Walking with Jesus During Holy Week
Editor’s note: In this article guest author, Peter Giersch, reflects on his experiences of observing some of the oldest traditions of the Church for celebrating Holy Week. As he describes the different liturgies and gatherings of the Church that take place during these holy days, we are reminded that Easter is not just a day. It is a season of remembering and entering into Christ’s passion and triumph as best we can.
Palm Sunday is the start of what Christians refer to as “Holy Week.” It is a week full of emotional highs and lows and the reconciliation of many terrible contradictions. The Palm Sunday liturgy begins with the Gospel of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and ends with the reading of his passion. At the church I attend the service opens with a noisy procession and everyone waving palm branches. It ends in complete silence, with no closing song, just everyone awkwardly shuffling out of church, into the mystery of a week that remembers the central act in the history of our salvation. The juxtaposition of Jesus in triumph and Jesus in agony is a poignant beginning to Holy Week as we remember the passion and resurrection of Christ.
Scholars often say that the Gospels were “written backwards.” That is, the four Gospels match each other most closely at the end – in the recounting of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. The further you go “back” to Jesus’ ministry, and then to Jesus’ childhood and birth, the less closely the Gospels resemble each other. The same, perhaps, can be said for the church. All Christian denominations worthy of the name agree that Jesus died and rose from the dead. The further you go from this, the more the disagreements begin to multiply.
A Place of Unity
So the kernel of our faith, and the most unifying element of the Church’s belief, is what we remember throughout the sacred seven days we call Holy Week. Monday through Wednesday of Holy Week are rather quiet. We recall the preparations for Passover. But beginning on the evening of Holy Thursday going through Easter Sunday morning, the entire church year focuses like a laser beam on that nucleus, that center point of agreement in the Gospels and in the Christian community – the passion and resurrection of Jesus.
Holy Thursday evening is technically the end of Lent and the beginning of the highest holy days of the entire church year – called the Sacred Triduum. Lent actually ends, and the Triduum begins at one specific moment on Holy Thursday, with the singing of the Gloria – the ancient hymn of praise to God that has not been heard in church for over six weeks. Silenced throughout Lent, the Church now bursts out in praise. “Glory to God in the highest . . .” Lent is over. There is a feeling of euphoria. The church bells are rung throughout the singing of Gloria, and then fall silent until early Easter Sunday morning.
As we remember the events of that first Holy Thursday, the Lectionary focuses on the Last Supper as recounted in John’s gospel. Here we listen to the last supper discourse, and witness the washing of the feet of the disciples. The resounding note of the Last Supper is Jesus’ saying,
“Do this in memory of me,” making it clear that no one can escape the message that all those who follow Jesus are called to be servants, to wash each others’ feet.
The Holy Thursday liturgy ends in silence, for after the Last Supper, and the singing of hymns, Jesus and his disciples went out to the Mount of Olives. In the same way, at the end of our Maundy Thursday services, all exit silently, while the church is often left open for those who choose to “watch and pray” with Jesus in Gethsemane.
Then on Good Friday, sometime between 1 and 3 p.m., the Church gathers again, in silence. There is no opening song, or opening prayer, for the “watching” with Christ continues. The Passion is read again and again, all will exit in silence.
Then after sunset on Holy Saturday, the church gathers in silence once again, in the dark. In ancient times, Christians would read from the Old Testament stories of salvation history all night long, and then celebrate resurrection with the dawn. Our stamina may have cooled a bit, as the Lectionary offers only 7 readings, but that can last over an hour. These are usually read in a dark church, with a psalm and a prayer between each reading.
Then, finally, after the last reading, all the lights go on in the church, and the bells of the Church ring out again as the Church raises its voice in the Gloria – Glory To God in the highest! The Gospel of the resurrection is read and the Church rejoices. Lent is over and the Easter Octave has begun. One day is certainly not enough to celebrate the most important moment of our faith, so for the following 8 days, from Easter Sunday to the following Sunday, the Church celebrates Easter.
Beyond March Madness
It is fitting that Holy Week falls in the midst of March Madness this year. The annual college basketball tournament has some commonalities with Holy Week. The relentless pace, the emotional highs and lows, and the entire college basketball season packed into a short span of days. So it is with Holy Week, it is a week of relentless liturgies, readings, celebrations and remembering. It is the heart of what we believe – 2000 years of salvation history, all packed into one week of emotional highs and lows.
But, of course, nothing can be compared with the importance of what we recall this week. March Madness will not shut down commerce, but Good Friday will. Many stores, banks, and even the New York Stock Exchange will close on Good Friday from 12 to 3 p.m. The power of what we are about to remember cannot be overstated. A man died, and then rose again. While others have made the claim, only in this one instance does the majority of the world stop to commemorate it – even 2000 years later.
In a world where everyone is “crazy busy” and looking for ways to pack more into a shorter space of time, we stand in awe at the compact power of Holy Week. As we enter into it once again this year, let us consider how we can walk with Jesus through these life-altering days. Let us learn from the Master of Time how to truly redeem the time and spend one week focusing on and entering into the single most important event in the history of the world—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
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