What is “Holy Week” and what should Christians do to properly recognize and participate in it?

Holy Week stands at the head of our calendar, the holiest week of the entire liturgical year. Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and continues until Easter Sunday. It celebrates the Paschal Mystery, the passion and death of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and his victorious resurrection, his triumph over sin and death and his glorification by his Father.

Palm-Passion Sunday is a dual feast, Palm Sunday because palm branches are blessed and carried in procession to commemorate the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem, and Passion Sunday because the Passion Narrative is proclaimed. It is the only Sunday when two separate gospels are read. The Passion is the longest Sunday gospel of the year. The Mass has two jarringly different moods, jubilation at the outset, then lamentation. Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem was exuberant as the people joyfully cheered Hosanna to greet him, but moments later all is somber, first with the Suffering Servant who gave his back to those who beat him (Is 50:6), then with Jesus who obediently accepted death on a cross (Phil 2:8), and then with the Passion and his agony, scourging, and crucifixion (Mt 26:14-27:66).

Symbols. The primary symbol for Palm Sunday is palms, a sign that the people regarded Jesus as their victorious king. There are many symbols for the Passion:  a single cross, three crosses, the cup of suffering, thirty pieces of silver, a lantern, swords and clubs, a blade and a severed ear, handcuffs or shackles, a rooster crowing, a scourging pillar, whips, a crown of thorns, a reed, three nails, hammer and pincers, a rope, the INRI inscription, a sprig of hyssop, three dice, a tunic, a lance, a ladder, an urn for spices, a shroud or burial linens, and a skull.

Discipleship Action Items. Take some palms home and use them to venerate a crucifix or decorate a statue, picture, or sacred object. Go off by yourself to re-read some or all of the Passion and meditate on it. If there are others at home, discuss what it would have been like to have been part of the Palm Sunday procession or to have been standing along the Way of the Cross as Jesus passed by or at Calvary when Jesus was crucified.

The Easter Triduum. The Triduum is the most solemn moment of the church year. It lasts three days. It begins on Holy Thursday evening with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, continues with the celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, and reaches its culmination with the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday, and it ends with Evening Prayer late Easter Sunday afternoon.

Discipleship Action Item. These days are the “high holy days” of our Christian faith, and as Jews would stream to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover in the Temple, ideally Catholics would stream to their local churches to celebrate these sacred mysteries with their parish communities. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil are not holy days of obligation, but if there ever was a time that we should want to go to church, it would be for these three holy days. Triduum is the moment to place other things on hold while our faith gets top priority.

Fasting, Part Two:  The Triduum Fast. With the arrival of Holy Thursday, the forty days of Lent and its discipline are over. Whatever a person’s special program was for Lent, whether it was to give something up, add extra prayers, do good deeds, or share alms, the program is done, but one must not relax too quickly. As soon as the forty-day Lenten fast ends, a new three-day fast begins, The Triduum Fast, a period of even more intense self-denial in immediate preparation for the greatest feast of all, Easter. It is customary to extend the Lenten discipline three additional days. Many decide to make one or more keys additions such as a holy hour, a visit to church, an extended period of silence, no TV, and three days of fasting from physical food. It also involves a spiritual fast, Good Friday from the Mass, but with the reception of the Eucharist, and Holy Saturday, the deepest fast of all, when not only is there no Mass, it is the only day that the Church foregoes reception of the Eucharist.

Holy Thursday. The Easter Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The Mass recounts the establishment of the Jewish feast of Passover; and it commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and the footwashing. John’s placement of the footwashing where the other evangelists place the Last Supper conveys his belief that the real presence of Christ is found not only in the Eucharist but in service. Jesus gave us his mandatum or mandate:  “You ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example. As I have done, so you should also do” (Jn 13:14,15). Jesus is made present when disciples put aside their prideful aspirations, humble themselves, and serve one another, even to the point of doing a menial task joyfully.

Symbols. The symbols of the footwashing are a basin, water pitcher, and towel; the symbols of the Eucharist are a host and a chalice, wheat and grapes, a loaf or basket of bread and a jug of wine, and five loaves and two fish; and the symbols of the priesthood are a stole, a book of the gospels, a host and a chalice, and a censer.

Discipleship Action Items. If your parish offers a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament after Holy Thursday Mass, consider taking advantage of the opportunity. Offer a prayer that your priest might be devoted to the Eucharist and a humble servant. Be on the lookout for someone who might need assistance, and gladly help without drawing attention to yourself.

Good Friday. The celebration of the Lord’s Passion is a somber liturgy with three major parts:  the proclamation of the Passion, the veneration of the Cross, and the reception of Holy Communion. In addition, there is an extended set of General Intercessions with ten petitions for some of the most important concerns for the Church and the world.

Symbols. The symbol of Good Friday is the crucifix, a cross with a corpus or body of the crucified Jesus. Other artistic forms of the cross are also commonly used. For the symbols of the Passion, see Passion Sunday above.

Discipleship Action Items. It is worthwhile to set aside some silent time, particularly between the hours of 12:00 noon and 3:00 p.m. Be sure that at least one crucifix is prominently displayed in the home, because veneration of the cross is not just for Good Friday, but for every day. It is an ideal day to offer Jesus a prayer of thanks for all he suffered on our behalf, and to renew our pledge to avoid the sins that we have committed that put him on the cross.

The Easter Vigil. Weeks of fasting and self-denial are directed toward the highest point of the church year, the Easter Vigil, the feast of the resurrection. It ranks first because our entire faith hinges on it. As Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:17). But the pillar of our faith is that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20), and in this firm conviction the Church rejoices with all of the energy it can muster:  Alleluia! The Easter Vigil begins with the Service of Light, the lighting of the Easter Candle and the singing of the Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet. Then after an extended Liturgy of the Word, the Vigil continues with the Liturgy of Baptism during which the Litany of Saints is sung, the water of the font is blessed, baptismal promises are made, the candidates are baptized, and for the adults, confirmation is received. The Vigil concludes with the Liturgy of the Eucharist and first Holy Communion for the newly initiated members.

Symbols. The primary symbol of the Vigil is the Easter Candle, also known as the Paschal or Christ Candle, as well as the symbols for baptism:  water, a seashell, the font, oil, the white baptismal garment, the baptismal candle, a dove, and three interlocking fish which represent the Trinitarian formula.

Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday is the daytime celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord. The congregation is jubilant over the risen Christ and the triumph of his most holy Cross. The church is festively decorated. The vestments are white and gold. The Glory to God and the Alleluia are restored. The Creed is replaced with the renewal of baptismal promises, followed by a sprinkling rite. The church resounds with a joyful sound:  Jesus Christ is risen today! Alleluia! 

Symbols. Easter symbols include the Easter Cross, a plain cross without a corpus draped in flowing white or gold fabrics; three empty crosses; lilies; the palm of victory; an empty tomb; an empty sarcophagus; an empty casket; a pile of burial wrapping; the hand of God; the morning sun; a butterfly; a cracked Easter egg; a trumpet; a Phoenix; pomegranates; a peacock; and the Easter Candle.

Discipleship Action Items. Great news cannot be contained:  share the Good News with someone! Jesus preached love, and he died out of love for us. On Easter Sunday go out of your way to love someone with all your might, because where there is love, there is the risen Christ!

About Father Michael Van Sloun 

Father Michael Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Wayzata, Minn. As a former school principal, high school instructor and athletic coach, he has always been a teacher. He now teaches the faith as a homilist, Bible study leader, retreat director, pilgrimage guide and author of numerous articles.

© 2011, Rev. Michael A. Van Sloun
Used with permission.