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What is ‘Holy Week’?

What is ‘Holy Week’?

The introduction to ‘Passiontide and Easter’ in the official liturgical books of the Church of England give some interesting historical background to this season in Lent. The origins of this annual memorial of the the death and resurrection of Christ are lost in the mists of time.  We do not know when Christians first began to enact the final week of Jesus’s earthly life, his death and resurrection. . This Pascha (a word derived indirectly from pesach, Hebrew ‘Passover’) was at first a night-long vigil, followed by the celebration of the Eucharist at cock-crow, and all the great themes of redemption were included within it: incarnation, suffering, death, resurrection, glorification. Over time, the Pascha developed into the articulated structure of Holy Week and Easter. Through participation in the whole sequence of services, the Christian shares in Christ’s own journey, from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the empty tomb on Easter morning. The procession with palms, which was already observed in Jerusalem in the fourth century, is accompanied by the reading or singing of the Passion Narrative, in which the whole story of the week is anticipated. Maundy Thursday (the name of which comes from mandatum, ‘commandment’, because of its use of John 13.34 ) speaks to us of:

  • humble Christian service expressed through Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet,
  • the institution of the Eucharist,
  • the perfection of Christ’s loving obedience through the agony of Gethsemane.

After the Maundy Thursday service, the church decoration including candles, crosses, and banners are taken down. The altars are stripped of their linen and the church is made bare. During the hours of darkness it is customary to keep vigil (‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’) and some churches keep watch through the night, praying on every strike of the hour.

Thursday passes into Good Friday with its characteristic services of Veneration of the Cross or the Three Hours Devotion.

It is a widespread custom for there not to be a celebration of the Eucharist on Good Friday, though in some churches the consecrated bread and wine remaining from the Maundy Thursday Eucharist is be given in communion. Whether or not this takes place, the church remains stripped of all decoration.

It continues bare and empty through the following day, which is a day without a liturgy: there can be no adequate way of recalling the being dead of the Son of God, other than silence and desolation. But within the silence there grows a sense of peace and completion, and then rising excitement as the EasterVigil draws near.

Across the UK churches celebrate Easter in a wide variety of ways. Sunrise services are popular and often include baptisms and confirmations, as Easter day was traditionally a day for baptisms.  Whether or not these take place the liturgy includes a remaking of baptismal vows; as we remind ourselves of Christ’s sacrifice of himself, we recommit our lives to his service.

In some places Easter Day celebrates with egg rolling (symbolising new life and the rolling away of the stone door which sealed the grave).

This solemn season preserves some of the oldest texts still in current use, and rehearses the deepest and most fundamental Christian memories. Walking the way of the cross through Holy Week can be, to believers and non believers alike,  a profoundly moving experience.However, there are difficulties. The services and ceremonies of Holy Week have over the centuries,  actively encouraged hostility towards the Jews. And it has been said that whilst Christianity is not responsible for the Holocaust, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened without the years of Christian anti- semitism which preceded it. Whether or not we believe this to be the case, the terrible events of the 20th Century, the ‘Shoah’ or Holocaust, make it very clear to us that we have a responsibility towards others to be sensitive to the ways in which our celebrations of our collective memory of the life and death of Jesus can inadvertently perpetuate the problem of Christian anti- semitism.

Please do come and join us this HOLY WEEK. Participate in one or more services, come and take time out. In many ways, Passiontide and Easter have the same joy as Christmas, but without the mad rush before hand. Above all, it gives us time to reflect on our lives, and our loves, and look forward to a future in which mercy and justice and love win, hands down.

Author: Karen Marshall

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