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.