Holy week begins with a glorious celebration of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. All the gospel texts highlight this moment of Jesus’ ministry and seem to suggest a nearly unanimous hope among the people for a messianic king. Arriving on the back of a donkey symbolizes a peaceful intent, unlike entering on a war-horse. The palm and olive branches lain upon the ground is an action always reserved for a king.
The Palm Sunday Liturgy we celebrate as Episcopalians was adapted from a pilgrim’s ceremony celebrated in Jerusalem from at least the 4th century. More recently we added the crucifixion readings to our Palm Sunday service so that people who where unlikely to attend services on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday would hear the crucifixion story. Previously, if people did not attend these weekday services, they would only hear of Jesus triumphant entry and his glorious resurrection, leaving out the painful but important abandonment of our Lord to the cross.
The first part of the week we observe a quiet reflection upon the events that occur between Jesus’ triumphant entry and his arrest. Then, On Maundy Thursday, we recognize a two-fold institution of the last supper and foot washing in the context of a Passover meal. For many centuries before Jesus, the Jewish people recognized and re-told the story of their freedom from oppression in Egypt through the mighty acts of God and the covenantal relationship they had with God. They would do this in the context of a meal that included the roasting of an unblemished lamb. In the last supper, Jesus would ritualistically equate himself to the Passover lamb thereby providing a new covenantal relationship for all. The meal is followed by a foot washing, as detailed in John’s Gospel text when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Finally we strip the altar and sanctuary of any adornment. If our altar were stone the clergy would likely participate in a ritual washing of the altar. Again this emphasizes Jesus’ roll in the cleansing of our sins.
Then finally, on Good Friday, we remember the crucifixion. This is done through reading of the Gospel Crucifixion stories and the veneration of the cross. At St Chris, we are each given an opportunity to hammer a nail into the cross.
On Holy Saturday we are encouraged to quietly reflect on the uncertainty and fear that disciples must have faced in the wake of the crucifixion. Perhaps doing a personal observation of the Stations of the Cross would be appropriate. In some churches the Great Vigil is observed in the evening. As the word vigil indicates this service once lasted all night. Today most only last an hour or two. The service, starting in complete darkness revolves around the coming of light. This service was traditionally a time to perform baptisms.
All these careful and traditional observances makes the glorious celebration Easter that much sweeter and awe-inspiring. We hope that you can take a few of these opportunities during Holy Week to enter deeper into your relationship with Jesus Christ.