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Holy Week: An Overview

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Holy Week

Holy Week is the Christian celebration commemorating the Passover in which Jesus returned to Jerusalem, was arrested, tried, tortured, and killed.

In the Christian faith, the person of Jesus Christ is believed to be both the Savior of the World and the Son of God. Far back at the very beginning, Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s plan for them and they were eternally separated from God. It was impossible for them to enter into God’s presence because of their sinfulness. Death had entered the world and the consequence of their sin was eternal death in hell.

But God wanted to be united with His children in heaven, so He sent His Son, Jesus, into the world so that Man could be reunited with God in perfect communion. Because of the infinite power of God, the sinfulness of all men could be taken on by Christ and, when He died, all sin died with Him.

Holy Week is celebrated in remembrance of the undeserved and infinite mercy of God through the person of Jesus Christ. The feasts of Holy Week include: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and culminates at the Easter Vigil on Saturday night.

Palm Sunday

At a Catholic Mass on Palm Sunday, the congregation is given palm branches that are blessed with holy water. It is the only Mass that begins with a Gospel reading. From the rear of the church, the priest recounts Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem.

Every Jew in the land was traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Jesus rode in to the city on a colt and, as he entered, people were laying down their coats and palm branches on the road in front of the Him exclaiming, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

As the priest processes to the altar, the congregation sing "Hosanna!" and wave their palm branches just like the people of Jerusalem upon Jesus' arrival. During the second Gospel, the entire Passion story is read with congregation participation.

Holy Thursday 

The feast of Holy Thursday includes a Mass and the washing of feet.

Passover is the Jewish feast that commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt in the Old Testament. After God smote Egypt with many plagues, the Israelites fled Egypt. They were required to paint their doorposts with the blood of a sacrificed lamb so that the Angel of Death would pass over their house and were to be dressed ready to run. The Israelites then spent 40 years wandering the desert until they were finally led into the Promised Land. Jews hold the Passover to be their highest feast.

Jesus was no exception. He was a faithful Jew and it was on the day Christian’s call Holy Thursday that He celebrated Passover with His disciples. That particular Holy Thursday was special, however. It was at that feast that Jesus predicted that He would be betrayed and by whom, that He would be denied and by whom, He instituted the Catholic Eucharist, He incurred His last words of teaching to His disciples, and washed each of their feet.

At the present-day Holy Thursday feast, Catholics celebrate Mass together and have a ceremonial washing of feet to commemorate what Jesus did for his disciples on the last night he would spend with them.

At the close of Holy Thursday Mass, because hosts may not be consecrated on Good Friday, a procession is led to a separate chapel and tabernacle where the Eucharist will reside until the Easter Vigil. There is no true close to this Mass because Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil act as one long Mass called the Easter Triduum.

Good Friday

After Jesus had celebrated Passover with His disciples, He went off by Himself to pray. He invited Peter, James, and John to accompany Him, but they couldn’t stay awake. It was in the garden of Gethsemane that Jesus came to grips with the fact that He was about to be crucified. 

While Jesus prayed, Judas arrived and kissed Jesus on the cheek, which was the sign to the officials that Jesus was the one to be arrested.

He was taken and tried and many people testified against Him. Politically, the high priests were nervous about arresting Jesus during Passover because they knew how many people revered and supported Him. They feared that a riot would break out. This is why they arrested and tried Jesus in the middle of the night.

Come Friday morning, Jesus was in prison. It was customary that a prisoner be released to the people during Passover and Pontius Pilate, in an effort to spare Jesus, offered to release Him. But, instigated by the high priests, the people did not want Jesus. They asked for a man named Barabbas, a murderer, instead. When Pilate asked what they wanted him to do with Jesus, the crowd cried, “Crucify him!”

Pilate instead ordered for Jesus to be flogged, thinking that this would appease the crowds, but they insisted that Jesus be crucified.

It is during the Good Friday service that the entire Passion is recounted in the Gospel reading from Jesus’ arrest to his burial. After the readings, a giant cross or crucifix is brought out for veneration. The congregation is invited to approach the cross and either kiss it or genuflect before it in honor of the great sacrifice that Jesus offered in atonement for the sins of Man. The service then continues with Eucharist consecrated the night before at the Holy Thursday celebration. There is no close to this service as people leave in silence and anxiously await the coming of Easter.

Holy Saturday, the Vigil, and Easter

Holy Saturday is a day of quiet reflection. Jesus is in the tomb.

Saturday evening, the congregation gathers again with candles lit in a dark church and prepare for the Resurrection that is celebrated on Easter. 



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