Traditionally Holy Week is the week before Easter Sunday. It is also called the “Great Week” in the Eastern Churches. It includes the last days of Lent and the first days of what is commonly called the Easter Triduum. (The Triduum comes from the Latin for the “three-day period” which is the three-day celebration of the most solemn mysteries of our Christian faith: Jesus’ passion, death, burial and resurrection.)
From at least the second century, if not earlier, this has been a time in which the church gave itself to prayer and fasting in preparation for the Easter Vigil, which is the final part of the week and spills over into the celebration of Sunday. Holy Week begins with Passion Sunday, or Palm Sunday as many of you know it. Historically it includes a reading of the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, death and burial. It has been called Palm Sunday because of the procession with palms that commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. This ritual, of the palms, began in the fourth century, so it appears.
Catholic and Orthodox Churches have divine liturgies each day of this week. The liturgies of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday do not differ significantly from the other liturgies of Lenten weekdays. On Holy Thursday, or what some of you will know as Maundy Thursday in Protestant contexts, the Eucharist is often said by the bishop in the Catholic and Orthodox Church, with the priests gathering with him in the celebration. Many Protestant churches retain a Holy Thursday service (in the evening) and celebrate the supper on this Thursday night, the night when Jesus instituted the meal for his disciples. I did this in my first Baptist pastorate nearly forty years ago. (I suppose I was drawn to this special week more than most Baptist ministers in my youth since none of my peers provided such a service. For those who care to know I have not been a Baptist for some years but I am now a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America.) Holy Week continues with the remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death on Friday, a time when many churches remove all the coverings from the altar, or communion table, stripping them away to remind us of the bleak sense felt on this evening by Jesus’ first followers. Saturday then prepares us for Easter. In the East this happens in the evening and Easter begins right after midnight. In the West many churches have sunrise services for the same reason. This is the heart of the Easter Vigil.
The point of all of this is not to insist that every faithful Christian must follow one order or approach to these traditions but rather to say that if you have none of these traditions at all you might well be missing out on one of the most important times of worship and devotion in the entire church year. In the light of our great salvation clearly no week made a greater difference to us, both now and eternally, than this one. Thus we call it Holy Week for good reason. During these days we recall the most holy mysteries of the Christian faith. May God bless you in whatever context you remember your Lord’s life, death and resurrection during this very special week.