As the forty days of Lent draw to a close, the most important week of the Christian year approaches. Holy Week begins with Palm/Passion Sunday and continues through the last days of the life of our Lord. It was St. Augustine who called this particular week the “Great Week.” Great things were accomplished during this week. Spiritually, Holy Week is of the greatest importance for the people of God. By identifying with and, even, participating (through the liturgy) in the events of Christ’s final week, we can come to his death, with which we were united with him in the waters of our baptism. We die with Christ so that we may also rise in new life, united with him in the Resurrection.
Holy Week is more than simply an opportunity to remember the events of that week. We cannot deny that, as part of all humanity, our sin placed Christ on the cross. Holy Week is the time for each of us to identify with our own role in those events and to participate. Our liturgies for Holy Week are both dramatic and moving! You will want to be part of these special worship services. They help us to draw closer to Christ by participating in the saving events of his life and death.
Sunday of the Passion
The Sunday of the Passion has long been called “Palm Sunday,” but with a need to show not only the triumphant entry into Jerusalem where the crowds cheered Jesus, there is also the need to show those same crowds crying “Crucify him!” The service begins with the blessing of the Palms. This beginning is an outburst of joy recalling Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Yet he came to Jerusalem to die. Into our own Jerusalem, carrying and waving palm branches, we proceed to the house of God as Jesus went to the temple. Amidst the singing and the shouts of “Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest” we find our places in the pews and the mood quickly changes to the somberness of the passion, especially during the reading of the Gospel.
The Gospel reading is one of the “Passion Narratives,” a lengthy reading recounting the events of the Great and Holy Week in the life of Christ and the Church. It may either be read in its entirety or done as a dramatic reading using several readers and even the congregation. Again, we find ourselves participating in the saving events as we shout, “Crucify him!”
On Maundy Thursday we will again gather for worship. You may recall that on Ash Wednesday, there was no absolution (declaration of forgiveness) following the confession. It was deferred until this day. The entire season of Lent becomes a worship service. Therefore, our worship will begin in a different way, with the confession with the absolution and the sharing of the peace. We are reconciled to God and to each other. This night completes the service as the time of repentance is completed and we focus on the gift of Christ’s love given on this Holy night. We celebrate this love in the meal of Holy Communion.
The final portion of the Maundy Thursday liturgy is the stripping of the altar. The chancel is completely cleared of all adornment and the communion ware and altar covers are completely removed from the sanctuary. The stripping represents the stripping of Christ. A large black pall may cover the altar in darkness and gloom. Here, we symbolically participate in the act of Christ’s betrayal and trial as we make the transition from his gift of the Last Supper to his betrayal in the garden which leads to his crucifixion and death. Throughout the process, Psalm 22, which foretold of Jesus’ humiliation at the hands of the soldiers and other themes of the Passion, will be read. At the end of the psalm, we leave in silence.
On Good Friday, we will again gather in silence continuing the service from the previous evening. This time we gather for the Tenebrae Liturgy, the Service of Light and Darkness. This service is done in near darkness, in shadows. As the story is told, the candles are extinguished until only the Christ Candle remains.
It is last to be unlit with the death of our Lord. The darkness of this service represents the seeming victory of the powers of darkness as our Lord suffers death. In ancient times, candidates for Baptism would start a fast that would end with their baptisms in the early hours of Easter morning. As Christ had died, so would they. As Christ arose, so would they.
We leave the church in silence marking the burial of our Lord in the tomb. Though we may know the end of the story, the hope that is to come, we also remember the seeming hopelessness of those who had followed Jesus, who thought that all was lost. From now until the Easter celebration, we respect the sacrifice of the cross. No weddings, no baptisms, no celebrations may occur during this time of mourning and remembrance.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Were you there?