Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Holy Week
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and comes to fulfillment on Easter day. Palm Sunday is when Jesus rode a donkey into the holy city of Jerusalem, and people waved branches, or palms, and shouted “Hosanna” Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, “ hailing Jesus as King . Hosanna in Hebrew means “Save us!” It is a variation on Jesus’ name (in Hebrew Joshua, means Savior). This quaint story was actually considered political treason because in the Roman Empire, only the Emperor was to be hailed as King. Riding a donkey not only reveled Jesus’ humility, but according the the Hebrew Bible’s (Old Testaments’s) prophecy in Zechariah (Zech 9:9-10), it was also a declaration that this King Jesus was ushering in a reign of peace. If a King rode a horse during his inauguration, he was declaring that his kingdom would be a time of war. A king riding a donkey indicated a time of peace. But Jesus still got into a bit of a jam with the Romans because of the whole treason thing.
Holy week reaches its climax in what is called the “Triduum” – which is a fancy Latin word most people cannot pronounce – which means simply, “The Three Days.” The Triduum includes Holy or Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.At our church Holy Thursday begins with a Passover Seder.
Our Seder also begins with a foot washing, because in John 13 Jesus says he washed his disciples’ feet. At our church I, the pastor, wash peoples’ feet. Very few people take me up on the offer to have their feet washed! Mostly children and teenagers allow me to do this, maybe because they are not as self-conscious about their feet as most adults are. I understand peoples’ hesitation because when people have asked me if they can wash my feet, I think, “No way!” I have let a couple of people wash my feet, but only people I feel extremely comfortable with. It is a very intimate thing. When I wash peoples’ feet I try to make it into a prayer for the person whose feet I am washing. I use a fragrant holy oil in the warm water, and at the end, make the sign of the cross on their feet, and ask God to bless them in their walk of faith. I also feel that Jesus’ disciples must have felt very uncomfortable and vulnerable when their teacher and master knelt down and washed their feet in this intimate act of love toward them. As a pastor I spend a lot of time visiting sick people who are in the hospital, and that is where I see people who feel similarly vulnerable. No matter how powerful and independent a person is, when they are in a hospital bed, in one of those johnnies that never quite closes, with bare limbs hanging out, and tubes and bedpans about, any one of us would feel vulnerable. I consider it a sacred trust when people allow me their pastor to be with them in their vulnerability.
Most bible scholars believe that Jesus and his disciples, who were Jewish, celebrated the Passover Seder together, and that it was Jesus’s Last Supper with his friends. Jesus took every element of this symbolic meal, and gave it a new twist, turning the Passover Seder into what we Christians now call the Holy Eucharist or the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Celebrating a Passover Seder on Holy Thursday is kind of like traveling back in time, and experiencing a little bit of what Jesus’ disciples must have experienced during that Last Supper with Jesus. If you have never been to a Seder meal, I encourage you to try one. What is especially wonderful at our church is that we celebrate our Seder with Jewish friends. We use a traditional Seder Haggadah (order of service), but also show where Jesus tweaked things and gave them a new meaning. Last year I officiated at a marriage of a wonderful young Christian woman and Jewish man from New York City, who had met at a Seder. A mutual friend of theirs, who was a non-practicing Jew, had decided to get in touch with his Jewish roots, had researched the Seder meal, and had invited several friends to his apartment in New York to celebrate Passover with him – Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc. I encourage you to try this. It really brings the Passover alive. I am happy to share resources with anyone who is interested.
After our Seder, most of our Jewish friends go home, and the rest of us go upstairs into our church sanctuary for Maundy Thursday worship. Maundy is a weird word, which comes from the Latin word “mandare,” which means “to command,” or “commandment.” We call Holy Thursday Maundy Thursday because after Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he told them to love one another by going and doing likewise. “A new commandment I give you, that you should love one another as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35)
At the end of the worship service, the members of our Altar Guild (the people who set up and clean up our Altar or “table” for holy communion) strip down the altar, leaving it completely bare. All of the fancy paraments (colorful altar cloths, for the different worship seasons), communion vessels (dishes), candles, crosses, bibles, books, vases, etc. are removed, leaving only the altar’s stark nakedness. This is because the altar (table) represents God’s presence in our midst. For Christians, Jesus is God incarnate (literally “God made flesh”). The stripping of the altar is to remember how, after his last supper with his disciples, Jesus went out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. “Gethsemane” literally means “olive press,” which is kind of an appropriate name for the place of Jesus’ great internal suffering and anguish. The Garden of Gethsemane is believed to be on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple in Jerusalem. The Seder is a meal which is several hours long, during which you drink four glasses of red wine, each glass with a different symbolic meaning. The first time I celebrated a Seder meal, and drank all that wine,I realized why Jesus’ disciples all fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane! Gethsemane is where Judas showed up with the guards, gave Jesus a betraying kiss, and then Jesus was arrested, and brought before the religious authorities. All of his disciples fled. After his trial before the Sanhedrin (a council of the Jewish religious leaders) Jesus ended up before the Roman official, Pontius Pilate. Jesus was stripped, humiliated, spat upon, mocked, tortured. This is why on Holy Thursday we strip the altar, and leave it bare and exposed. It is a powerful visual reminder of how Jesus was stripped and also abandoned by those he loved. We cannot help but ponder those moments when we in our own lives have felt completely betrayed and abandoned by those close to us. As I read of the human cruelty toward Jesus, I cannot help but think of such acts of cruelty going on today in various places throughout our world. As a Christian I believe Jesus’ incarnation means that all human beings are “God-made-flesh.” We cannot separate our relationship from God from our relationship with others. If the divine spark is within every person, then whatever we do to others, we do to God! Jesus said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, so you do unto me.” (Matthew 25:40) This is why we should treat others – all others – with the same reverence with which we would treat God.
The next day is what we call Good Friday. Originally it was called “Long Friday.” It is the day when Jesus was crucified. Again, when I have researched what takes place in the physical body when a person is crucified, it makes me feel aghast at the level of humanity’s inhumanity to other human beings. How could a human being even conceive of such a cruel and torturous death? Yet when we see the news today, we see similar atrocities continue.
In our community we have a Stations of the Cross Walk. This is the most experiential part of our whole Triduum (Three Days). Our young people make crosses from the branches of trees. We gather in our church to read the Passion story from one of the Gospels in the New Testament. (Passion literally means “deep suffering.”) We hand out copies of the Gospel, and have different people read a paragraph as the Spirit moves them. I like hearing the different voices, of people of all ages, sharing the story. Then we carry three crosses (one representing Jesus, and the other two representing the two criminals who were crucified beside him) down the street, and through our town, to thirteen “stations,” or places where people today are suffering: Soup kitchens, a hotel where we clergy pay for homeless people to stay, the train tracks where a teenager from our youth group was struck by a train and killed.
At each of our thirteen stops or stations, we have a bible reading about Jesus’ own suffering, followed by a symbolic action, and a brief prayer. Some people stop and stare at us, as we walk by carrying our crosses. Others sitting in coffee shops or driving by do not even notice. I imagine this is what it was like when Jesus walked toward his own crucifixion. I bet some shopkeepers and townspeople didn’t even notice Christ in his suffering as he walked by their doors. How blind are we to the suffering which is taking place all around us?
Good Friday evening in our town we have a community Taize worship service. Taize is an ecumenical community (open to all denominations of Christians) in Taize France. Taize worship involves simple repetitive chanting, lectio divina (sacred or divine reading of a short verse, with several moments of silence for contemplative prayer with the verse), adoration of the cross, and lighting candles as we offer the prayers of our hearts to God. I always think of this worship service as a time of waiting, just as during that first Good Friday, when Jesus’ friends and companions had to wait, because it was the eve of the Jewish Sabbath (the Jewish Sabbath is from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday).
Finally, Holy Saturday arrives. For Christians throughout the world this is when we celebrate an Easter Vigil. “Easter” in the biblical language of Greek, is “Pasca,” which is the Greek word for Passover. Over the years I have grown to love the Easter Vigil. In some churches their Easter Vigil lasts the entire night, ending with the sunrise on Easter morning. At our church we do the short version of the Easter Vigil. It lasts around ninety minutes. Easter Vigils have four parts: the Service of Light; the Service of the Word; the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist (Communion). During the service of Light we light our new Christ Candle and chant “Jesus christ is the Light of the world; the Light no darkness can overcome.” During the Service of the Word we read key passages from the bible which highlight our salvation history – the stories which highlight God’s saving love for us, culminating in the Easter Gospel. Then new converts to the Christian faith are baptized, and other members of the community reenact and remember their own baptisms. Finally, we celebrate the Eucharistic meal. Again, this entire service is participatory and experiential.
Easter Sunday we gather at a beach near our church, and have a simple time of worship as the sun rises. Then we return to our church where we celebrate the resurrection of Christ with the fullest expression of music, Word, and Sacrament.
If you have any questions about Easter or Holy Week, please respond to this post, and I will be certain to get back to you. Also please read the post “Easter Is,” which is my Easter sermon. May you experience the new life of Easter!
In Christ, Our Resurrection and Our Life!
Pastor Linda Forsberg
Copyright April 20,2014