Inhabiting the Christian Year: Holy Week

This is part 6 of a series exploring the Western Christian year (liturgical calendar). For other posts in this series, click a number: 12, 3, 4, 5, 78.

So far, we've looked at Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Lent. The first three constitute what some call the cycle of light. Lent then begins the cycle of life, which continues with Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost. In this post, we'll explore Holy Week, which includes Palm/Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (with the last three often referred to as the "sacred Triduum"). Let's begin with a quote from Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross. It will provide some important historical context.
Originally, the first Christians recalled and celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus in a single day---and they did so once a week, on the Lord's Day! But it was not long, probably by the end of the first century, before a more elaborate annual Pascha was established. In that sense, as Laurence Stookey has suggested in response to the maxim that every Sunday is a little Easter, "Every Easter is a great Sunday." (p. 167)
Over time, the church added to the celebration of Easter four commemorations of key events in Jesus' life that occurred during the week preceding Easter. Called "Holy Week," it begins with Palm/Passion Sunday and includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Let's look at each one (and for another post on this topic, click here).

Jesus Rides into Jerusalem (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Palm/Passion Sunday

The Sunday that begins Holy Week is known by various names (including Palm Sunday) though calling it Palm/Passion Sunday is probably best, since on that day Jesus rode into Jerusalem knowing he was coming to suffer and die. Yes, he arrived to the accolades of an enthusiastic crowd, but note this from Laurence Stookey:
The New Testament writers know fully well that "Hosanna!" cries of Sunday will by Friday turn into calls for crucifixion. The entry into the city is charged with irony... [for] Jesus enters the city for one reason only: to die. The Gospel writers are clear about this, and "Palm Sunday" observances that are "three cheers for Jesus" forfeit biblical integrity. (Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church, pp. 88-89) 
Scripture readings (lessons) specified by the Revised Common Lectionary for Palm/Passion Sunday help insure that worship that day captures its full biblical import. Calling it Palm/Passion Sunday (rather than Palm Sunday) is helpful and particularly appropriate for churches that will not meet for worship on other days during Holy Week. On Palm/Passion Sunday they will remember all of Jesus' steps and all he suffered in the week ahead. Then when they meet again on Easter Sunday morning, they will celebrate Jesus' resurrection having already on Palm/Passion Sunday recalled Jesus' passion (suffering) during the week preceding Easter.

Maundy Thursday

On Maundy Thursday we pass with Jesus into the darkness of his last night, a darkness that will tremble with evil forces---the betrayal, the arrest, the scourging, and his ultimate death on the cross. This is a difficult night, a dark night of the soul in which the determination of Jesus to go to the cross is set in a vivid contrast to the powers of evil against which he must struggle. We walk that path with him. (Robert Webber, Ancient Future Time: Forming Spirituality Through the Christian Year, p. 126).
The Thursday within Holy Week is called Maundy Thursday, with "maundy" coming from the Latin word for "commandment." On this Thursday night, Jesus gave his followers what he called "a new commandment"---to love others the way he loves us (John 13:34, RSV). Assembled in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, Jesus modeled his self-sacrificial, unconditional way of loving in a shocking and unexpected way---he took the lowly position of a household servant and washed his disciples' feet. For that reason, some churches include footwashing in their Maundy Thursday evening service. 

A primary focus of that worship service is the commemoration of what is called The Last Supper. During that supper Jesus instituted the sacrament of Communion (also called the Lord's Supper, or the Eucharist). With words of comfort, assurance and promise, Jesus blessed and then shared with his disciples the bread and wine by which he presents himself and fellowships with his followers each time they partake of this holy meal. Concerning the Eucharist as it is presented on Maundy Thursday, Stookey wrote this:
On this occasion we give thanks for the gift of the Eucharist itself. We praise God for taking what might have been nothing more than a sad farewell of teacher and disciples and transforming it into a way of revealing the presence of the Risen One. We praise God for turning an occasion for deep mourning into an occasion of profound gratitude. (Calendar, p. 95)
Late Thursday evening, Jesus and his disciples (minus Judas Iscariot) left the Upper Room in Jerusalem, crossed the Kidron Valley and ascended the Mount of Olives where Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. There Jesus was arrested and led away. Maundy Thursday thus ends on a solemn note, and worship services that evening typically conclude with leaving the service in silence.

Christ at the Cross (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Good Friday

Friday during Holy Week is the most solemn day in the liturgical year. It is the day on which Jesus was tortured and crucified, dying on the cross late in the afternoon. Why then call it "Good" Friday"? Stookey answers:
Good Friday [proclaims] divine purpose.... Indeed, the term "Good Friday" may be a corruption of the English phrase "God's Friday".... This day is good precisely because God was in control at Calvary. The crucifixion of Jesus was not some bad deal that God had to try to make the best of; it was a working out of divine intention with a view to the salvation of an otherwise doomed creation.
Good Friday was not "good" (as in "pleasant") for Jesus---he suffered unimaginably. However, it is very good for us, in that by what Jesus endured our salvation was secured---the salvation made complete by his resurrection and ascension. 

Worship services held on Good Friday are thus solemn and quiet. It is appropriate that the Gospel passages read in that service (as specified in the RCL for yeas A, B and C) are from John's narrative. Noting that John wrote later than the other Gospel writers, Stookey points out that John had the benefit of
further contemplation by the church on the meaning of the cross. Thus John finds still deeper significance that complements without contradicting the insights of the earlier [Gospel] writers. John's particular assertion is this: The purposeful agony of God is not a short-term matter (how God responded on the spot when Jesus was sentenced to death) but nothing less than the long-term work of grace. In other words, God is in control at the cross, not as one who reacts to events, but as the One who directs their course. (p. 98) 
Christ Carried to the Tomb (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday brings both Holy Week and Lent to a close. It was on the Saturday of Holy Week that Jesus lay dead in a tomb nearby the site of his crucifixion. Most churches do not hold services on Holy Saturday, but those who do will have a very simple service focused on readings and prayers. Though this service is quiet and solemn, it is held with the sure knowledge that Easter Sunday is about to arrive. Though Jesus is dead and buried, he is soon to rise to new, resurrection life!

Instead of a Holy Saturday service, some churches hold a service late Saturday night that is referred to as the Easter Vigil. It begins in complete darkness (representing Jesus dead and entombed) and concludes with the breaking in of the light of the resurrected Jesus. In that way the vigil is a prelude to the Easter Sunday service that we'll look at next time.

For a detailed look at Holy Saturday from Gerrit Dawson, click here.

[Updated 4/13/2022]