Palm Sunday is observed on the sixth Sunday in Lent, and marks the official beginning of Holy Week. Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when, as the Gospels tell us, the people of the city hailed Christ as their King.
Prior to this year’s entrance procession with palms from outdoors, Matthew 21:1-11 will be read. This is the account of the people of Jerusalem spreading tree branches before Christ while singing, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.” Of course, this is basis for the “Sanctus” acclamation we sing during every Mass at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer.
Once inside the church, the first reading is from Isaiah, while the second reading will be from Philippians Chapter 2 — the famous Christological hymn that begins: “Christ Jesus, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave…” This is a very powerful text that has been the basis for much of the Church’s theological affirmations that Christ was truly God and truly suffered as man. The Eastern Churches see this as the beautiful hymn of the Son of God’s “kenosis,” or voluntary “self-emptying” out of love for sinful man.
Finally, the Gospel this year will be from Matthew, with the traditional practice of the priest and others assuming the roles of Christ, the narrator, and the various people. The narrative spans the time from the Last Supper to the Death of Christ.
One might be curious as to why we read the entire Passion narrative on Palm Sunday. A possible Scriptural foundation may be found in the Gospel of Luke, a few chapters before St. Luke’s account of the entry into Jerusalem. In Luke 13:33-35, Jesus says:
“Yet I must continue on my way today, tomorrow and the following day, for it is impossible that a prophet should die outside of Jerusalem… (But) I tell you, you will not see me until (the time comes when) you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Jesus utters a prophecy affirming that He must enter the city of Jerusalem to accomplish His mission, which is to die as an innocent and sacrificial victim. Thus, the Passion is the true focus and fulfillment of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
In terms of historical development, this feast was known as Passion Sunday in Rome during the days of the Early Church, with the focus being on the cross that awaited Christ in Jerusalem. However, in Jerusalem itself, the focus was on a reenactment of the hailing with palms branches. Thanks to the written testimony of such pilgrims as Egeria (likely a 4th-century Spanish nun), who kept a journal of the Holy Week liturgies during her visit to Jerusalem, the palm tradition of Jerusalem was brought west, and eventually was blended with the Passion focus, giving us the combination we have today.
It is interesting to note that palms branches used on Palm Sunday are often burned to create the ashes for Ash Wednesday of the following year. There is surely much symbolism in this connection. One might say that the palms are burned to remind us of our mortality and profound need for God’s mercy. After all, the palms were used to welcome Christ, but the same city ended up assenting to His crucifixion — and are we not all sinners as well, who also nail Christ to the cross by not always following Him as we should? This symbol therefore encourages us to approach Lent as a very important season of penitence and humility, in which we discipline ourselves in order to welcome Christ into our hearts forever, without reserve.
Wednesday of Holy Week used to be called Spy Wednesday. The rationale is clear from the day’s Gospel reading from Matthew, in which Judas Iscariot approaches the chief priests and offers to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
Mass of the Sacred Chrism
Traditionally, on Holy Thursday or an earlier time during Holy Week, the holy oils — the Oil of the Sick, the Oil of Catechumens, and the Sacred Chrism — are blessed by the bishop at a special Mass, and then distributed to churches through the diocese. (See page 12 for an article on the uses of these oils).
The Chrism Mass also has a special focus on the priesthood, as the presbyterate assembles to concelebrate with the bishop and manifest their communion with him. During the Mass, the priests renew their commitment to priestly service, dedicating themselves anew to Christ and to service of the local Church, particularly through the sacred liturgy. We should always pray for our presbyterate in a special way during Holy Week.
The Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper is meant to commemorate Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and it also marks the institution of the priesthood. Holy Thursday is the beginning of the Easter Triduum, which encompasses Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday (“triduum” is Latin for “three days”). The Sacred Triduum is the highest feast in the liturgical life of the Church.
The feast of the Lord’s Supper is also known as “Maundy Thursday.” Some have suggested that the word “maundy” derives from the first word of a Latin phrase towards the end of the Last Supper account in John’s Gospel: “Mandatum novum do vobis, ut diligatis invicem, sicut dilexi vos…” — “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” — Jn 13:24.
In many ways, this phrase is a recapitulation of the entire Gospel, and of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Mosaic Law. At the same time, it is a verbal expression of the powerful message found in Holy Thursday’s Gospel reading, in which Christ washes the Apostles’ feet.
The washing of feet, or the “pedilavium,” is a distinctive rite that can be used during the Holy Thursday liturgy. St. John’s Gospel is the only one not to include a Eucharistic institution during the Last Supper account. Instead, it records the foot washing as an instruction for the entire life of community, charity and humility that should govern the Church: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” — Jn 13:14.
The liturgical reenactment of the foot washing, in which the priest washes and dries several pairs of feet, has a very deep symbolic meaning associated with cleansing. Moreover, it holds a very appropriate connection to the Baptism of the elect, who are those catechumens to be received into the Church at the Easter Vigil. St. Ambrose was bishop of Milan during the 4th century, and his “mystagogical catecheses” are among the Patristic sources that inform our Rites of Christian Initiation today. From the accounts of St. Ambrose, we know that the “pedilavium” was actually part of the Milanese baptismal rite.
In addition, the foot washing rite has come to emphasize the ministerial role of the priesthood instituted by Jesus Christ on Holy Thursday, calling to mind the manner in which He acted as servant to the Apostles, who would become the first priests.
The Holy Thursday liturgy concludes with the solemn transfer of the reserved Blessed Sacrament to an altar of repose, separate from the main altar and tabernacle. The “Pange Lingua,” a beautiful Eucharistic hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas, is chanted as the priest brings the Body of Christ to the altar of repose, where Christians will keep vigil throughout much of the evening and night. This practice recalls the Agony in the Garden, when Christ implores Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?” Some keep the pious tradition of visiting up to seven altars of repose in different churches throughout a city on Holy Thursday night. A plenary indulgence used to be attached to this act of devotion and adoration.
There is no formal conclusion to Mass on Holy Thursday. The entire Triduum is a single liturgy, commemorating the entirety of the salvific Paschal Mystery — Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection.
Office of Tenebrae
A tradition that has been revived in many Catholic churches is the ancient Office of Tenebrae. “Tenebrae” means “darkness” or “shadows,” and is derived from the phrase in the Gospels: “tenebrae factae sunt super universam terram” — “darkness came over the whole land.” — Mt 27:45. It commemorates the withdrawal of the light as Christ died on the cross. Some have described Tenebrae as a sort of funeral for Christ.
The Tenebrae service was originally the combined offices of Matins and Lauds (the first two hours of the daily Divine Office), prayed during the night before Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In current usage as part of public devotion, it is sometimes conflated into a single service at night. Psalms, hymns and readings are employed, including several passages from the Book of Lamentations. The place of worship is gradually stripped throughout the service, often symbolized by the extinguishing, one by one, of candles and lights, until the church is left in total darkness. This is accompanied by a “strepitus,” or “loud noise,” sometimes made by the assembly slamming their books shut or banging on the pews for a few moments, to recall the earthquake that struck the land at the hour of Christ’s death. A single candle may then be reintroduced and left to burn as a promise that the victory of the prince of darkness is only temporary, and that Christ will ultimately and definitively triumph over death.
There is an interesting musical story associated with this service. During Tenebrae at the Sistine Chapel in the 17th and 18th centuries, the choir would sing an ethereal version of a piece called “Miserere mei, Deus” (“Have mercy on me, O God”), a setting of Psalm 51 attributed to several composers, but primarily to Gregorio Allegri. This piece features an amalgamation of chant and haunting polyphony, and was renowned across Europe not only for its beauty, but also because the music was not permitted to be transcribed or performed anywhere outside the Vatican. The ban was finally lifted after a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — then only 14 — attended Tenebrae at the Sistine Chapel and wrote out the entire piece from memory afterwards. If you have heard the “Miserere” performed before, especially in a liturgical context, you are privileged indeed!
Good Friday is the commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion and death. The Gospel of John emphasizes this day as the day of preparation for the Passover, with the lambs being slaughtered at noon, the hour in which Pilate presented Jesus to be crucified (Jn 19:14). The strong connection of Jesus with the spotless lamb would have been unmistakable to St. John’s Jewish and early Christian audience.
The Good Friday service typically begins at 3 p.m., the time of Christ’s death. The Gospel used is the Lord’s Passion as recorded by St. John. It is important to note that the Good Friday liturgy is not a Mass. Nonetheless, Holy Communion is distributed from the reserved Sacrament of Holy Thursday. Good Friday has several other unique elements, such as the solemn intercessions, which include prayers that all Christians may be united, and that all non-Christians may discover the fullness of Christ’s truth. One might also recall the manner in which Jesus interceded on our behalf while on the Cross.
This is followed by the Reproaches, in which God addresses His people, asking why we have betrayed Him and remained faithless, despite all His works on our behalf. The Reproaches are sung, and are drawn from both Old and New Testament texts. The response to the Reproaches is a “Trisagion” (Greek for “thrice-holy”): “Holy is God! Holy and strong! Holy immortal One, have mercy on us!”
The Reproaches are sung during the veneration of the cross — often done with a crucifix, because the representation of Christ’s crucified body is particularly fitting on this day. Churches that are privileged to have a sliver of the True Cross display it and allow the assembly to come forward and venerate it according to personal piety. This tradition is very ancient — in fact, there is a story from the early Church of someone coming forward to kiss a sizable portion of the True Cross, but instead biting a large chunk out in an attempt to steal a piece of this incomparable relic!
It is a fairly universal practice to observe the Stations of the Cross in the evening on Good Friday. The stations are also prayed on Fridays throughout Lent, and can actually be prayed on any Friday during the year. But the Good Friday Stations have a certain primacy, for obvious reasons. In Jerusalem, Christ’s Way of the Cross is followed along its original path, called the “Via Dolorosa” (“Way of Suffering”) or the “Via Crucis” (“Way of the Cross”). In Rome, where pilgrimage to the historical sites in the Holy Land was not possible, there are traditional “stational churches” that are meant to be visited — one on each day of Lent. In addition, many landmarks and relics were actually moved from Jerusalem to Rome, to facilitate devotion. An example is the “Scala Sancta” (“the Holy Stairs”), which are recognized as the steps upon which Jesus stood while at trial before Pilate, and which were brought to Rome from Jerusalem by St. Helena in the 4th century. Now found at the Lateran Palace, it is a common devotional practice even today for pilgrims to ascend the stairs on their knees and in prayer.
Our practice of placing 14 Stations of the Cross in churches is a small-scale version of the devotions that developed in Jerusalem and Rome. We walk from station to station as a type of pilgrimage, engaging in a deep and personal reflection on the sufferings of Christ.
When contemplating Good Friday, it is true and important that Christ’s death is an event of unparalleled tragedy and sorrow. However, the Son’s death on the cross is also His exaltation on the Cross. In a very real sense, the cross is Christ’s throne, from which God has triumphed over sin. The remainder of the Triduum holds the full reason for our joy.
Holy Saturday is a relatively “quiet” liturgical day until the start of the Vigil, but it does carry profound theological meaning. It is easy to neglect the fact that, while Christ’s body lay in the tomb, His soul descended into hell. We profess this in the Apostles’ Creed, one of the earliest doctrinal statements of the Church.
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church,” No. 633, says: “Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, ‘hell’ — ‘Sheol’ in Hebrew or ‘Hades’ in Greek — because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into ‘Abraham’s bosom.’ … Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before Him.”
Time-honored Christian iconography depicts the victorious Christ in Hades liberating the righteous souls of those who had died before Christ’s time, and who were awaiting His coming before they could enter into heaven. Adam and Eve are typically depicted as the first to accept Christ’s outstretched hand. With the Resurrection of Christ’s body (and with the Blessed Virgin Mary’s bodily Assumption), Christians also have the promise that their bodies will be resurrected and glorified at the end of time, when Christ will establish the new heavens and new earth.
Fasting is a very important part of the time between Holy Thursday and Easter. Some traditions — especially in the Eastern Churches — allow for almost no eating at all until we have ushered in Easter. However, this period of fasting may be described as more anticipatory than penitential. Some have described it as akin to the fasting that comes naturally before great events in one’s life. For example, many are not hungry on the morning of their wedding day. We, then, are fasting in joyful anticipation of the Resurrection.
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