The Liturgies of Holy Week

2012-04-02 by . 7 comments

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When the Reformers of the 16th century looked at the Christianity of their day, they saw a church that (in their view) had gotten away from its Scriptural roots. With sola scriptura as their watchword, they overturned centuries of Holy Tradition and placed Scripture at the center of not only their theology, but also their worship. Protestant worship services centered not around the Eucharist, but the sermon. Many of the rites that had been designed through the centuries to help connect people with God were dismissed as “Romish rituals” and eliminated from Protestant worship.

But in recent decades many Protestant churches have begun to recognize the value in the rich liturgical heritage they once abandoned, and have found ways to re-integrate ancient traditions back into their worship, sometimes infusing new life into the old customs by celebrating them in creative new ways.

The richness of the liturgy can be seen most clearly in the week preceding Easter Sunday. Just as the four Gospels devote a large percentage of text to the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry (the Gospel of John, for example, spends 9 of its 21 chapters detailing the events of this one week) the worship services of Holy Week give Christians an opportunity to spend extra time focusing on Jesus’ sacrifice and its significance for our lives.

Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, the final Sunday of the Lenten season. Palm Sunday is named for the palm branches waved by Jesus’ followers as Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. Today many churches try to work palm fronds or branches into Palm Sunday worship, either carrying the branches in a procession or cutting them into strips and tying them into the shape of crosses to be handed out to the worshipers. Any leftover palms are later burned to ashes and saved for the following year’s Ash Wednesday service.

Following Palm Sunday, the first half of Holy Week is relatively quiet. But as the sun sets on Thursday, we begin the three-day period known as the Triduum, in which we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection.

On the evening of Maundy Thursday (the word “maundy” comes from the Latin mandatus meaning commandment, from Jesus’ words in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”) we remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. This may take the form of either Holy Communion or a Seder meal. The Seder meal is a Jewish feast celebrated on the first day of Passover. Although the meal Jesus shared with his disciples was not as formal or elaborate as the modern-day Seder, this meal reminds us of Christianity’s roots in Judaism. Some churches share this meal with a local Jewish congregation, to celebrate our common heritage.

The Seder or Communion may be combined with a footwashing service. Just as Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, the pastor washes the feet of the congregation. In some churches, members take turns washing each others’ feet.

Worship on Good Friday might be a Tenebrae service. Tenebrae is the Latin word for “shadows” or “darkness”. This service begins with a set of lit candles (traditionally 15) arranged on a triangular stand. The Scripture readings for Tenebrae may focus on the events beginning with the Garden of Gethsemene and leading to the crucifixion, or they may focus on Jesus’ words spoken from the cross. As Scriptures are read and hymns are sung, the candles are extinguished one by one until they are all out. The growing darkness represents Jesus’ abandonment by his disciples, the hopelessness of the world without God, and ultimately Jesus’ death on the cross. In some services, the final candle is not extinguished but is either hidden behind the alter or carried out of the sanctuary to represent Jesus’ body being laid in the tomb. With the church in darkness, a slamming door or other loud noise is heard, representing the stone sealing the entrance to the tomb. The congregation then leaves in silence.

Saturday worship may involve the Stations of the Cross. This is an ancient practice started by Christians taking pilgrimages to Jerusalem where they retraced Jesus’ footsteps on his journey to the crucifixion. Returning home, they sought a way to share the experience with members of their congregations. Using wood carvings, sculptures, or paintings, artists reproduced scenes from Jesus’ crucifixion. There are a couple versions of the Stations; one draws its scenes from both Scripture and Tradition, and the other is based solely on Scripture. Protestants usually favor the latter, which begins in Gethsemene and ends with Jesus’ body being laid in the tomb.

Saturday night is the end of the Lenten fast and the beginning of the season of Easter. Since ancient times, this has been a day for new members to join the church. Some congregations have picked up on this ancient practice and scheduled confirmation classes to end this week so the confimands can join the church on Easter.

For other churches, the term Easter Vigil means a prayer vigil, based on Jesus’ desire for his apostles to stay awake and pray with him for an hour in Gethsemene. Members of the congregation take turns coming to the sanctuary to pray for an hour each, beginning Friday evening and continuing until sunrise on Sunday.

Sunrise on Sunday is, according to the gospels, the time Mary and her companions went to the tomb with burial spices but found that Jesus’ body was no longer there. Many churches, therefore, begin this Sunday’s worship at sunrise, when we can proclaim, along with Mary, “Jesus is risen!”

The liturgies of Holy Week can help lift the Gospel stories out of the pages of the Bible and into our lives as we experience something of what Jesus’ first disciples must have faced, both highs and lows, in the first Holy Week.

Next week, Jon Ericson will take a look back at the first Easter as a historical event.

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  • Jon Ericson says:

    We’ve had a Good Friday service for years, but I’ve never heard of the “reverse candlelight” service idea. Sounds dramatic!

    My pastor has reminded us that this is Our Week. Christmas has been taken over by the secular world and isn’t really the high point of our calendar. But Easter is our time to shine. (Tune in next week. 😉

    One idea that you didn’t mention, but I like is to fast from Thursday evening to Sunday morning as Our Lord did from His Last Supper to (presumably) His Resurrection. Fasting is a little bit of a lost discipline, at least in my circles. When you consider “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God”*, it seems ungrateful not to taste a part of His sacrifice.

    • 1 Peter 3:18 ESV
    • That’s an interesting idea, fasting from Thursday to Sunday. Of course, in most churches that follow the liturgical calendar, we’ve been fasting to some degree since Ash Wednesday–but not to the extent I think you’re talking about.

  • Peter Turner says:

    Boy, it’s crazy how closely the Catholic Holy Week celebrations match up with the Methodist ones, only everything is mixed around. Catholics have tenebrae early in the week. Thursday night is the night we “stay up with Christ”. And stations of the cross probably wouldn’t happen any time after Good Friday.

    But the elements are all the same. I for one, applaud the Methodist’s church’s attempt to reclaim Sacred Tradition. It seems like one giant leap toward reunification.

  • Tenebrae is an awesome service. @JonEricson, As Ferris Bueller would say, “I highly recommend it.”

    • Agreed. Tenebrae really helps emphasize the low points of the week, reminding us that the celebrations of Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday are not the whole picture.

  • @BruceAlderman I’m glad I asked this question! I swear, I didn’t read your post til today. Really!

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