Msgr. Michael Heintz
The Human Condition
March 21, 2023 // Perspective

A Map of Holy Week

Msgr. Michael Heintz
The Human Condition

The entire calendar of the Church’s year — the structure of feasts and seasons that make up the year, from Advent to Christ the King, the way those who are baptized mark time — is structured around Easter and the week that precedes it, which we call Holy Week. The Church celebrates the Sacred Triduum — the great “Three Days” that celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord — as the center, heart, and engine of the entire liturgical year. But what is the significance of this week?

The week begins with Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, during which we hear the Passion account recorded by St. Matthew (there is a three-year cycle of Sunday readings, and the Passion account each of those years is taken from one of the so-called synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke). This Mass can begin with a solemn procession with palm branches, as we recall Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed and greeted with joy by the crowds. These same crowds will change their tune by the week’s end, those hailing Him as King on Palm Sunday shouting for His execution on Friday afternoon.

Traditionally celebrated on the morning of Holy Thursday, but moved for the convenience of the faithful to an evening earlier in the week, the Chrism Mass is celebrated each Holy Week (in our diocese Monday in South Bend, Tuesday in Fort Wayne). If you have never attended, this should be the year you make the effort. This Mass — like ordination Masses — is the fullest expression of the Church fulfilling its vocation in the praise and worship of almighty God: the bishop, surrounded by priests, deacons, religious women and men, and the lay faithful together giving praise and adoration to God. It is at this Mass that priests each year renew their priestly promises and also at this Mass the bishop blesses the sacred oils — the Oil of Catechumens and the Oil of the Sick — to be used throughout the coming year, and he also consecrates the Sacred Chrism (olive oil mixed with balsam), signifying that it is a “Spirit-bearing” oil by breathing into it as he consecrates it. This oil will be used in the coming year at the anointing of those being baptized, confirmed, and ordained priests.

The Sacred Triduum begins — and Lent technically ends — at the beginning of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening. In fact, there is no other Mass permitted that day (other than the Chrism Mass, which is transferred in our diocese to earlier in the week). While Lent may technically be over, the Paschal fast begins — three days of intense prayer, fasting, and abstinence which ends as the Easter Vigil ends on Holy Saturday night.

Holy Thursday commemorates the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood. On that first Holy Thursday evening, the Lord Jesus met with His closest apostles in the upper room (sometimes called the “cenacle”) and, in a meal that quite possibly was a Passover meal — at least it was shared in days around Passover — He established the sacrament of His Body and Blood, the living sign of the free and willing sacrifice of His own life that He was to make on the cross Friday afternoon. Within the celebration of every Mass, the bread and wine are consecrated separately, signifying the sacrifice of His life, His body broken and His blood poured out in love for us and for the world. Unlike any other Mass during the year, the Mass does not end with a blessing. In fact, the Church envisions the three days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday to be one ongoing liturgical act. This is one of the compelling reasons for us to participate in the entire three days, rather than simply opting for one or two of the liturgies. After Communion, the Blessed Sacrament is carried in reverent procession (with candles and incense) to the altar of repose where we are invited to remain and pray with the Lord, as did the three drowsy disciples on that first Holy Thursday in the Garden of Gethsemane. Most churches remain open late, and there is a pious custom of visiting seven churches during that evening in order to spend time with the Lord.

On Good Friday, Mass is never celebrated. Instead, in early afternoon — somewhere between noon and 3 p.m. — a Celebration of the Lord’s Passion is celebrated. The liturgy begins not with a sign of the cross or with a greeting (recall that this is still one continuous celebration), but with a simple prayer. Then, the Liturgy of the Word recalls the great “song of the Suffering Servant” (Isaiah 52-53), Psalm 22 (“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”), and a passage from Hebrews recalling Christ’s priesthood, rooted in the human nature He shared with us, as expressed in His fidelity in the face of suffering. The Gospel on Good Friday is always the Passion according to St John. After a brief homily (the rubric explicitly states “brief”), there follows the Solemn Intercessions, formalized, traditional prayers that address the needs of the Church and the world. Then follows the Adoration of the Cross, when all are invited to express their reverence and love for the Cross of Christ, by which we have been saved. A crucifix or cross, flanked by candles, is presented to the faithful at the entrance to the sanctuary for them to approach and venerate. Often during this procession of veneration, an ancient hymn (dating from at least the 9th century) called the Improperia or “Reproaches” is chanted, in which Christ, as it were, speaks to each of us, inviting us to deep repentance. Once the veneration of the cross has concluded, the altar is prepared in stark, sparing fashion, and the Blessed Sacrament, consecrated the evening prior and kept in an altar of repose, is carried in procession with candles to the altar. In the Eastern Churches, this is referred to as the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified (previously consecrated Eucharistic elements). Following the Lord’s Prayer (the sign of peace is omitted), those so disposed are invited to communion. The liturgy ends with a prayer over the people; there is no blessing or dismissal (remember: the Triduum is like one continuous liturgy).

The entire Church remains at prayer, waiting at the tomb, watching for the manifestation of the Lord in His glory; it is important to recall that there were no eye-witnesses to the resurrection itself, but there were many who encountered the Risen Lord in His glory — and we hope to do the same.

There is no Mass celebrated from Holy Thursday evening until the Solemn Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday night. Mass is not permitted to begin until nightfall. The liturgy begins with what is called the Lucernarium, or “lamp-lighting”; in the dark, the new Paschal candle is prepared and blessed. From a blessed fire it takes its light, which is progressively shared with all those who participate (each holding small candles or tapers); however, those to be baptized (who have not yet been enlightened by Christ) do not yet receive a candle, as they will receive one after their baptism. Then there is a procession to the sanctuary (whether from outdoors or from the narthex or vestibule) and three times the solemn proclamation is made: “The Light of Christ!” to which all respond with equal vigor “Thanks be to God!”

Once the procession reaches the sanctuary, and the congregation takes its place in the church, the Exsultet is chanted — an ancient hymn (dating from the 7th or 8th century) in praise of the candle, shining in the darkness of the night, which symbolizes Christ’s light, life, and victory. Following the Exsultet, an extended Liturgy of the Word is celebrated. In its fullest expression, it is comprised of seven Old Testament readings, accompanying psalmody, following which the Gloria is sung (omitted throughout Lent). Then there is the New Testament reading from Romans, and for the first time since Lent began, the Alleluia is again sung as the Gospel acclamation; the Gospel book may be carried in procession through the church as a solemn, extended Alleluia is sung (with the verses taken from Psalm 118).

Following the homily, the Liturgy of Baptism takes place. All those who were catechumens chosen (at the Rite of Election) for Easter sacraments are invited to come forward for baptism. The Litany of the Saints is chanted, inviting their prayers for those to be baptized. The water of the baptismal font is then blessed using a lengthy and beautiful prayer which recalls the way God has used water from the beginning to prefigure this one sacred use in baptism. Following this is the baptism proper of those who had been prepared during Lent; this includes a triple “renunciation” of Satan, his works, and empty promises; then a triple act of “adherence,” in which the one to be baptized confesses faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In ancient times, the renunciations were said facing West (the region of darkness) and the adherence was given facing East (the place where the Morning Star rises). Following this, each is baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. The newly baptized are given a new, white garment (symbolizing the fact that they have “put on Christ,” as Paul says in Galatians) and are given a candle for the first time, lit from the Paschal candle, as a sign that they have been “enlightened” by Christ in baptism (John 8.12).

Then the newly baptized, called neophytes (literally, “newborns”), return to their place in the church, with their lighted candles, and all who are to be received into full communion (those previously baptized in another ecclesial community), also holding lighted candles, together with the entire congregation present, profess their faith by renewing their baptismal promises. Each of those already Christian who wishes to become Catholic is then received individually into full communion with the Catholic Church. Then each of the newly baptized (older than seven years old) as well as all those just received into full communion receive the Sacrament of Confirmation and are sealed with the Spirit, using the Sacred Chrism consecrated at the Chrism Mass earlier in the week.

Since the entire congregation, in communion with the newly baptized and those to be confirmed, together renewed their baptismal promises, the Creed is omitted and the Prayer of the Faithful is then offered.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist then is celebrated as it always is, with few changes (other than a prayer for those newly baptized incorporated into the Eucharistic Prayer). At this Mass, all those newly baptized and confirmed will receive the Eucharistic Lord for the first time at Communion.

The Solemn Vigil ends with the dismissal, “Go in peace, Alleluia, Alleluia,” and the response is given, “Thanks be to God, Alleluia, Alleluia.” This greeting and response may be used daily during the Easter Octave and again on Pentecost Sunday, the final day of the Easter Season.

What the Church does each Holy Week is not merely to recall with affection the love with which the Lord gave His life for us and for the life of the world. It certainly does this. But it also experiences something more: we hold in faith that — by the grace of the sacraments — we actually participate in those saving acts, in the mysteries of Christ: His rejection, His trial, passion, death, burial, and resurrection. For by the power of the Holy Spirit, these are not merely events of the past, conjured up by our imagination, but living acts of Christ into which He desires to draw us by grace, and, associating us with Himself in His saving acts, to communicate to us His risen life in all its power. It is an experience, as Paul said, of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Msgr. Michael Heintz is on the faculty at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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