What is Holy Week and How Does It All Begin?
On the Sunday before Easter we celebrate Palm Sunday–the commemoration of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem for the completion of the Paschal Mystery. In the old calendar, before Vatican II, the Church celebrated Passion Sunday two Sundays before Easter, and then Palm Sunday began Holy Week. The Church now combines the two to reinforce the solemnity of Holy Week.
So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, crying, “Hosanna!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!
And Jesus found a young ass and sat upon it; as it is written, “Fear not,
daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on the colt of an ass” (Jn 12:13-15).
The Palm Sunday procession is formed of Christians who, in the “fullness of faith,” make their own the gesture of the Jews and endow it with its full significance. Following the Jews’ example, we proclaim Christ as Victor: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.” But by our faith we know, as they did not, all that His triumph stands for. He is the Messiah, the Son of God. He is the sign of contradiction, acclaimed by some and reviled by others. Sent into this world to take us from sin and the power of Satan, He underwent His Passion, the punishment for our sins, but comes forth triumphant from the tomb, the victor over death, making our peace with God and taking us with Him into the kingdom of His Father in heaven. (For further reading go to: CatholicCulture.org)
Our current understanding of Sunday and holy days of obligation is that it has been imposed on us by the Church, and rightfully so. By contrast, the early Church had no such law because there simply was no need for it. The sense of “obligation” early Christians felt to celebrate Sunday Eucharist flowed from a deep personal and communal desire. Theirs was an inner obligation to celebration of the Eucharist. St John Paul II in his apostolic letter Dies Domini (On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy), calls it “obligation of conscience”. As this “obligation of conscience” or inner desire started to wane, individual bishops found it necessary to remind the faithful that the Sunday assembly was not simply an option but rather a sacred duty. In 1917 the Code of Canon Law 1247 defined the obligation to celebrate Eucharist on Sundays and Holy days of obligation as universal law.
Holy Thursday – The Beginning Of The Holy Triduum:
Except for the celebration of the Easter Vigil, Holy Thursday is possibly one of the most important, complex, and profound days of celebration in the Catholic Church. Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Eucharist as the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and the institution of the Sacrament of the Priesthood. During the Last Supper, Jesus offers Himself as the Passover sacrifice, the sacrificial lamb, and teaches that every ordained priest is to follow the same sacrifice in the exact same way. Christ also bids farewell to His followers and prophesizes that one of them will betray Him and hand Him over to the Roman soldiers, and that one would deny Him three times.
During the night, after sundown—because Passover begins at sundown—the Holy Thursday Liturgy takes place, marking the end of Lent and the beginning of the Sacred “Triduum,” (three days) of Holy Week. These days are the three holiest days in the Catholic Church. This Mass stresses the importance Jesus puts on the humility of service, and the need for cleansing with water, a symbol of baptism. Also emphasized are the critical importance of the Eucharist and the sacrifice of Christ’s Body, which we now find present in the consecrated Host.
At the conclusion of the Mass, the faithful are invited to continue Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, just as the disciples were invited to stay up with the Lord during His agony in the garden before His betrayal by Judas. After Holy Thursday, no Mass will be celebrated again in the Church until the Easter Vigil celebrates and proclaims the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
On Good Friday, the entire Church fixes her gaze on the Cross at Calvary. Each member of the Church tries to understand at what cost Christ has won our redemption. In the solemn ceremonies of Good Friday, in the Adoration of the Cross, in the chanting of the ‘Reproaches’, in the reading of the Passion, and in receiving the pre-consecrated Host, we unite ourselves to our Savior, and we contemplate our own death to sin in the Death of our Lord.
The Church–stripped of its ornaments, the altar bare, and with the door of the empty tabernacle standing open–is as if in mourning. In the fourth century the Apostolic Constitutions described this day as a “day of mourning, not a day of festive joy,” and it was called the “Pasch (passage) of the Crucifixion.” The liturgical observance of this day of Christ’s suffering, crucifixion and death evidently has been in existence from the earliest days of the Church. No Mass is celebrated on this day, but the service of Good Friday is called the Mass of the Presanctified because Communion (in the species of bread), which had already been consecrated on Holy Thursday, is given to the people.
Traditionally, the organ is silent from Holy Thursday until the Alleluia at the Easter Vigil, as are all bells or other instruments, the only music during this period being unaccompanied chant. The omission of the prayer of consecration deepens our sense of loss because Mass throughout the year reminds us of the Lord’s triumph over death, the source of our joy and blessing. The desolate quality of the rites of this day reminds us of Christ’s humiliation and suffering during his Passion. We can see that the parts of the Good Friday service correspond to the divisions of Mass:
- Liturgy of the Word – reading of the Passion.
- Intercessory prayers for the Church and the entire world, Christian and non-Christian.
- Veneration of the Cross
- Communion, or the ‘Mass of the Pre-Sanctified.’
On Holy Saturday the Church waits at the Lord’s tomb, meditating on his suffering and death. The altar is left bare, and the sacrifice of the Mass is not celebrated. Only after the solemn vigil during the night, held in anticipation of the resurrection, does the Easter celebration begin, with a spirit of joy that overflows into the following period of fifty days. The the Easter Vigil is the most beautiful liturgy in the Church—and the liturgy that marks the beginning of Easter. We are awaiting our Master’s return with our lamps full and burning, so that He will find us awake and will seat us at His table The vigil is divided into four parts:
- Service of Light
- Liturgy of the Word
- Liturgy of Baptism
- Liturgy of the Eucharist
From its very beginnings, the Christian community placed the celebration of Baptism within the context of the Easter Vigil. On this night, catechumens will be baptized, and the congregation will renew their Baptismal promises.