Each year the church provides an opportunity to observe the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, his betrayal, death, burial and resurrection. The week is steeped in symbolism and can be a very moving thing to experience.
First, it is important to understand that Holy Week is the final week of Lent and not a season to itself. The color changes from violet and unbleached linen of repentance to passion red. This deep blood red is meant to convey both the shedding of blood, which purchased our redemption as well as the intensity of the events. It is passion red that was the first liturgical color of the church
Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion or Palm Sunday is a commemoration of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had decided that this was the time when he would, in the words of the Evangelist Luke, “Set his face toward Jerusalem.” Upon entering, he rides in on the back of an animal, a donkey in Luke’s version. The gathering crowd lays palm branches on the road before him. To the onlooker, it seems to us a parade of triumph. In fact, it is a geopolitical statement whereby Jesus is using a gesture reserved for kings returning victorious from battle. He has now become a threat to the temple police and the government. In the few days that follow, the crowd shifts from a celebratory tone to a riot and shouts of Hosanna! become Crucify him!” in short order.
Liturgically speaking, this day begins with the congregation’s invitation on the journey. We celebrate that although the day is a day of somber observance, it nonetheless is a time of feasting as every Sunday is a feast of Resurrection.
Monday in Holy Week: It would seem that Monday is without importance, but Jesus actions are still important on this day. Traditionally this is the day of the withering of the fig tree. Symbolically it teaches us both that the power of faith has the ability to do things in the natural order that we think impossible. The fig tree also becomes a symbol of the Old Covenant. God is about to fulfill the Old Covenant with a new one. Jesus is about to enact a New Covenant in his own blood.
Tuesday in Holy Week: This day, although relatively un – ceremonious liturgically, is probably the day that purchased Jesus’ death. Jesus enters the Temple and is disgusted by what he sees. One level, he is disgusted by the commercialization of the sacrifice and that the temple, meant to be a house of prayer, has now become a circus of crafty business practices. But even more than this, the temple has become a sort of economic center for the Roman occupied Jerusalem. In an action rivaling our postmodern Occupy movements, Jesus turns over the tables and drives out the businessmen from their places, In doing so, he keeps both the morning and the evening sacrifice from occurring and shuts down trade for a day. This is essentially the one thing that modern biblical scholars agree created so much cause for the Sanhedrin to plot his death. This is also a day when the church gathers to hear the words of the psalms and the early church fathers in a service called Tenebrae. This service, (Latin for shadows), recalls in dramatic form how God knows the worst of this world and is still chooses to redeem it.
Wednesday in Holy Week: This is the day that Judas decided to plot with the Sanhedrin to deliver Jesus for a sum of thirty pieces of silver. Echoing the prophesy of the Psalms, the conspiracy is now in place and Judas looks for an opportunity to turn Jesus over. We do not know what darkness was in Judas’ heart. He seemed to have a problem with greed. The Gospel of Matthew even said that Judas kept the common purse and used to steal from it. But in the betrayal that follows on the next day, we see that Judas even wishes he had not agreed to act in betrayal.
Thursday in Holy Week, commonly called, Maundy Thursday: On this day we celebrate the last also the day when the Passover meal is changed forever. Previously, the Passover meal was to commemorate the passing of the plague of the firstborn over Egypt. It was a pivotal event that commemorated a vital part of the Old Covenant. When God saw the blood of the lamb over the doorposts and lintels, he would Passover the home and the firstborn would live.
Jesus takes this sacred feast and then re-interprets it according to the New Covenant. In this model, the Passover Lamb becomes Jesus, and the blood over the doors becomes symbolic of atonement. The feast of unleavened bread becomes a gathering of followers who celebrate the New Covenant in Jesus’ Body and Blood.
This feast, shrouded in the confusion of the disciples, acts both as the central act of Christian Worship thereafter, and a prologue to the three days which follow. Jesus gathers his friends and gives a new commandment that they love one another. Demonstrating servanthood, Jesus takes a basin and towel and washes the feet of his followers. Leadership is reinterpreted as servanthood.
In our liturgy for this day, we celebrate both the institution of the Eucharist and the washing of the disciples’ feet. We share in those things to both remember the act of love and care for one another. The day ends in darkness and with the stripping of the altars. The betrayal of Christ would make us think that all is lost, and to the disciples, it was.
From here, the church observes a vigil. Jesus asked his followers if they could not watch one hour. The church then is open until midnight and whoever would like to take an hour to pray may do so by signing up in the narthex. We watch over the last remaining sacrament in the church, sacrament that will be consumed tomorrow when, “It is finished!”
Good Friday: The betrayal of last night gives way to the underhanded and illegal activities that lead from Jesus’ arrest to his condemnation to die. Peter, warming himself, denies Jesus three times, just as foretold. Jesus walks to his death on a way called the Via Dolorosa. He is nailed to the cross and dies. While it would appear that the powers of sin and death are victorious, Jesus actually has undone the pattern of sin and death by meeting the death of creation with his own death, the righteous for the unrighteous.
The liturgies for this day are very simple. The church remains stripped. After recounting the death of Jesus as recorded by the Apostle John, the church venerates the cross. The symbol of death and shame is simultaneously a symbol of Victory. Following a fourth century custom, a simple wood cross is brought into the church. Three times the carrier says “Behold the wood of the cross, come, let us worship” then each is invited to make some connection with the symbol of our faith, some simply touch, some embrace the Cross, whatever is most meaningful for the worshipper. After that veneration, we receive, without fanfare or consecration, the gifts of God that were watched over the night before. The Body and Blood of Christ are given and received.
Holy Saturday: On the day after Jesus’ death, the Body lies in the tomb. Although the church waits for the rest of the story, the body of Jesus is about to make a transformation. Gathering at Dusk, the church throughout the world commemorates the fact that sometime during that night, Jesus broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grave. The following morning, the tomb is vacant – empty.
The church has, for centuries, marked the night when Jesus conquered death by having a vigil. This is the time when the new fire of Easter is kindled, the lessons of salvation are read, baptisms celebrated and promises renewed, and the first mass of Easter is celebrated. It is this service that is the original Easter service. The first shouts of Alleluia are heard and the sanctuary is bathed in light – Easter begins!
Then, on Easter Morning, we begin forty days of a new reality. Jesus’ death, although real and atoning, could not contain him. As the first fruits of those who have died, God raises his body. Theologically, that tells us that the sacrifice of Jesus was truly atoning and that God has accepted that sacrifice. The risen Body is proof positive that the world order has now changed and what was once hopeless is filled with immortality.
Alleluia, Christ is risen
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!