QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT HOLY WEEK
Click here to return to the liturgical calendar page.


What is Holy Week?
What is Palm Sunday?
What is the Sunday of the Passion?
What is the Triduum?
What is Maundy Thursday?
What is Good Friday?
What is the Great Vigil of Easter?


WHAT IS HOLY WEEK?

Holy Week is the final week of Lent.  It commemorates the events of our Lord's last week before His death.  The chief festivals of Holy Week are Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil (Holy Saturday).  Holy Week, together with Easter, is the most sacred part of the Christian calendar -- the celebration of the death and resurrection Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Click here to consult a detailed chronology of the events of Holy Week as described in the New Testament.


WHAT IS PALM SUNDAY?

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter.  On this day, Jesus, accompanied by His disciples, entered the city of Jerusalem in triumph (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-44; and John 12:12-19).  An enthusiastic crowd greeted Jesus by spreading palm branches along the road and shouting Hosanna, a Hebrew expression meaning "save us."  The throng hailed Jesus as the "Son of David," the Messiah promised long ago by God.  Services on Palm Sunday traditionally begin with a joyful procession into the sanctuary.  Worshipers often carry palm leaves or wear crosses made of palm.


WHAT IS THE SUNDAY OF THE PASSION?

Palm Sunday is sometimes called the Sunday of the Passion because our Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem marked the beginning of His great and final humiliation -- His suffering and brutal death on the cross to atone for the sins of the world.  When Palm Sunday is observed as the Sunday of the Passion, worship services traditionally feature the reading of the entire passion narrative from one of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 26:14-27:66; Mark 14:1-15:47; and Luke 22:1-23:56).  The passion account from the gospel of John is customarily reserved for Good Friday.  The reading of the long passion text is sometimes divided into parts and separated by hymn responses or short homilies.


WHAT IS THE TRIDUUM?

The most solemn and joyful celebration of the Christian calendar is the period from Maundy Thursday through Holy Saturday.  Worship services on these days or evenings are traditionally considered to be parts of a single extended liturgical event called the Triduum (Latin for "Three Days").  In the earliest days of the Christian church, the events we commemorate in the Triduum were celebrated in one day and night's continuous worship service called the Pascha (from the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word for "Passover").


WHAT IS MAUNDY THURSDAY?

The first part of the Triduum begins on the evening of Maundy Thursday (also called Holy Thursday), during which Christians recall the events that took place the night Jesus was betrayed.  The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke concentrate on the institution of the Lord's Supper (Matthew 26:20-30; Mark 14:17-26; and Luke 22:14-35).  The gospel of John focuses instead on the Lord's final teachings to His disciples, dramatically punctuated by His washing of their feet (John 13-17).  The word "maundy" is derived from the Latin phrase mandatum novum, meaning "new commandment."   It refers to the Lord's words to His apostles as recorded in John 13:34:  A new command I give you:  love one another.

Some congregations reenact the foot-washing ritual on this evening.  However, the true climax of Maundy Thursday worship is the celebration of the Lord's Supper.  This night is the "anniversary" of the sacrament and therefore a memorable event, even in churches that celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday.  After the sacrament has ended, the stripping of the altar takes place.  The ministers and several assistants remove all vessels, crosses, books, candles, linens, paraments, banners, and other decorations from the altar and chancel area.  This ancient ritual is a powerful and dramatic reenactment of the Lord's humiliation at the hands of the Roman soldiers.  As the altar is being stripped, Psalm 22 -- a portion of the Old Testament containing clear prophecies of Christ's suffering -- is chanted or read.  The altar, left bare or adorned only with black paraments, is transformed from the communion table of Maundy Thursday into the tomb slab of Good Friday.


WHAT IS GOOD FRIDAY? 

Good Friday, the second day of the Triduum, is the solemn remembrance of Jesus' death on the cross.  The English designation of "Good Friday" is apparently a corruption of "God's Friday," although the term is a very fitting one since the Lord's death was for our eternal good.

Good Friday worship is marked by austerity and silence.  The music of keyboards and other instruments is minimized or eliminated altogether.  The altar, completely stripped of appointments, is normally not used.  Instead, one or more lecterns or reading desks serve as the focal points of the service.  The passion narrative from the gospel of John (John 18:1-19:42) is traditionally the appointed text for this day.  The two liturgical services for Good Friday are the Tre Ore and the Tenebrae.

The principal Good Friday worship service is one that starts at noon and is called the Tre Ore (Italian for "Three Hours").  This service is a somber commemoration of the last three hours of our Lord's suffering on the cross.  It features homilies, hymns, and other meditations centered on Christ's seven words from the cross.  In addition, the Tre Ore contains several unique sequences that are among the most beautiful and moving in the entire historic liturgy.  The first of these is the Bidding Prayer.  In this special prayer, the pastor leads the congregation in a series of intercessions (called "bids") for the needs of the church and the entire world.  The Tre Ore service also calls for the carrying of a rough wooden cross (often fashioned out of the trunk of the church's Christmas tree) in slow procession through the nave to the chancel, where it is then leaned against the altar.  Worshipers can offer a sign of adoration such as bowing, kneeling, or touching the cross as it passes by.  During the procession, the congregation or choir sings a hymn in praise of Christ's saving work on the cross.  Finally, a rite that is often incorporated into the Tre Ore after the cross processional is the chanting or reading of an ancient liturgical text known in Latin as the Improperia.  These heart-breaking verses, based on Old Testament passages such as Micah 6:3, Psalm 69:21, and Isaiah 5:2-4, are a series of stinging accusations brought by Christ against the church for His suffering and death on the cross.  These powerful reproaches reveal the many ways that each one of us is responsible for the Lord's crucifixion.  Depending on local circumstances churches will frequently conduct a Tre Ore that does not last three full hours but does contain some of the traditional features of this ancient service.  However, the Tre Ore is designed to conclude at 3 PM (the "ninth hour" of the New Testament crucifixion accounts), the time that Christ gave up His life (Matthew 27:45-50).

The Tenebrae or Service of Darkness takes place in the evening.  It derives its name from the gradual extinguishing of candles and lights at various points in the service.  The ensuing darkness is a symbolic recreation of the darkness that covered the land when our Lord died (Mark 15:33).  It also brings to mind the fading life of our Lord as He hung on the cross.  Scripture readings and hymns direct the hearts of the people to repent of the sins that made our Lord's crucifixion necessary.  The last remaining candle (representing Jesus) is not extinguished like the others, but is carried out of the chancel.  The Service of Darkness ends with the strepitus, a sudden loud noise caused by the slamming shut of a book or door.  The strepitus symbolizes the tumultuous earthquake that accompanied the Lord's death (Matthew 27:46-53) and the shutting of the tomb when He was interred.  It also foreshadows the breaking of the tomb at the Resurrection described in Matthew 28:2.  The Christ candle is then returned to the altar as a reminder to the worshippers that even in the midst of death and darkness our Lord was not defeated by the devil, but rose in triumph on Easter morning.  The people then disperse in silence.

In spite of the solemnity of Good Friday worship, it is not a funeral service for Jesus.  It is rather a time of quiet and serious contemplation on His great saving work.

ship, it is not a funeral service for Jesus.  It is rather a time of quiet and serious contemplation on His great saving work.


WHAT IS THE GREAT VIGIL OF EASTER?

The third and final day of the Triduum is Holy Saturday, known from antiquity as the Great Vigil.  The Great Vigil was for many centuries the most important festival of the entire church year.  Although it has more or less been maintained in Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, the Vigil all but disappeared from the liturgical practices of other denominations.  Thankfully, it is being rediscovered by many church bodies.  In fact, it is no longer an unusual thing to find Lutheran congregations celebrating the Great Vigil on the night of Holy Saturday or on Easter morning at sunrise.

The Great Vigil is made up of four separate but connected worship services.  The first of these is the Service of Light.  At this service, a dramatic reversal of the Good Friday Service of Darkness takes place.  The congregation gathers in the darkness outside of the church.  All are given unlighted candles.  The presiding pastor kindles a small fire, a symbol of the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites out of Egypt by night (Exodus 13:21-22).  From this fire, the paschal candle, a large white candle symbolizing the presence of the risen Lord, is lighted.  The worshipers light their candles from this candle.  A candle bearer then takes it up and places it in its stand by the altar.  All follow in a slow procession into the dark church to the pews.  A cantor, standing next to the baptismal font, chants a beautiful and ancient song known in Latin as the Exsultet.  Choirs and congregation often join in singing parts of this joyful canticle.  When the song is finished, the worshipers extinguish their candles and the Service of Light concludes.

The Vigil continues with the next liturgy called the Service of Readings.  The ministers and lectors read several portions of the Old Testament that tell of God's wonderful acts of deliverance in the history of Israel.  A responsorial psalm or hymn and brief prayer follow each reading.  Traditionally, twelve texts are read, but this is not always done in some places due to time constraints.  However, it is important to read a sufficient number of texts because this service is the Vigil proper, the period of watching and waiting for the coming of the risen Christ.  The story of Israel's miraculous rescue at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:10-15:1) is always read because it is a pivotal episode in the history of Israel that prefigures the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  The Service of Readings concludes with the singing of another ancient and joyful canticle called the Benedicite Omnia Opera.

The Service of Baptism is the third part of the Great Vigil.  Historically, adult converts who have been instructed in the faith during Lent were baptized at this service.  The liturgy begins as the candle bearer carries the paschal candle and places it near the baptismal font.  Candidates for baptism with their families and sponsors gather around the font to be baptized.  Whether baptisms of newborns or converts takes place or not, all assembled worshipers recite the Apostle's Creed, the creed associated with the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  In some traditions, the presiding minister will use a perforated globe called an aspergillum to lightly sprinkle the worshipers with water as a reminder of their baptisms.

The climax of the Great Vigil is the Service of Holy Communion.  The paschal candle is returned to its stand near the altar.  The altar candles and other candles in the sanctuary are lighted from it.  The presiding pastor then greets the congregation with the ancient greeting:  Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  The congregation replies:  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  All join in singing the Gloria in Excelsis ("Glory in the highest"), a hymn that has not been sung in church since the last Sunday after Epiphany.  During the hymn, the altar may be decorated in flowers and white (or golden) paraments.  More candles are lighted and all the sanctuary lamps are illuminated.  The Great Vigil ends with a simple but joyful Eucharist. 

The Great Vigil can be adapted to the needs of the congregation.  Some churches observe it as a true vigil, worshipping late on Holy Saturday so that the service ends on Sunday morning after midnight.  Others celebrate it as the first service of Easter Sunday, beginning in the predawn hours and culminating at sunrise.  Still others celebrate the first three liturgies as the sunrise service and reserve Holy Communion for the later Easter services.  Regardless of how or when it is commemorated, the Great Vigil is the richest and most powerful liturgy of the Christian year.  It and the other Holy Week festivals are wonderful and unique services that gather God's people together to celebrate the great paschal mystery -- Jesus Christ's passage from death to life for our salvation.