Holy Week (Latin: Hebdomas Sancta or Hebdomas Maior, “Greater Week”; Greek: Ἁγία καὶ Μεγάλη Ἑβδομάς, Hagia kai Megale Hebdomas) in Christianity is the last week of Lent and the week before Easter. It includes the religious holidays of Friday of Sorrows, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday or, as it is called in the Catholic Church, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. It does not include Easter Sunday.
- 1 History
- 2 Holy Week in Latin Rite Catholicism
- 2.1 Friday of Sorrows
- 2.2 Palm Sunday (Passion Sunday)
- 2.3 Monday to Wednesday
- 2.4 Tenebrae
- 2.5 Holy Thursday
- 2.6 Good Friday
- 2.7 Holy Saturday
- 2.8 Easter Vigil
- 2.9 Easter Sunday
- 2.10 Holy Week observances
- 3 Holy Week in Eastern Christianity
- 4 Holy Week in Protestant churches
- 5 References
- 6 External links
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Holy Week in the Christian year is the week immediately before Easter. The earliest allusion to the custom of marking this week as a whole with special observances is to be found in the Apostolical Constitutions (v. 18, 19), dating from the latter half of the 3rd century and 4th century. In this text, abstinence from flesh is commanded for all the days, while for the Friday and Sunday an absolute fast is commanded. Dionysius Alexandrinus in his canonical epistle (AD 260), refers to the 91 fasting days implying that the observance of them had already become an established usage in his time.
There is some doubt about the genuineness of an ordinance attributed to Roman Emperor Constantine, in which abstinence from public business was enforced for the seven days immediately preceding Easter Sunday, and also for the seven which followed it. The Codex Theodosianus, however, is explicit in ordering that all actions at law should cease, and the doors of all courts of law be closed during those 15 days (1. ii. tit. viii.).
Of the particular days of the “great week” the earliest to emerge into special prominence was naturally Good Friday. Next came the Sabbatum Magnum (“Great Sabbath”, i.e., Holy Saturday or Easter Eve) with its vigil, which in the early church was associated with an expectation that the second advent would occur on an Easter Sunday.
There are other Scriptures that refer to the traditions of the Early Church, most notably The Pilgrimage of Etheria (also known as The Pilgrimage of Egeria) which details the complete observance of Holy Week in the early church.
Holy Week in Latin Rite Catholicism
Friday of Sorrows
In many Latin American countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Peru, as well as Spain and the Philippines, a feast called Friday of Sorrows commemorating Our Lady of Sorrows was held on the Friday before Palm Sunday. This pious feast was sometimes referred to as “Passion Week” or “Council Friday” in Hispanic cultures. In these regions, the Friday of Sorrows was designated as the traditional beginning of Holy Week.
The somber and often nocturnal commemoration refers to the solace and desolate emotional state of the Virgin Mary on Black Saturday as prophesied by the Rabbi Simeon on the “Seven sorrows” that allegorically pierced the Virgin Mary’s heart. Cultural customs associate insomnia by the Virgin Mary worrying and grieving with Saint Mary Magdalene for Jesus; therefore the event is markedly similar to a mourning event among the people. These small details are also notably seen in the film Passion of the Christ (though the pious account occurs after the arrest at the Garden of Gethsemani and not prior).
After the liturgical abbreviations following the Second Vatican Council, the feast was no longer considered significant by some diocesan bishops due to its “double celebration”, preceded by the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (15 September). However, due to the strong religiosity among the Santero culture in these regions, the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary continued to be remembered in what has been known as Viernes de Dolores or “Friday of Sorrows”. In these Catholic countries, both religious and military parades begin in the public streets and is further highlighted by Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday (Passion Sunday)
Holy Week begins with what in the Roman Rite is now called Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. Before 1955 it was known simply as Palm Sunday, and the preceding Sunday as Passion Sunday. From 1955 to 1971 it was called Second Sunday in Passiontide or Palm Sunday.
To commemorate the entrance of the Messiah into Jerusalem, to accomplish his paschal mystery, it is customary to have before Mass a blessing of palm leaves (or other branches, for example olive branches). The blessing ceremony, preferably held outside the church includes the reading of a Gospel account of how Jesus rode into Jerusalem humbly on a donkey, reminiscent of a Davidic victory procession, and how people placed palms on the ground in front of him. Immediately following this great time of celebration in the entering of Jesus into Jerusalem, he begins his journey to the cross. This is followed by a procession or solemn entrance into the church, with the participants holding the blessed branches in their hands.
Before the reform of the rite by Pope Pius XI, the blessing of the palms occurred inside the church within a service that followed the general outline of a Mass, with Collect, Epistle and Gospel, as far as the Sanctus. The palms were then blessed with five prayers, and a procession went out of the church and on its return included a ceremony for the reopening of the doors, which had meantime been shut. After this the normal Mass was celebrated.
Monday to Wednesday
The days between Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday are known as Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, and Holy Wednesday. The Gospels of these days recount events not all of which occurred on the corresponding days between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his Last Supper. For instance, the Monday Gospel tells of the Anointing at Bethany (John 12:1-9), which occurred before the Palm Sunday event described in John 12:12-19.
The Chrism Mass, whose texts the Roman Missal now gives under Holy Thursday, may be brought forward to one of these days, to facilitate participation by as many as possible of the clergy of the diocese together with the bishop. This Mass was not included in editions of the Roman Missal before the time of Pope Pius XII. In this Mass the bishop blesses separate oils for the sick (used in Anointing of the Sick), for catechumens (used in Baptism) and chrism (used in Baptism, but especially in Confirmation and Holy Orders, as well as in rites such as the blessing of an altar and a church).
When the principal services of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil were celebrated in the morning, the office of Matins and Lauds of each day was celebrated on the evening of the preceding day in the service known as Tenebrae (Latin, “Darkness”).
On this day the private celebration of Mass is forbidden. Thus, apart from the Chrism Mass for the blessing of the Holy Oils that the diocesan bishop may celebrate on the morning of Holy Thursday, but also on some other day close to Easter, the only Mass on this day is the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which inaugurates the period of three days, known as the Easter Triduum, that includes Good Friday (seen as beginning with the service of the preceding evening), Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday up to evening prayer on that day.
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus with his Twelve Apostles, “the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and the commandment of brotherly love that Jesus gave after washing the feet of his disciples.”
All the bells of the church, including altar bells, may be rung during the Gloria in Excelsis Deo of the Mass (the Gloria is not traditionally sung during the entire Lenten season). The bells then fall silent and the organ and other musical instruments may be used only to support the singing until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil. In some countries, children are sometimes told: “The bells have flown to Rome.”
The Roman Missal recommends that, if considered pastorally appropriate, the priest should, immediately after the homily, celebrate the rite of washing the feet of an unspecified number of men, customarily twelve, recalling the number of the Apostles.
A sufficient number of hosts are consecrated for use also in the Good Friday service, and at the conclusion the Blessed Sacrament is carried in procession to a place of reposition away from the main body of the church, which, if it involves an altar, is often called an “altar of repose“.
The altars of the church (except the one used for altar of repose) are later stripped quite bare and, to the extent possible, crosses are removed from the church or veiled. (In the pre-Vatican II rite, crucifixes and statues are covered with violet covers during Passion time, but the crucifix covers can be white instead of violet on Holy Thursday.)
Roman Catholic Christians treat Good Friday as a fast day, which is defined as only having one full meal with, if needed, two small snacks that together do not make a full meal.
In some countries, such as Malta, Philippines, Italy and Spain, processions with statues representing the Passion of Christ are held.
- The Church mourns for Christ’s death, reveres the Cross, and marvels at his life for his obedience until death.
- The only sacraments celebrated are Penance and Anointing of the Sick. While there is no celebration of the Eucharist, Holy Communion is distributed to the faithful only in the Service of the Passion of the Lord, but can be taken at any hour to the sick who are unable to attend this service.
- The altar remains completely bare, without texts, candlesticks, or altar cloths.
- It is customary to empty the holy water fonts in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil.
- The Stations of the Cross are often prayed either in the church or outside.
- The Celebration of the Passion of the Lord takes place in the afternoon, ideally at three o’clock, but for pastoral reasons a later hour may be chosen.
- Since 1970, the colour of the vestments is red. Previously it was black. If a bishop celebrates, he wears a plain mitre.
- ‘The liturgy consists of three parts in the Roman Rite: the Liturgy of the Word, the Veneration of the Cross, and Holy Communion.
- Liturgy of the Word
- Prostration of the celebrant before the altar.
- The readings from Isaiah 53 (about the Suffering Servant) and the Epistle to the Hebrews are read.
- The Passion narrative of the Gospel of John is sung or read, often divided between more than one singer or reader.
- General Intercessions: The congregation prays for the Church, the Pope, the Jews, non-Christians, unbelievers and others.
- Veneration of the Cross: A crucifix is solemnly unveiled before the congregation. The people venerate it on their knees. During this part, the “Reproaches” are often sung.
- Communion service: Hosts consecrated at the Mass of the previous day are distributed to the people. (Before the reform of Pope Pius XII, only the priest received Communion in the framework of what was called the “Mass of the Presanctified“, which included the usual Offertory prayers, with the placing of wine in the chalice, but which omitted the Canon of the Mass.) The Good Friday service is not a Mass, and in fact, celebration of Catholic Mass on Good Friday is forbidden. It is the Eucharist consecrated the evening before (Holy Thursday) that is distributed.
- Even if music is used in the Liturgy, it is not used to open and close the Liturgy, nor is there a formal recessional (closing procession).
- The solemnity and somberness of the occasion has encouraged the persistence over the centuries of liturgical forms without substantial modification. Some churches hold a three-hour meditation from midday, the Three Hours’ Agony.
- It was once customary in some countries, especially England, to place a veiled monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament or a cross in a Holy Sepulchre“.
- If crucifixes were covered starting with the next to last Sunday in Lent, they are unveiled without ceremony after the Good Friday service.
Mass is not celebrated on what is liturgically Holy Saturday. The celebration of Easter begins after sundown on what, though still Saturday in the civil calendar, is liturgically Easter Sunday.
On Holy Saturday the Church waits at the Lord’s tomb in prayer and fasting, meditating on his Passion and Death and on his Descent into Hell, and awaiting his Resurrection.
The Church abstains from the Sacrifice of the Mass, with the sacred table left bare, until after the solemn Vigil, that is, the anticipation by night of the Resurrection, when the time comes for paschal joys, the abundance of which overflows to occupy fifty days.
In some Anglican churches, including the Episcopal Church in the United States, there is provision for a simple liturgy of the word with readings commemorating the burial of Christ.
The tabernacle is left empty and open. The lamp or candle usually situated next to the tabernacle denoting the Presence of Christ is put out, and the remaining Eucharistic Hosts consecrated on Holy Thursday are kept elsewhere, usually the sacristy, with a lamp or candle burning before it, so that, in cases of the danger of death, they may be given as viaticum.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Easter Vigil, the longest and most solemn of the Catholic Church’s liturgical services, lasting up to three or four hours, consists of four parts:
- The Service of Light
- The Liturgy of the Word
- The Liturgy of Baptism: The sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation for new members of the Church and the Renewal of Baptismal Promises by the entire congregation.
- Holy Eucharist
The Liturgy begins after sundown on Holy Saturday as the crowd gathers inside the unlit church. In the darkness (often in a side chapel of the church building or, preferably, outside the church), a new fire is kindled and blessed by the priest. This new fire symbolizes the light of salvation and hope that God brought into the world through Christ’s Resurrection, dispelling the darkness of sin and death. From this fire is lit the Paschal candle, symbolizing the Light of Christ. This Paschal candle will be used throughout the season of Easter, remaining in the sanctuary of the Church or near the lectern, and throughout the coming year at baptisms and funerals, reminding all that that Christ is “light and life.”
All baptized Catholics present (i.e. those who have received the “Light of Christ”) receive candles which are lit from the Paschal candle. As this symbolic “Light of Christ” spreads throughout those gathered, the darkness is decreased. A deacon, or the priest if there is no deacon, carries the Paschal Candle at the head of the entrance procession and, at three points, stops and chants the proclamation “Light of Christ” or “Christ our Light”, to which the people respond “Thanks be to God.” Once the procession concludes, the deacon or a cantor chants the Exultet (also called the “Easter Proclamation”), and, the church remaining lit only by the people’s candles and the Paschal candle, the people take their seats for the Liturgy of the Word.
The Liturgy of the Word consists of between two and seven readings from the Old Testament. The account of the Exodus is given particular attention in the readings since it is considered to be the Old Testament antetype of Christian salvation. Each reading is followed by a psalm and a prayer relating what has been read in the Old Testament to the Mystery of Christ. After these readings conclude, a fanfare may sound on the organ and additional musical instruments and the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is sung.
During this outburst of musical jubilation the congregation’s candles are extinguished, the church lights are turned on, and bells rung while the church’s decorative funnings — altar frontals, the reredos, lectern hangings, processional banners, statues and paintings — which had been stripped or covered during Holy Week, are ceremonially replaced and unveiled and flowers are placed on altars and elsewhere. (In the pre-Vatican II rite, the statues, which have been covered during Passion Time, are unveiled at this time.
In some places, the church removes the covering of statues and puts Easter flowers and decorations on the day of Holy Saturday before the Easter Vigil celebration. Also, in the current ritual the lights are turned on after the last proclamation of ‘Christ our Light’.) Members of the congregation may have been encouraged to bring flowers which are also brought forward and placed about the sanctuary and side altars. A reading from the Epistle to the Romans is proclaimed. The Alleluia is sung for the first time since the beginning of Lent (or, in the pre-Vatican II rite, since Septuagesima). The Gospel of the Resurrection then follows, along with a homily.
After the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word, the water of the baptismal font is consecrated and any catechumens or candidates for full communion are initiated into the church, by baptism and/or confirmation, respectively. After the celebration of these sacraments of initiation, the congregation renews their baptismal vows and receive the sprinkling of baptismal water. The general intercessions follow.
After the Liturgy of Baptism, the Liturgy of the Eucharist continues as usual. This is the first Mass of Easter Day. During the Eucharist, the newly baptised receive Holy Communion for the first time. According to the rubrics of the Missal, the Eucharist should finish before dawn.
Easter Sunday, which immediately follows Holy Week, is the great feast day and apogee of the Christian liturgical year: on this day the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated. It is the first day of the new season of the Great Fifty Days, or Eastertide, which runs from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. Easter Sunday is the main reason why Christians keep Sunday as the primary day of religious observance.
Holy Week observances
Cities famous for their Holy Week processions include:
|Colombia||Santa Cruz de Mompox
|Costa Rica||San José
San Rafael de Oreamuno
|Guatemala||Holy Week processions in Guatemala
|Mexico||Holy Week in Mexico
|Venezuela||Tacarigua de Mamporal
Villa de Cura
Holy Week has developed into one of Brazil’s main symbols of community identity, more specifically in the southern town of Campanha. The Campanha Holy Week begins on the Monday evening with the Procession of the Deposit. The figure of Our Lord of the Stations, representing the blood-stained Jesus carrying the cross, is brought from the church in a large black box and displayed in the main square. Then it is solemnly taken to the church following a band and a procession of people. Outside the church, a sermon is delivered on the Easter story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. After the sermon, a choir inside the open doors of the church sings the Miserere by Manoel Dias de Oliveria, while the black box is brought inside the church, and people come in to kiss the human-sized figure of Christ. Processions on Tuesday and Wednesday stop at different chapels at each of which a large painting portrays episodes of the Way of the Cross and a related hymn is sung at each. On Thursday morning the Chrism Mass is celebrated, with a blessing of the oils. Good Friday afternoon ceremonies are followed by the week’s main spectacle of the Taking Down from the Cross in front of the cathedral followed by the Funeral Procession of Our Dead Lord. The drama shows Christ being taken from the cross and placed in a coffin, which is then taken around to the accompaniment of the “Song of Veronica”. On Saturday morning a drama is performed by the youth. The following night, the Paschal Vigil is celebrated, and the streets are transformed into a beautiful array of intricate, colorful carpets to prepare for the following day. Easter Sunday begins before sunrise with the singing of the choir and band performances to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Bells and fireworks are followed by a Mass that ends with the “Hallelujah Chorus”.
Holy Week in Guatemala incorporates processions with images of saints carried on huge wooden platforms. The heavy andas are held by the locals, both men and women, who are frequently in purple robes. The procession is led by a man holding a container of incense accompanied by a small horn and flute band. Intricate carpets (alfombras) line the streets during the week’s celebration. Easter processions begin at sunrise and everyone comes to join the festivities.
In Amatenango, the figure of Judas, who betrayed Christ has been the main point of focus during the Mayan Holy Week. The priest calls Judas the “killer of Christ”. The figure used to be beaten after the Crucifixion performance on Good Friday, but is now treated more calmly.
Trapani holds one of the most elaborate processions for Holy Week anywhere in the world, culminating in the Processione dei Misteri di Trapani or simply the Misteri di Trapani (in English the Procession of the Mysteries of Trapani or the Mysteries of Trapani), a day-long passion procession featuring twenty floats of lifelike wood, canvas and glue sculptures of individual scenes of the events of the Passion.
The Misteri are amongst the oldest continuously running religious events in Europe, having been played every Good Friday since before the Easter of 1612, and running for at least 16 continuous hours, but occasionally well beyond the 24 hours; they are the longest religious festival in Sicily and in Italy. Similar but smaller or shorter passion processions are held in many other Sicilian cities, like Erice and Caltanissetta, but also in various Southern Italian cities, like Salerno and Taranto.
The Holy Week commemorations reach their paramount on Good Friday as the Catholic Church celebrates the passion of Jesus. Solemn celebrations take place in all churches together with processions in different villages around Malta and Gozo. During the celebration, the narrative of the passion is read in some localities. The Cross follows a significant Way of Jesus. Good Friday processions take place in Birgu, Bormla, Għaxaq, Luqa, Mosta, Naxxar, Paola, Qormi, Rabat, Senglea, Valletta, Żebbuġ and Żejtun. Processions in Gozo will be in Nadur, Victoria, Xagħra Xewkija, and Żebbuġ.
Mexico and United States: Yaqui Indians
Yaqui Holy Week is both ritualistic and theatrical in its celebrations. The major event of the Yaqui Indians during Holy Week occurs on Wednesday evening in which people arrive at the church on horseback and begin to crawl on the floor. Light begins to go out and people begin the whipping to the sound of ceremonial groans. Children and a dark hooded figure, symbolizing the betrayer of Christ, join the Thursday morning procession to the church. There they promise to serve God for the next three or five years. That night, there is a symbolic search for Jesus when the “Pharisees” visit various crosses in the streets and capture the “old man” (symbolic Jesus). A solemn atmosphere arises on Friday when a representation of Jesus is beaten and buried. On Saturday, an image of Jesus’ betrayer, Judas, is detained, as many people gather to watch the celebration. Sunday is a much-anticipated celebration of Christ’s resurrection filled with beautiful flowers and fireworks. A dance drama is performed enacting evil being defeated by good.
In the predominantly Catholic Philippines, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are national holidays; work is suspended in government offices and private businesses. Most stores are closed and most people in the cities head to the provinces for the long Easter weekend.
Holy Week is commemorated with street processions, the Way of the Cross, and a Passion play called the Sinakulo. The Church keeps the day solemn by not tolling the church bells, and no mass will be celebrated. In some communities (most famously in San Fernando, Pampanga), the processions include devotees who self-flagellate and sometimes even have themselves nailed to crosses as expressions of penance. After 15:00 PHT on Good Friday (the time at which Jesus is traditionally believed to have died), noise is discouraged, many radio stations and television stations close down (some remain on-air, broadcasting religious programming, with non-Catholic owned stations continuing broadcast), businesses automatically close, and the faithful are urged to keep a solemn and prayerful disposition through to Easter Sunday.
At Mass on Palm Sunday, Catholics carry “palaspas” or palm leaves to be blessed by the priest. Many Filipinos bring home the palm leaves after the Mass and place these above their front doors or their windows, believing that doing so can ward off evil spirits. Holy Monday marks the beginning of the Pabasa (literally, reading) or Pasyon, the marathon chanting of the story of Jesus’ life, passion, and death, which continues day and night, for as long as two straight days. A popular Holy Thursday tradition is the Bisita Iglesia (Church Visit), which involves visiting several Churches at which the faithful would pray the Stations of the Cross.
The last Mass before Easter is also celebrated on Holy Thursday, usually including a reenactment of the Washing of the Feet of the Apostles. This Mass is followed by the procession of the Blessed Sacrament before it is taken to the Altar of Repose. Good Friday in the Philippines is commemorated with street processions, the Way of the Cross, the commemoration of Jesus’ Seven last words (Siete Palabras) and a Passion play called the Sinakulo.
Easter morning is marked with joyous celebration, the first being the dawn Salubong, wherein large statues of Jesus and Mary are brought in procession together to meet, imagining the first reunion of Jesus and his mother Mary after Jesus’ Resurrection. This is followed by the joyous Easter Mass.
Cartagena, Málaga, Seville, Valladolid, Zamora and León hold elaborate processions for Holy Week. A tradition that dates from medieval times which has spread to other cities in Andalusia, the “Semana Santa en Sevilla” is notable for featuring the procession of “pasos”, lifelike wood or plaster sculptures of individual scenes of the events that happened between Jesus’ arrest and his burial, or images of the Virgin Mary showing grief for the torture and killing of her son.
In Málaga the lifelike wooden or plaster sculptures are called “tronos” and they are carried through the streets by penitents dressed in long purple robes, often with pointed hats, followed by women in black carrying candles for up to 11 hours. These pasos and tronos are physically carried on the necks of costaleros (literally “sack men”, because of the costal, a sack-like cloth that they wear over their neck, to soften the burden) or “braceros” (this name is popular in Leon), and can weigh up to five metric tonnes. The pasos are set up and maintained by hermandades and cofradías, religious brotherhoods that are common to a specific area of the city, whose precede the paso dressed in Roman military costumes or penitential robes.
Those members who wish to do so wear these penitential robes with conical hats, or capirotes, used to conceal the face of the wearer. These “Nazarenos” or “Papones” (this word it’s typical from Leon) carry processional candles, may walk the city streets barefoot, and may carry shackles and chains in their feet as penance. A brass band, marching band, a drum and bugle band, or in the cases of Cartagena and Málaga a military band (such as that of the Spanish Legion or other military units) may accompany the group, playing funeral marches, hymns or “marchas” written for the occasion.
Holy Week in Eastern Christianity
In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday, though the faithful will continue fasting until Pascha (Easter). The day before Palm Sunday is called Lazarus Saturday and commemorates the resurrection of Lazarus. On Lazarus Saturday wine and oil are allowed (and, in the Russian tradition, caviar). Palm Sunday is considered one of the Great Feasts of the Lord, and is celebrated with fish, wine and oil. Because it is a Great Feast of the Lord, the normal Resurrectional elements of the Sunday All Night Vigil are omitted; however, these resurrectional elements are inserted into the Lazarus Saturday service with its theme of anticipating the Resurrection of Jesus.
Holy Week is referred to as “Great and Holy Week”. Orthros (Matins) services for each day are held on the preceding evening. Thus, the Matins service of Great Monday is sung on Palm Sunday evening, and so on. This permits more of the faithful to attend. Matins is often served in the evening, and in some places Vespers is served in the morning.
Fasting during Great and Holy Week is very strict. Dairy products and meat products are strictly forbidden. On most days, no alcoholic beverages are permitted and no oil is used in the cooking. Friday and Saturday are observed as strict fast days, meaning that nothing should be eaten on those days. However, fasting is always adjusted to the needs of the individual, and those who are very young, ill or elderly are not expected to fast as strictly. Those who are able to, may receive the blessing of their spiritual father to observe an even stricter fast, whereby they eat only two meals that week: one on Wednesday night and one after Divine Liturgy on Thursday.
Great and Holy Monday through Wednesday
These days’ Orthros services (which in parishes is performed the previous night) of are often referred to as the “Bridegroom Prayer”, because of their theme of Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church, a theme expressed in the troparion that is solemnly chanted during them. On these days, an icon of the “Bridegroom” is placed on an analogion in the center of the temple, portraying Jesus wearing the purple robe of mockery and crowned with a crown of thorns (see Instruments of the Passion).
The same theme is repeated in the exapostilarion, a hymn which occurs near the end of the service. These services follow much the same pattern as services on weekdays of Great Lent. The services are so laid out that the entire Psalter (with the exception of Kathisma XVII) is chanted on the first three days of Holy Week. The canon that is chanted on these days is a “Triode”, i.e., composed of three odes instead of the usual nine, as is in other weekday services in the Triodion.
Towards the end of the Tuesday evening Bridegroom service (Orthros for Great and Holy Wednesday), the Hymn of Kassiani is sung. The hymn, (written in the 9th century by Kassia) tells of the woman who washed Christ’s feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee. (Luke 7:36-50) Much of the hymn is written from the perspective of the sinful woman:
O Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins, sensing Your Divinity, takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer. With lamentations she brings you myrrh in anticipation of your entombment. “Woe to me!” she cries, “for me night has become a frenzy of licentiousness, a dark and moonless love of sin. Receive the fountain of my tears, O You who gathers into clouds the waters of the sea. Incline unto me, unto the sighings of my heart, O You who bowed the heavens by your ineffable condescension. I will wash your immaculate feet with kisses and dry them again with the tresses of my hair; those very feet at whose sound Eve hid herself from in fear when she heard You walking in Paradise in the twilight of the day. As for the multitude of my sins and the depths of Your judgments, who can search them out, O Savior of souls, my Savior? Do not disdain me Your handmaiden, O You who are boundless in mercy.”
On vespers at the end of Monday through Wednesday is a reading from the Gospel which sets forth the new day’s theme and then the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts may be celebrated.
The Byzantine musical composition expresses the poetry so strongly that it leaves many people in a state of prayerful tears. The Hymn can last upwards of 25 minutes and is liturgically and musically a highpoint of the entire year.
Great and Holy Thursday
In many churches, especially Greek Orthodox, a service of Anointing (Holy Unction) is held on Wednesday evening, following the Presanctified Liturgy. This is in commemoration of the anointing of Jesus, and a preparation of the faithful to enter with Christ into his death and Resurrection. Those who wish to receive Holy Communion on Great and Holy Thursday, are encouraged to receive the Holy Mystery of Unction.
Orthros of Great and Holy Thursday does not follow the format of Great Lent (with the singular exception of chanting Alleluia in place of God is the Lord), but is celebrated as outside Lent, having a complete canon. Also, beginning at this service there will be no more reading of the psalter for the rest of Holy Week, with the exception of kathisma XVII at Orthros of Great and Holy Saturday.
Divine Liturgy of the Last Supper is held on the morning of Great and Holy Thursday, combining Vespers with the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. There is a custom among some churches to place a simple white linen cloth over the Holy Table (altar) for this Liturgy, reminiscent of the Last Supper. In cathedrals and monasteries it is customary for the bishop or hegumen (abbot) to celebrate the Washing of Feet. When it is necessary for an autocephalous church to consecrate more chrysm the primate of that church will consecrate it at this Liturgy.
Great and Holy Thursday is the only day during Holy Week when those observing the strict tradition will eat a cooked meal, though they will not do so until after the dismissal of the Liturgy. At this meal wine and oil are permitted, but the faithful still abstain from meat and dairy products.
Great and Holy Friday
Matins of Great and Holy Friday is celebrated on the evening of Holy Thursday. During this service, twelve Matins Gospels are chanted, from which this service derives its name of “Matins of the Twelve Gospels”. These Gospel lessons recount in chronological order the events from the Last Supper though the Crucifixion and burial of Jesus. At one point, when we reach the first Gospel which speaks of the Crucifixion, there is a custom for the priest to bring out a large cross with an icon the crucified Christ attached to it, and places it in the center of the nave for all the faithful to venerate. This cross will remain in the center of the church until the bringing out of the plashchanitza the next evening.
Vespers of Great and Holy Friday (Vespers of the Deposition from the Cross) is held in the morning or early afternoon of Great and Holy Friday. The figure of Christ is taken down from the Cross, and a richly-embroidered cloth icon called the Epitaphios (Church Slavonic: Plashchanitza) depicting Christ prepared for burial is laid in a “Tomb” decorated with flowers. At the end of the service all come forward to venerate the Epitaphios.
Great and Holy Saturday
Matins of Great and Holy Saturday is held on Friday evening. The service is known as the “Orthros of Lamentations at the Tomb“, because the majority of the service is composed of the clergy and faithful gathered around the tomb, chanting the “Lamentations” interspersed between the verses of Kathisma XVII (Psalm 118). At a certain point the priest sprinkles the tomb with rose petals and rose water. Near the end of the service, the Epitaphios is carried in a candlelit procession around the outside of the church as the faithful sing the Trisagion.
Vespers joined to the Divine Liturgy is served on Great and Holy Saturday, prescribed by the Liturgical books to be served in the afternoon but often served in the morning. This is the Proti Anastasi (First Resurrection) service, commemorating the Harrowing of Hell. Just before the reading of the Gospel, the hangings and vestments and changed from dark lenten colors to white, and the entire mood of the service changes from mouring to joy. However, the faithful do not yet greet one another with the Paschal kiss, since the Resurrection has not yet been announced to the living.
On Saturday night, the Paschal Vigil begins around 11:00 pm with the chanting of the Midnight Office. Afterwards, all of the lighting in the church is extinguished and all remain in silence and darkness until the stroke of midnight. Then, the priest lights a single candle from the eternal flame on the altar (which is never extinguished). The light is spread from person to person until everyone holds a lighted candle.
A procession then circles around the outside of the church, recreating the journey of the Myrrh Bearers as they journeyed to the Tomb of Jesus on the first Easter morning. The procession stops in front of the closed doors of the church. The opening of these doors symbolized the “rolling away of the stone” from the tomb by the angel, and all enter the church joyfully singing the Troparion of Pascha. Paschal Orthros begins with an Ektenia (litany) and the chanting of the Paschal Canon.
One of the highpoints is the sharing of the paschal kiss and the reading of the Hieratikon (Catechetical Homily of John Chrysostom) by the priest. The Divine Liturgy follows, and every Orthodox Christian is encouraged to confess and receive Holy Communion on this holiest day of the year. A breakfast usually follows, sometimes lasting till dawn. Slavs bring Easter baskets filled with eggs, meat, butter, and cheese—foods from which the faithful have abstained during Great Lent—to be blessed by the priest which are then taken back home to be shared by family and friends with joy.
On the afternoon of Easter Day, a joyful service called “Agape Vespers” is celebrated During this service the Great Prokeimenon is chanted and a lesson from the Gospel (John 20:19-25) is read in as many different languages as possible, accompanied by the joyful ringing of bells.
Coptic Orthodox Church
The Coptic Orthodox Christians fast the Lent for 55 days including the Holy Week.
The Friday before Palm Sunday is called “The Concluding Friday of Great Lent”. On this day a special service called “The Unction of the Sick” is conducted. It consists of seven prayers, at the end of which every member of the congregation is anointed with Holy Oil.
The following day – the last Saturday before Holy Week – is called “Lazarus’ Saturday”. On this day the Coptic Church commemorates Lazarus, the Brother of the Lord. Although this day doesn’t have much significance in relation to the events of Holy week, it is placed there according to calendar date.
Since the Liturgical day starts from the evening before an actual day, the prayers of Palm Sunday begin on the actual day of Lazarus’ Saturday.
Throughout Holy Week, there is a paschal service that is conducted every evening, starting Sunday night (eve of Monday), and every morning, up until Easter. These paschal services take place in the middle of the church, and not on the altar due to the fact that Jesus suffered and was crucified on Golgotha, which is outside of Jerusalem. The altar is bared of all its coverings and relics.
Each day service is divided into 5 hours; The First Hour, The Third Hour, The Sixth Hour, The Ninth Hour, and The Eleventh Hour. Likewise, each night service is also divided into the same five hours. However, Good Friday has an extra hour added to it, that of The Twelfth Hour. During each hour, one prophecy is read at the beginning, a hymn is chanted twelve times, a psalm is sung in a sad tune, one passage from a gospel is read, and an exposition concludes the hour.
- During the eve of Friday and Friday, four gospel passages are read, and more prophecies are read as well.
As of Tuesday night, the people do not greet each other nor the priests, nor do they even kiss the icons of saints in the church, due to the fact that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss.
On Maundy Thursday, also called Covenant Thursday, which is the Thursday of Holy Week, a liturgy is prayed and communion is given to symbolize the last supper of Jesus. Also, after the liturgy the priests wash the congregation’s feet to resemble Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
Late Friday night until early Saturday morning is called Apocalypse Night. During this night, another liturgy is prayed and the entire book of the apocalypse is read, to symbolize the second coming.
This is all concluded with the Easter liturgy that occurs on Saturday night, followed by a gathering in the church where the goers can eat together and celebrate the joy of the resurrection, as well as to bring an end to their long fast (abstinence from meat, fish, and dairy products).
Eastern Catholic Churches
Eastern Catholic Churches’ Holy Week observances and customs are generally the same as in the rites of the corresponding Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox Church.
Holy Week in Protestant churches
Anglicans/Episcopalians, along with other Protestants in the Catholic liturgical tradition, such as Lutherans, observe Holy Week much as the Catholic Church does. Anglicans style the most important days Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve.
Of Protestant fellowships, perhaps the Holy Week services (Passion Week) of the Moravian Church are the most extensive, as the Congregation follows the life of Christ through His final week in daily services dedicated to readings from a harmony of the Gospel stories, responding to the actions in hymns, prayers and litanies, beginning on the eve of Palm Sunday and culminating in the “Easter Morning” or Easter Sunrise service begun by the Moravians in 1732. Some Protestant churches make much of the foot washing ceremony on Maundy Thursday, for others it may be the only time in the year when Holy Communion is celebrated. Other churches celebrate versions of the Jewish Passover at this time.
Other Protestant churches do not have the special ceremonies that distinguish Holy Week in Orthodox and Catholic churches. However, these Protestants conduct more informal celebrations of Holy Week, usually including sermons about the last week of Christ’s life, and possibly some special services on Palm Sunday, Good Friday and or Easter Sunday.
The consensus of modern scholarship is that the New Testament accounts represent a crucifixion occurring on a Friday, but a Thursday or Wednesday crucifixion has also been proposed, especially in fundamentalist circles. Some scholars explain a Thursday crucifixion based on a “double sabbath” caused by an extra Passover sabbath falling on Thursday dusk to Friday afternoon, ahead of the normal weekly Sabbath. Some have argued that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday, not Friday, on the grounds of the mention of “three days and three nights” in Matthew 12:40 before his resurrection, celebrated on Sunday; others have countered by saying that this ignores the Jewish idiom by which a “day and night” may refer to any part of a 24-hour period, that the expression in Matthew is idiomatic, not a statement that Jesus was 72 hours in the tomb, and that the many references to a resurrection on the third day do not require three literal nights.
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- Roman Missal, Holy Saturday
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- Akin, Jimmy (21 April 2011). “The Crucifixion: Wednesday or Friday?”. The National Catholic Register. Retrieved 11 March 2012.
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- Humphreys, Colin (2011). The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052173200X.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Holy Week.|
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