Holy Week: preparing our hearts for Easter
Holy week is the week leading up to Easter Sunday. In the Christian calendar it is the last week of Lent. During Holy Week, Christians remember the Passion of Christ (from Late Latin: passionem meaning “suffering” or “enduring”). We contemplate His death on Good Friday to turn aside God’s wrath so that we could be forgiven and reconciled. We wait in hope to celebrate his resurrection on Easter Sunday and the new life that is given to all who believe. So even though Holy Week is solemn and sorrowful, it also anticipates the joy of Easter Sunday through the recognition of God’s goodness in sending His Son to die for our salvation.
Palm Sunday remembers Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, John 12:9-19). Jesus was welcomed with waving palm branches, coats thrown on the ground and shouts of, “Hosanna to the Son of David, Blessed is he who come in the name of the Lords, Hosanna in the highest.” The irony is that five days later a crowd would bay for his blood and request the release of an insurrectionist. Churches commemorate this day by decorating the church with palm branches and preaching on the triumphal entry passages.
Services that are held on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week can focus on the events that are recorded in the gospels between his triumphal entry and his betrayal to the Chief Priests and teachers of the law. These include his anointing in Bethany, cleansing of the temple, cursing the fig tree, foot washing of the disciples, predictions of this death, consoling of the disciples, betrayal by Judas and the telling of several parables.
On other occasions our services have focussed on themes that are relevant to Easter or on the great Old Testament passages that are fulfilled at Easter.
Tenebrae comes from the Latin word meaning “darkness” or “shadow”. The Tenebrae service is a contemplative and quiet service distinctive for its gradual extinguishing of candles while a series of readings follow Jesus as he approaches the cross. The gathering darkness remembers the darkness of Jesus’ abandonment until he faces the cross alone. Only one candle is burning at the end of the service, symbolising the hope of Sunday’s resurrection. Worshipper then leave the church is silence.
Some churches have a service where the minister washes the feet of the church members, while in other churches the members wash each other’s feet. Churches who use traditional liturgy (alter coverings and decorations) remove these are celebrating the Lord’s Supper on Thursday. This is called “stripping the altar” and symbolises the abandonment of Jesus by his disciples and the stripping of Jesus by the soldiers prior to the crucifixion.
On Friday we remember the trial, crucifixion and suffering, death, and burial. There are a variety of ways that churches conduct their worship on this day. Some use the Stations of the Cross (a series of images depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion) to commemorate Christ’s suffering. Some have a three-hour service from 9:00-12:00am to commemorate the three hours Jesus spent on the cross. Some churches encourage fasting. Other churches, like ours, use Jesus’ seven sayings from the cross in sermons or devotionals.
- Father, forgive them . . . (Luke 23:34)
- This day you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43)
- Woman, behold your son . . .(John 19:26-27)
- My God, my God . . . (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)
- I thirst. (John 19:28)
- It is finished! (John 19:30)
- Father into your hands . . . (Luke 23:46)
Although, Easter Sunday is not officially part of Holy Week, it is the grand and glorious celebration of Jesus resurrection. Our great foes: death and sin have been defeated forever by our victorious King. As Paul put it:
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)