Holy Week is a time of keeping vigil. We watch with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, we stand in sorrow under his cross, and we keep vigil in hope outside his tomb. Our vigilance is a risky endeavor, for disciples may be scorned or persecuted for their faith. Keeping vigil is also arduous because we are human: “Could you not stay awake with me one hour?” Finally, it may elicit a helpless feeling. We cannot stop the crucifixion; we can only stand and watch. That takes faith in a pragmatic, utilitarian society that often feels worthless when it is not doing something.
Yet, Holy Week demands more of us than vigilance alone. We do not just stand under the cross; we also take up our cross and follow. We do not simply keep watch at the tomb; we also go into the tomb to be buried with Christ. When parents go somewhere, children often ask: “Can I go with you?” Then, when they get tired or bored, they ask to be taken home because the trip is too long or hard. Holy Week bids God’s children to follow Jesus to the very end so that we may never walk in darkness.
The liturgies of Palm Sunday and the Triduum call us to walk with the Lord:
╬ PALM SUNDAY: Entering Jerusalem
So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” – John 12:13
There are two distinct tones or moods to the Sunday liturgy that begins the journey of Holy Week. The bittersweet nature of the day is reflected in its two equally important names. Palm Sunday celebrates the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, while Passion Sunday ritualizes Christ’s crucifixion and death. Thus, this liturgy marks the beginning of the end in the Lord’s sacred mission of redemption.
Palm Sunday begins with a blessing of palms, the gospel reading of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, a festive procession into the Church or sanctuary, and then the retelling of Christ’s Passion Narrative.
╬ HOLY THURSDAY: Coming to the Table
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?” — John 13:12
The evening Mass on Holy Thursday begins the sacred Triduum. On this night, we remember the Last Supper and celebrate the institution of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Holy Orders. At the end of the liturgy, the sanctuary is stripped clean in preparation for the most somber of feasts, Good Friday. The spirituality of the Triduum is centered on the accounts of the Paschal mystery in the Gospel of John. In John’s Gospel, the Last Supper is not the Passover meal; rather, Jesus is crucified at the same time the lambs are being slaughtered for Passover, as a sign that he is the Lamb of God, sacrificed for all of humanity. The last meal Jesus shares with his apostles in the Gospel of John is marked by the washing of feet.
Jesus gets down in the dirt and washes the feet of his disciples and in this way connects the Holy Eucharist with service to others. Most Holy Thursday liturgies include a modern-day experience of foot washing. This recalls Jesus washing the feet of his apostles and is a powerful example of how we are called to serve and care for one another. Holy Thursday is also referred to as Maundy Thursday, meaning “a new mandate.” It refers to the mandate put forth by Jesus in John 13:34, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
╬ GOOD FRIDAY: Taking up the Cross
[Jesus said,] “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. — John 19:30
Good Friday is a somber remembrance of Jesus’s crucifixion and death on the cross. It is a day of fasting and penance and a time to examine all of the places in our lives where we fail to follow Christ and fall into sin. Good Friday is not only a commemoration of a historical event; rather, Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, along with his glorious resurrection, comprise the heart of the Christian faith. The church is bare on Good Friday, the altar stripped of ornamentation and the tabernacle left open and empty.
Good Friday is a day of mourning. Traditionally, there is no music (other than chanting) on this day, and the prayer of consecration is also omitted from the service as a sign of what Christ’s sacrifice on the cross truly means. Good Friday is not a Mass; the Holy Communion that is given out has been consecrated on Holy Thursday and kept in the tabernacle for adoration. The service is divided into the reading of the Passion, Veneration of the Cross, and reception of the Eucharist. Christ’s passion is read from the Gospel of John and concludes with the prayers of the faithful, offered for the unity of the universal Church. The Veneration of the Cross is a time for the faithful to individually revere the Cross and ponder the enormity of Christ’s salvific act. Holy Communion is then distributed, and the priest, along with the entire congregation, departs in silence.
╬ EASTER VIGIL: Going into the Tomb
Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, where no one had ever been laid . . . they laid Jesus there. — Jn 19:41-42
The Easter Vigil is the restoration of the early Church’s tradition as the great celebration of adult baptism and confirmation. It is the high point in the Church liturgical year. The Vigil begins in darkness (usually outside), and the long procession of candlelight that enlivens the church reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world who has conquered all darkness and death. The Paschal candle that is lit at the Easter Vigil will remain in the church throughout the year as a sign of Christ’s death and resurrection. Those who are coming into full communion with the Church receive the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil, and we, as the community of believers, participate in this initiation by renewing our own baptismal promises. We recommit ourselves to Christ by once again rejecting sin and accepting the freedom that comes from living as children of God. We pray and welcome the newly initiated as they receive the oil of chrism and “share in the
outpouring of the Holy Spirit” at confirmation. The white garments given to the newly initiated (and to us at our baptism) represent Christ’s everlasting victory over death. The Vigil concludes with reception of the Eucharist. As the newly confirmed receive the final Sacrament of Initiation, the Body and Blood of Jesus, we are ready to celebrate Easter. The tomb is empty. There is Light in the darkness. Alleluia, Christ has Risen!
—Reflection by Fr. Anthony Uytingco
Sources: Understanding Holy Week: Simple Ways to Walk with Jesus by Heidi Busse Copyright © Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. Understanding Holy Week by Jerry Welte Copyright © All Saints Press.