ is risen”, we greet each other, with the expected reply, “he is risen indeed”. Risen, to new life; risen, as a sign of the future life we are promised; risen, soon to ascend, to be “seated at the right hand of the Father” in heaven. Alleluias are rightly sung on this Easter day, and in this Easter season!

So our attention is, in effect, directed away from here, on earth, towards the heavenly realm. Indeed, the Gospel for Easter Sunday this year appears to point us in that direction, as Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene in the garden: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’”(John 20:17).

The same orientation is found in the story of the walk to Emmaus, where Jesus says to those walking on the road with him, “was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). “Going to glory”, of course, is a popular euphemism for dying—going to heaven; even in biblical usage, entering into glory is to be in the direct presence of God (Exod 40:35; 2 Chron 7:2; Isa 2:10, 19–21; 1 Cor 15:42–43; 2 Cor 3:7–18). And that is where Jesus goes.

A popular (mis)understanding of Christianity is that it is about using this life as preparation for the life to come in the future. Faith, in this view, is about repentance now and obedience in all we do on this earth, so that when we die, our souls will rise to heaven, we will be commended as a “good and faithful servant”, and invited to “enter the kingdom of God”—or, in the common popular perception, step through the pearly gates into a heaven filled with angels, playing their harps and singing their songs of eternal praise and adoration.

That’s the popular view; and some small part of this rests on some verses found in scripture. But most of it is romanticised populist thinking, far away from Christian doctrine. Sure, there are the apocalyptic sections in the Bible that look to the coming of a new creation—but if you understand them in the way that I believe they were intended, they are actually providing encouragement to believers about the present, rather than predicting what the future will be. And they are not about the new heavens and new earth of the future, up in the sky somewhere, but rather about “the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God”, onto earth (see Rev 21:2).

See my discussion of the function of biblical apocalyptic passages at

So the question stands, during this Easter moment—and throughout the Easter season that stretches ahead of us: where do we focus our attention? Three Gospels provide a very clear answer as they recount the appearances of the risen Jesus. In Luke’s story about the appearance of the risen Jesus to his followers in Jerusalem, he says to them, “look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself; touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). The physicality of Jesus is to the fore.

In John’s account of that scene, there is also a physicality in the encounter—with an emphasis on the fact that Jesus shows them “the mark of the nails in his hands and … the mark of the nails … in his side” (John 20:25). Not only the physicality, but the carrying of the wounds of the cross into the next phase of life, is to the fore for John.

And then, when Matthew recounts the first appearance of Jesus, to the women fleeing the tomb in the early morning (and this encounter is told only in Matthew’s Gospel), he makes a point of noting that the (presumably prostrate) women “took hold of his feet and worshipped him” (Matt 28:9). All three Gospels focus on the material present rather than an imagined heavenly future.

Not only that, but each of the three Gospels that narrate appearances of the risen Jesus orient the stories to the future in the known realm of the earth, rather than the future in some heavenly realm. In John’s Gospel, Jesus commissions the disciples, gathered in the room behind locked doors, for the task of bearing witness to him: “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:2). This is language that is used often in this Gospel for the mission that Jesus is undertaking: he is sent by the Father, God is “the one who sent me” (4:34; 5:24, 30, 37; 6:38–39, 44; 7:33; 8:16–18, 26, 29; 9:4; 12:44–45, 49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5); and so he now sends his followers in similar fashion. This is language that is very focussed on this earth, this life.

That task of witnessing is also articulated in the clear declaration placed on the lips of the risen Jesus in Luke’s Gospel: “you are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48). This turns into a fully-fledged evangelistic manifesto when the scene is recounted again in Acts: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Both Luke and John connect this charge to the disciples with the giving of the Spirit: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8); “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). There is no mention of Spirit in the final scene reported in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 28:16–20); however, there is a clear commission in this narrative—the famous “Great Commission”. The emphasis here, as in the other two Gospels, is on the work to be done by the followers of Jesus in the period after he has left them. It is a this-worldly emphasis in these narratives.

The words used in the Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel (28:19–20) need to be read carefully. There are four key verbs (doing words) in these two verses: go, teach, baptise, teach. In strict syntactical analysis, the main verb is the one in the imperative (expressing a command): “make disciples”. Subsidiary to that are the other three verbs, each of which is in a participial form (indicating an action that is related to, or consequent from, that main verb). So making disciples is the key factor in this commission.

Matt 28:19–20a
(my translation and formatting)

The act of making disciples is directed towards “the nations”—that is, to anyone with whom the followers of Jesus come into contact. It is to be expressed through two activities: baptising, and teaching. The act of making disciples is also to take place “as you are going”, that is, as followers of Jesus are making their way through the world in the days ahead.

Teaching orients the focus of the disciples back to the time that they spent with Jesus; they are to teach the people of the nations “to obey everything that I have commanded you”. As Matthew has taken great care to compile and collate the teachings of Jesus into five clear sections of his Gospel (chs. 5–7, 10, 13, 18, 23–25), the guidelines provided by Jesus are evident. What he has taught in his time with the disciples is to be passed on (in good rabbinic style) to those whom they then instruct. Teaching is an activity for life in this world, very clearly.

Baptising orients the focus of the disciples to the life of the church in the future. Belonging to Jesus involves submitting to the ritual of immersion into water, signalling the new life that is taken on through faith. The formula used in Matt 28:19 is, in fact, something that emerges only later in the life of the church (probably not until the time of Constantine, as far as we can tell from other Christian literature). Once again, life in community on this earth is the focus. There is no sense of being baptised (“christened” in the old language) in order to “get into heaven”.

So the accounts of Jesus departing from his disciples offer no sense of, “I am going away, you will join me soon, we shall see each other in heaven”. Rather, the focus is on what the disciples need to do in the earthly life that stretches ahead of them: bear witness, make disciples, teach and baptise, continue out amongst “the nations” the mission that Jesus has been undertaking amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.

(The resurrection appearances at the end of Mark’s Gospel are in endings that were added centuries after the original was written, to bring it into consistency with the others, so they don’t figure in my discussion at this point.)

Two other factors point in the same direction, oriented to life on this earth, and not to a heavenly realm beyond. First, the Revised Common Lectionary (admittedly a creation from many centuries after Jesus!) offers stories from the life of those early followers—the church in Jerusalem and beyond—in passages from Acts during the season of Easter. That is to say, the structure of the lectionary reminds us that, after the resurrection of Jesus, the life of faithful followers is lived and worked out in amongst the other people of this earth. It is a grounded discipleship that is to the fore.

Finally, going right back to the lips of Jesus himself in the first century, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we are instructed to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” (Matt 6:10). That final phrase is central to all that Jesus proclaimed in his teachings and parables: what God is willing “in heaven” is to be made manifest here in our midst, “on earth”.


That is the immanent, present, realised, immediate vision that Jesus has for his followers; and that is what the resurrection narratives point us to, time and again. The resurrection calls us to pay attention to this life.

Do not hold on to me: Mary’s early-morning encounter (John 20; Easter Sunday Year A)

A sermon written by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine for the celebration of Easter Sunday, 9 April 2023, at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church


All four Gospels tell of women, coming to the tomb where Jesus had been lain, early in the morning. In this more intimate narrative of John’s Gospel (John 20:1–18), Mary Magdalene comes alone to the tomb in the dark, not bearing myrrh, not expecting anything. The presence she encounters in the garden is not what she has previously experienced or understood.

When Mary realises that it is Jesus she sees in the garden, she instinctively reaches out to him, only to be rebuffed by the words ‘Do not hold on to me’. 

It is both a tender and painful moment that sits between intimacy and distance, love and loss. It reminds us of how it was at the beginning of the pandemic, where the normal, natural instinct to reach out to touch and hold one another became a potential source of danger.

But there was no pandemic in Jerusalem when Mary heard her name being spoken in the unmistakable tones of her beloved teacher and friend, whom she had thought was lost to her forever. Mary’s seeking to touch Jesus would have been the most natural form of greeting in any circumstances, never mind in this extraordinary moment. So why does Jesus respond with what must have felt like a hurtful rejection?

We have the sense that the Gospel is picking up that Mary had a hard time letting go of the physical Jesus. It is no wonder. We all feel like this in our grief. Yet, Jesus is pointing to the broader context of God’s liberating power at work in the Easter story.

John is making the point that the risen Jesus is not a return to the ‘old normal’ but the start of something new. Life is not going to continue as before, whatever Mary’s initial hopes may have been.

The ‘new normal’, which John’s readers were already having to live, did not include Jesus’ physical presence in a recognisable, huggable human body. For a short time, resurrection appearances would convince the disciples that he was, indeed, alive, but the message was that they must not become dependent on him.


“Do not hold onto to me”. Like much of John’s gospel, there is a deeper meaning to the words. John is advising us. Do not cling to the holy as you once knew the holy. The time is here for you to learn, see, hear and perceive anew. Open your consciousness and awake to the dawn of something entirely transformed and transforming.  

We can also pick out the events of Simon Peter’s dash towards the tomb with the ‘other disciple’, and the events that unfolded there, as worthy of thinking about. When they entered the space, only the linen was there. We are told that the other disciple “saw and believed”. This is an interesting comment. What did he believe? What exactly did he see that turned his heart from despair to hope? What belief exactly did he come to?

We are told that the disciples still did not understand the scriptures in relation to Jesus’resurrection, yet something clearly happened in their understanding as they left transformed by the encounter.

Surely transformation sits at the core of the mystery of resurrection. It is not a magical replacement of the old with something new, but an innovating change from deep within. We are reminded in this story of the first Easter that God’s action often takes place in the liminal spaces—on the edges of things, at the boundary points between ‘this and that’: despair and hope, hate and love, death and life.

William Brodrick, in a thoughtful reflection used by the Northumbria community, notes that the faithful have to be like candles, “burning between hope and despair, faith and doubt, life and death” and that this is the “disquieting place where people must always find us.”

We need people like Mary who will blunder through the garden blinded by tears but also with a willingness to be curious and open to the impossible. We need people like the male disciples to wonder out loud, stay present in the moment and take risks rather than living life in fear. We need people who somehow generate more hope than we believed could be possible.

While Easter morning brings joy and hope, and a fresh start after grief and brokenness, it also encourages us to be those candles shining brightly between hope and despair in our world. It encourages us to transform and to recognise that the world cannot be the same either in a post-covid era or indeed, a post-resurrection one.

May we not cling on to things that we imagine will keep us safe: may we learn instead to let go in order to findour true selves; and die in order to rise to newness of life.

This is the day: let us be glad and rejoice! (Psalm 118; Easter Sunday A)

Psalm 118 is one of the Hallel Psalms—six psalms (113 to 118) which are sung or recited on high festival days, such as Passover (Pesach), the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot), and the Festival of Booths (Sukkot), as well as Hanukkah and the beginning of each new month. This final Hallel Psalm, like the other five, is intended to be an uplifting, celebratory song, suitable for the congregation to hear and to sing as a way to inspire and rejoice.

It is no surprise that this psalm is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Easter Sunday (Ps 118:1–2, 14–24), for this is a day which celebrates with joy the raising of Jesus from the dead (Matt 28:1–10). This psalm is very suited to the celebrations that take place in churches on this high holy day.

The psalm begins with a call to “give thanks” and an affirmation of the “steadfast love” of the Lord (vv.1-2). The next two verses, following the same pattern are omitted by the lectionary. However, I am thinking that the pattern of the first four verses, calling people to join in the affirmation, “his steadfast love endures forever”, could well be extended from “Israel … the house of Aaron … those who fear the Lord”, to include “let those who know the risen Lord Jesus say, “his steadfast love endures forever”.

God’s steadfast love is a recurrent theme throughout Hebrew Scripture, which often sings praises for “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9).

Affirmations of “[God’s] steadfast love” (v.2) are found in psalms (Ps 5:7; 6:4; 13:5; 17:7; 18:50; 21:7; 25:6–7; 25:10; 26:3; and another 100 times) and various narratives (Gen 24:12–14, 27; 32:10; 39:21; Exod 15:13; 20:6; 34:6–7; Num 4:18–19; Deut 5:10; 2 Sam 2:6; 7:15; 15:20; 22:51; 1 Ki 3:6; 8:23; 1 Chron 16:34, 41; 17:13; 2 Chron 1:8; 5:13; 6:14; 6:42; 7:3, 6; Ezra 3:11; 7:28; 9:9; Neh 1:5; 9:17, 32; 13:22).

Many prophets speak about God’s “steadfast love” (Isa 16:5; 54:10; 55:3; 63:7; Jer 9:24; 16:5; 32:18; 33:11; Lam 3:22, 33; Dan 9:4; Hos 2:19; 6:6; 10:12; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Micah 7:18), and Job also refers to it (Job 10:12).

The pervasive presence of this theme indicates just how central it was to ancient Israelite thought and how integral it was to how God was understood. The idea carries on into New Testament writings through the love that God expresses in Jesus (John 15:9; Rom 8:39; Eph 2:4–7; 1 John 3:1; 4:9) and is manifest through the Spirit (Rom 5:5; Gal 5:22).

However, we should never imagine that the God of love is simply “a New Testament idea”, in contrast to a perceived (completely inaccurate) view of “the God of wrath” in the Old Testament. The idea of divine love is shared in equal measure amongst both testaments. (So, too, we find the idea of divine judgement in both testaments—but that is another story!)


In the selection of verses offered by the lectionary (vv.1–2, 14–24), we encounter some other well-known concepts. The reference to “the chief cornerstone” (v.22) appears also in an oracle of Isaiah, “see, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation” (Isa 28:16), which continues, “I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet” (Isa 28:17).

It is found also in Zechariah’s strident oracle against the shepherds, of whom the prophet says, “of them shall come the cornerstone, out of them the tent peg, out of them the battle bow, out of them every commander. Together they shall be like warriors in battle, trampling the foe in the mud of the streets; they shall fight, for the Lord is with them, and they shall put to shame the riders on horses” (Zech 10:4–5). Clearly, the “cornerstone” (along with “the tent peg” and “the battle bow”) offers a somewhat cryptic reference to an anticipated future leader in Israel.

The “cornerstone” has then been picked up in the New Testament, where it is interpreted as referring to Jesus; in a speech attributed to Peter when he and John were before the Council in Jerusalem because of a “good deed done to someone who was sick” (Acts 4:9), namely, the healing of a man lame from birth (Acts 3:1–10). “This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead”, Peter is reported as saying; “this Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11). This is a critical theological statement placed on the lips of Peter.

In like manner—although less directly, in a more allusive fashion—Jesus equates himself with this “cornerstone” when draws to a close his parable about the vineyard and the tenants who killed all who were sent to them by the master, culminating in the master’s son; at that point in the parable, Jesus curtly concludes, “have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:10–11; Matt 21:42; Luke 20:17). In this citation of the psalm, Jesus has extended to include the following verse, about “the Lord’s doing”, which is a cause for amazement.

We hear that affirmation on Easter Sunday, in the psalm: “this is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes” (Ps 118:23). When included in a Christian liturgy, these words seem very readily to reflect the experience of the first Easter—a marvellous deed, indeed.

The psalm then continues in an upbeat manner, with “this is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24), echoing once more an oracle of Isaiah, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us; this is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa 25:9). That oracle includes three elements included in this section of the psalm: joy, at the chosen time, with knowledge of salvation.

The linking of “be glad” with “rejoice” is also common throughout Hebrew Scriptures (1 Chron 16:31; Ps 14:7; 32:11; 40:16; 48:11; 53:6; 70:4; 90:14; 96:11; 97:1; 149:2; Prov 23:24–25; 24:17; Isa 35:1; 65:18; 66:10; Lam 4:21; Joel 2:21, 23; Zech 10:7). The people of Israel were called to joyous praise quite often.

The celebration of the means of salvation is certainly a theme that is relevant to Easter Sunday, when this psalm is offered in the lectionary. It is worth singing and celebrating on this day!


On Hallel psalms, see

It’s Holy Week again: a week set apart, in a time set apart

Today we begin Holy Week. This is the final part of a longer period leading up to Easter, called Lent. We do this every year, as part of the annual cycle. It is a familiar and comforting ritual for many people of Christian faith.

Holy Week culminates the season of Lent, which is an ancient practice for a Christian people. It lasts for 40 days, serving as a time of preparation for Easter. But whereas Lent is an ancient tradition, Holy Week is a more recent development. Designating the week leading up to Easter as Holy Week most probably comes from the narration of chapters 11 and 12 of Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus is understood as being in Jerusalem from a Sunday until his last meal on a Thursday.

We can see those time markers embedded in Mark’s account of Jesus’ final days:
Sunday – “when they were approaching Jerusalem …” [Mark 11:1]
Monday – “on the following day …” [Mark 11:12]
Tuesday – “In the morning …” [Mark 11:20]
Wednesday – “It was two days before Passover …” [Mark 14:1]
Thursday – “On the first day of Unleavened Bread …” [Mark 14:12]
Friday – “As soon as it was morning …” [Mark 15:1]
Saturday – “When the Sabbath was over …” [Mark 16:1]
Sunday – “Early on the first day of the week …” [Mark 16:2]”
(Thanks to Greg Jenks for setting this out so clearly in his blog.)

The week starts with Palm Sunday, when Christians remember Jesus entering Jerusalem and the crowds waving palm leaves as he enters the city. Jesus stays near to the city for the remainder of the week. On this day, we remember that event with festive processions and cheerful hymns.

Each day during Holy Week, from Monday to Thursday, many churches hold daily prayers that are pertinent to the week.

On Maundy Thursday, Christians remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. His words are recorded in John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This gives rise to the name for the day. The Latin for “commandment” is mandatum—hence the name of the day, Maundy.

Some people believe that Lent officially ends at sundown on Maundy Thursday, so they celebrate that with Holy Communion, or with a meal known as an agapé or a “love feast”. It is a remembrance of the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers. Others maintain that Lent continues through into Easter Saturday, until the end of the day just before the empty tomb is discovered.

After Maundy Thursday comes Good Friday, remembering when Jesus was crucified. Why is this day called Good? It comes from the theological evaluation that, on this Friday, Jesus died on the cross “for our sins”, thereby securing our redemption. This is the basis for the “good news” which the Church has proclaimed for centuries.

Churches all around the world normally hold various rituals for people to attend. Roman Catholics have the Adoration of the Cross, the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified, the Stations of the Cross, and Evening Prayers. Anglicans have a three-hour service with reflections on the Last Words of Christ. Many people come for these times of gathering together.

The Stations of the Cross are focused around the events of Good Friday, recalling the various events which took place as Jesus made his way from his trial to his death on the cross. These Stations have been appropriated, in art or through personal creative responses, as ways of moving attention from the story as a singular ‘history’, to the significance of the story and the resonance of the events with universal human experiences.

Next comes Holy Saturday or Easter Eve—a day of vigil, when believers watch, wait and pray. This is an in-between time, a day when time can be spent reflecting back on the traumatic events that have just taken place, and looking forward with hope to the new possibilities that might emerge from those event.

After Holy Saturday, the celebration of Easter Sunday bursts through the gloom and despair with a vibrant message: Jesus is risen, Jesus has conquered death. Counting inclusively, as was done at the time, beginning from Friday, means that Sunday is the third day. So the traditional affirmation is that Jesus rose “on the third day”. This leads into an expression of joy, that the trauma and grief, the uncertainty and fear, are now passed. Life is different; hope is renewed; the future, even if it looks different, will still be viable.

For the next period of time, the Church moves into a new season—the season of Easter, 40 days when the celebration of resurrection continues. And so the cycle continues, death turning into life, despair breaking out into hope, frustration moving into promise.

Easter itself emerged out of the Jewish festival of Passover, for this is the setting of the story about the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus that is reported in the Gospels (Mark 14:1–25; John 13:1; 18:28; 19:14).

There is a meme that circulates every year at this time, claiming that Waster was originally a pagan celebration, focussed on the fertility goddess Eostre—but this has no basis in fact. It derives from what seemed, to him, to be an educated guess made by the 8th century scholar, Bede, but this is completely incorrect.