Holy Week is celebrated in many churches, both Catholic and Protestant, around the world. But if this week isn’t something you are familiar with, take a journey with me through this week that leads us through triumph, despair, and glorious hope.
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, the Sunday prior to Easter. On this Sunday, we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem when he instructs his disciples to untie a donkey for Jesus to ride into the city. The people then place their cloaks on the road and shout HOSANNA and wave palm branches in the air at Jesus’ entry. It is a celebratory day where many churches process with palms remembering the story from Luke 19:28-40.
Moving along into the week, we encounter Jesus and his followers celebrating Passover, which we often call the Last Supper or Maundy Thursday. The word Maundy is definitely not one we often use outside of this day. It comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning mandate, or command, because, after this meal, Jesus tells his followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
Before the meal, Jesus takes on the duties of a slave, washing the disciples’ feet. This is a bold act of service, and in remembrance of that act, many churches incorporate foot washing into their Maundy Thursday services (John 13). The words Jesus speaks during the Passover meal are the same words many of us hear or speak when we celebrate the sacrament of communion, “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)
If you attend a Maundy Thursday service, you will often see the altar stripped at the end of the service, which symbolizes Jesus being abandoned by his apostles and being stripped for crucifixion.
Good Friday sometimes seems like a contradiction in terms, as it’s the day we remember Jesus’ death. Good is not being used to describe the day; rather, it’s used in the old English sense of being designated as a religious day. Churches practice Good Friday in a number of ways. Some do what is called a Tenebrae service (Latin for shadows and darkness) where the crucifixion story is read, and the lights gradually grow darker, and everyone leaves in silence. Some utilize the stations of the cross, 14 events that happened around the crucifixion, much like prayer stations.
Now even those of us who participate in Holy Week remembrances often skip right over the next day, Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the day Jesus lay in the tomb. The day that the world turned without Jesus’ physical presence or the glory of the resurrection. The day the world waited.
How do you handle waiting? For me, it is often an uncomfortable time of reflection and of living in the unknown. I’m the Vicar for Faith Formation at a Lutheran church in Madison, Alabama, and two years ago, our youth group examined the idea of waiting in scripture. We looked at stories of waiting throughout the Old and New testament and developed prayer stations for Holy Saturday, a day when our church did not regularly hold a service. For a few hours, we just opened up space to be still and pray about waiting. If you’d like to experience our online version of the Holy Saturday prayer stations, you can find them here.
I have always appreciated Holy Week because it reminds me that, while we are an Easter people who live into the glory of the resurrection, there is no resurrection hope without the reality of the cross. This week helps me remember that every year.