Part I. Explanation of the Celebrations of Holy Week from Palm Sunday to Easter Vigil
Holy Week or the Great Week represents “the most solemn liturgies of the liturgical year in the Christian Church,” because this week celebrates “the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Lent has begun the cycle of prayer and penance leading up to Holy Week and the celebration of Easter, which continues through Pentecost. In the history of Christianity, there was the Easter or Paschal Vigil, in places of apostolic origin and in Rome by the second century. In the Didache there was a period of prayer fasting from one to several days before the Vigil. The third-century Didascalia Apostolorum speaks of a week-long fast before the Vigil. The diary of Egeria in the fourth Century records celebrating the Great Week in Jerusalem. Today Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and continues through Easter Sunday.
Most of us are familiar with the procession of carrying palms as we move from the place where they are blessed into the church, while singing “Hosanna to the Son of David,” a custom going back to the fourth century when worshippers carried palms from “the Mount of Olives to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the afternoon of Palm Sunday.” In some churches, when palms have not been available worshippers carry branches of other kinds of trees and the leftover “bouquets” of such are taken into the church to dress the altar. Other customs from the early church include hearing the Third Servant Song of Isaiah (50:4-7), reciting Psalm 22–the psalm that highlights the sufferings of Christ, Pau’ls Letter to the Philippians (2:6-11), which is the oldest Christological hymn, and the proclamation of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, from Matthew (cycle A), Mark (B) or Luke (C).
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week incorporate readings “that portray the betrayal of Jesus” and Servant Songs from Isaiah. Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday, so-called from the Latin word for command (mandatum) at the Eucharist in the evening, is the official end of Lent. There are three main liturgical rites: consecration of the chrism oil used at Baptism and Confirmation; the Mass of the Lord’s Supper; and the foot-washing. Often in the diocese the chrism is blessed by the bishop at a special Mass concelebrated with as many priests of the diocese as can come, usually the week before Holy Week. Other oils are also blessed: oil to anoint the sick and the oil of catechumens. At the Monastery of St. Gertrude, these oils are brought to us and are carried in procession before the Holy Thursday Eucharist begins with a proclamation about what each oil is used for.
The foot-washing ritual is carried out in the Monastery at Morning Praise, either with the prioress washing the feet of any who wish to participate or by each one washing the hands of one’s neighbor. This latter custom is being initiated in light of the coronavirus and the frequent reminders to wash our hands. However, the deeper symbolism of this ritual is imbedded in Jesus’ command (mandatum) in John’s Gospel: “You also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). The washing of one another’s feet is a profound sign of servanthood, particularly since in ancient cultures it was the lowliest servant of the household, and often that was a slave woman, whose task it was to wash the feet of guests; that Jesus would have done such a thing with his disciples had to have been shocking to them and one representing the humblest of services. In the early church foot-washing was a sign of being a disciple and the reversal of social expectations that indicated loving service.
The closing of the Holy Thursday liturgy is the repose of the sacred body and blood of Jesus in a tabernacle or place of repose, so worshippers may come for adoration once the altar is stripped and all leave quietly.
On Good Friday at Morning Praise is celebrated the Tenebrae Service, a Latin word which means “darkness” or “shadows” representing the evening and early morning of this liturgical service, which dates to the ninth century. During the service gradually each of fifteen lighted candles in a stand called a “hearse” are snuffed, one after each of the nine psalms for matins, the one psalm for lauds, the Benedictus and the readings. The last candle, symbolic of the Lord, at the end of the service is carried out into the sacristy. At the very end a loud noise is made symbolizing the earthquake at the time of the resurrection (Mt 28:2). In between the three nocturns or sets of psalms, the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet are chanted or recited.
The Chapter of Reconciliation, a service solely among the members of the monastic community, is held before noon, with readings from Colossians 3:12-17 and RB Prologue 45-50, followed by a reflection by the prioress. This reflection is a review of our lives, often based on the biblical passage that has been pondered during Lent or the lenten lectio readings shared on Wednesday evenings of Lent. Each sister then asks for forgiveness and the prioress signs her forehead with the cross and reads a small card, which the sister takes to remind her to pray for someone or a group, who is suffering and needs healing. The service closes with singing “Parce Domine” = “Spare Your People Lord” followed by a closing prayer.
The Good Friday Service around 3 o’clock in the afternoon is a celebration of the Lord’s passion, with the proclamation of the passion narrative from John’s Gospel, because that gospel envisions a continuity between the suffering of Christ, his death and his exaltation as all one salvific moment. There are three parts of the service: 1) the Liturgy of the Word, 2) the Veneration of the Cross, and 3) Holy Communion. The presider at this service is the leader/prioress of the community, who begins the service by silently walking into chapel and prostrating in the middle aisle, symbolic of “the earliest form of the Roman Eucharistic entrance rite,” followed by an opening prayer. The first reading is the fourth Servant Song from Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and the second is from Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9, which speaks of Jesus the High Priest, who has gained our salvation. The Liturgy of the Word ends with solemn intercessions—prayers for “the church, the pope, the clergy and laity, candidates for initiation, unity of Christians, the Jewish people, non-Christians, unbelievers, civil authorities, and all those in need.”
During the Veneration of the Cross, a large wooden cross is carried into chapel by two sisters in a procession, with stopping places to the sung chant, “This is the word of the cross.” Beginning with the prioress, each one comes forward to bow, kneel or kiss the cross, as his/her veneration, by which Christ has won our salvation. Holy Communion follows with the hosts carried in a ciborium taken to the altar table, the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, reception of Eucharist and a simple concluding prayer.
On Holy Saturday at Morning Praise the second Tenebrae Service is held. In late afternoon the Office of Readings is held, with the seven readings from the Hebrew scriptures outlined for Holy Saturday, each followed by a sung response and a prayer. The eighth and last reading is a shortened version of the community’s history, beginning in Sarnen, Switzerland and ending with us in the chapel.
That evening the Paschal Vigil begins at the back of the chapel with the Blessing of the Fire and Lighting of the Easter Candle, in which the presider and prioress undertake recitations. The prioress or her designee carries the cross in procession and stops three times so the cantor sings “Lumen Christi, Light of Christ,” to which the schola responds, “Deo gratias, thanks be to God.” Once the cantor gets to the ambo, she sings the Exultet, with the schola echoing her words. The Exultet dates to the seventh century and is a proclamation of Easter’s message, “our redemption in Christ.” Then the Gloria is sung with the ringing of bells to accompany it. The first reading is taken from Romans 6:3-11, followed by a solemn sung “Alleluia,” and the resurrection story from one of the gospels.
Next comes the Blessing of Water and Renewal of Baptismal and Profession Promises, with the whole congregation gathering at the back of chapel. The Easter candle is dipped in the water and individual tapers are lit from it. The prioress fills a small bowl with holy water and sprinkles everyone while processing to the altar. Thereafter follows the Liturgy of Eucharist.
Part II. Theology of the Paschal Mystery
In John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas of Easter,” the fourth is a poignant reminder that Christians do not celebrate just an historical event during the Holy Days.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
That door through which we walk and the journey through these days is one of anamnesis: “remembering who we are (the Church, the body of Christ), particularly through our actions (those of liturgy and mission), our words (creedal and sacramental), and our naming (we are Christian). Anamnesis is that wonderful coming together of past and present, facing the future, and appropriating that identity of Jesus in all that we are.” Another way to say this is that Christ’s suffering, death, resurrection and sending of the Spirit are actualized in the community and in each individual of the community, especially when they gather as a worshipping community. We do not “mimic the Lord’s actions, nor…simply walk in the Lord’s footsteps in the land of Israel, but…encounter the Lord by capturing the ethos of his experiences as closely as possible in order to identify more closely with him.”
A few examples of how this actualization may be prayerfully realized may be helpful to your own experience of the paschal mystery in your own life and in the life of someone close to you, or even strangers walking this way of suffering, death into new life. Several years ago I was asked to lead a retreat for caretakers of the dying, that they might pray their experiences of accompanying someone, who became beloved in the journey of support, prayer and letting go. A key passage chosen for reflection was that of the agony in the garden (Mt 26:36-46). Jesus’ words to the disciples became our words, “Sit here while I go over there and pray” (Mt 26:36): many of the ministers had said something similar to family and friends of the dying and while they prayed, they experienced “sorrow and distress” (vs. 37) on the part of the one being readied to go home to God, in the family and friends, and in themselves. Jesus’s words, “I am sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me” (vs. 39). At times when we have requested others to just sit with the dying or to join in the prayer, there may be reluctance or outright walking away. Then Jesus prays: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (vs. 39a). How many times have any of us said, “O God, let this not happen; please, not me, not my family!” Some of us in the group realized that one does not easily pass to the second part of verse 39: “yet, not as I will, but as you will” (30b). It takes the grace of God to pray this second part, trusting that God will do what God will do, not necessarily with our understanding what that is or what it means. I suspect that there was a significant pause between the two parts of Jesus’ prayer and so there may well be a significant pause for us to move from “O God, not me and not mine,” to “Your will be done” (Mt 26:42). In fact, Jesus has to pray both parts of this prayer three different times (vv. 39, 42 & 44). After the third time, he goes to the disciples and says, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?” (vs. 45). The caregivers shared that they found it frustrating that others were not awake to the reality of their dying relative/friend. Some wanted life to return to “normal” whatever that means. Others could not be in the room. The sorrow of Jesus was echoed in the caregiving prayer partners as a real anguish. The blessing of pondering this passage and sharing their feelings and thoughts brought about a deepening realization that they were living in their experiences what Jesus did and all felt a closer solidarity with the Lord of their pain and sorrow.
Recently a sister came to me to share that she found it extremely hard to watch a friend gradually move into frailty and limited ability to do things for herself. They both had lived a long life of ministry, often shared together. I asked her if she could ask Mary how she stood at the cross while her son was dying and to share her experience with Mary and the pains she was undergoing. I could offer that prayer because many years before a friend of mine was severely injured in an accident. Shortly after, I made a retreat and the icon, which my retreat director invited me to encounter and be with in prayer, was that of Mary and the other women standing at the cross of Christ. Every day and several times a day I knelt before that icon, not knowing the fate of my friend. I remember that the grace of that prayer helped sustain my anguish and pain and eventually moved into peace.
An experience that my mother related is that told in the resurrection account of Luke 24:5. After the death of my father, she would often go to the cemetery to pay her respects and lay flowers on my father’s grave. One time, while she was weeping, the words, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?” (Lk 24:5), arose in her heart and she was set free from her intense grief, although she continued to miss my father. She then devoted her life to the care of dying veterans at the Veteran’s Hospital; she often sensed when one of them was about to die and she made sure to be in the room silently praying for him or holding his hand until his last breath.
Of these kinds of actualization of the paschal mystery, liturgical theologian Anne McGuire relates, “As we recall and reclaim our faith, we remember and remind ourselves of our identity with Christ and as Christ in the world today. It is only by re-awakening our memory that Christ can again become alive and active in our lives through our own actions.”
I invite you to spend time with the passion and Easter narratives, reading them aloud slowly and stopping to dwell on the phrases that touch your heart. You may want to ask the Holy Spirit to guide you to that phrase that will trigger your memory of how God has been with you during a paschal mystery time. Or you may take a scene and imagine yourself there: Who are you as one of the biblical figures? Where are you and what does the scene look like? What do you wish to say to Jesus? What might Jesus wish to say to you? As you ponder the scene, what might you take with you to live more deeply? As a way of remembering the experience, I invite you to write down what stays with you and offer a prayer of thanksgiving, praise, sorrow, etc.
Blessings on your Holy Week and all that the Lord can be with you and those you love!
Sister Mary Forman, OSB
John F. Baldovin, “Holy Week, Liturgies of,” in The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, edited by Peter E. Fink (Collegeville, MN: A Michael Glazier Boo, The Liturgical Press, 1990) 542-43.
Note: one can go to the following website for the readings at Eucharist on those days: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/040620.cfm; click the date on the calendar and the readings will come up.
See the following website for the whole of the poem, from which the fourth stanza is taken: https://kenboa.org/culture/john-updikes-seven-stanzas-at-easter/.
Anne C. McGuire, “Holy Week and the Paschal Mystery,” Liturgical Ministry 13 (Summer 2004) 119.