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Holy Week Liturgy and Traditions


Today is Holy Saturday, and the last day of Holy Week.

What does that mean?

Many people are familiar with Lent – that period of weeks before Easter when we Christians prepare our hearts for the death of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection. Traditionally this preparation involves steep increases in penance (confession of sins), self-denial including fasting, prayers, and charity to the poor and needy in comparison to the rest of the days of the year.

Holy Week is the last week of Lentand during this time, we take special care to remember the key events in the life of Christ leading up to and including his death.

The oldest Holy Week liturgical tradition is that of Maundy Thursday. As chronicled in John 13:34, Jesus told the disciples during their supper together (what would be their last supper together), "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The word for commandment in Latin is mandatum, from which the term Maundy derives, hence Maundy Thursday = Commandment Thursday. Let that sit a bit in your mind.

Jesus also told his disciples to break bread and and drink wine in memory of not only the last supper but also of what the portions of the supper symbolized: his death and resurrection on our behalf.  Luke 22:19-20 recalls this event: And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

During Maundy Thursday services across the Christian church, communion is given; it will not be given again until the end of the Easter Vigil. Stripping the altar of adornments (flowers, decorations, bible, etc) and extinguishing the lights is the traditional close to Maundy Thursday worship and is practiced still today by the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist communities.

Good Friday is the day immediately following Maundy Thursday. It is a day of solemn remembrance of the death of Jesus on the cross.

The Crucifixion is recounted in John, chapter 19:16-30.

So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified.They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between.Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, “JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.”Therefore many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin and in Greek.So the chief priests of the Jews were saying to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews’; but that He said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His outer garments and made four parts, a part to every soldier and also the tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, to decide whose it shall be”; this was to fulfill the Scripture: “THEY DIVIDED MY OUTER GARMENTS AMONG THEM, AND FOR MY CLOTHING THEY CAST LOTS.” Therefore the soldiers did these things. But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” From that hour the disciple took her into his own household. After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said, “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth.Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.

It is traditional to begin a strict fast on Good Friday. For the Eastern Orthodox community this means no sustenance of any kind, for the Catholic community this means no more than three small, basic, very light meals (no meat). Sadly, many protestant communities have abandoned the fast entirely, throwing out the tradition when they broke from Catholicism. This fast is twofold in purpose – first, it is an outward symbol of our grief over our part (our sin) in the death of Jesus, and second, it is the beginning of preparation for the great feast of Easter. As I have described in my posts on Advent, church tradition has always upheld the balance of fasting before great feasts. Without the fast preceding, the feast loses some of it contrasting significance and risks becoming a day of indulgence no different than our other days in the food-plenty modern world.

In addition to the fast, services are held on Good Friday across the Christian church and the traditional elements of worship are continual prayer, lots of kneeling (although, this too has been abandoned by most protestants), and a few moments spent adoring the cross and pondering the significance of the death of Jesus. As mentioned previously, no communion is given on this day, unless it’s requested by a congregant on their deathbed.

Finally now, we come to Holy Saturday, the very last day of holy week. This is the day immediately following Good Friday. Day two of our fasting, which will come to an end at the end of our Easter Vigil. Notably, this is the only Saturday of the year that fasting is permitted or prescribed in the Christian church! Because the death of Jesus in a key event in man’s salvation and it happened on a Friday (a long long time ago), Saturdays and Sundays are always held to be a little bit of a mini-celebration each week. However it is understood that on the very first Holy Saturday the disciples didn’t yet understand the full significance of the death and were still in mourning and so it is right to fast on this specific Saturday, even in modern times. Because different Christian communities hold differing interpretations of scripture (what exactly did Jesus mean when he told the fellow dying next to him that he would see him in paradise shortly; what exactly happened to Jesus between his death on the cross and the resurrection?), there are wide variations in the focus of our prayers and activities on this day. However, across most Christian communities, things begin to come together similarly during the evening of Holy Saturday. This is when the Easter Vigil service is held. The common worship elements for this service are fire/light, the Word of God, water (baptism), and the table (communion). Some church communities begin with a big bonfire, others with simple candles. Scripture is read or sung. Baptisms with water are conducted, welcoming new Christians into the covenant that was fulfilled by the blood of Jesus. This Easter Vigil is the final push of salvation’s dawning; this is the last hours of the watch for resurrection! The mood is bittersweet. As the General Board of Assembly for the United Methodist Church notes, “The Great Vigil of Easter may be the longest, most solemn, joyous and symbol-rich service of the Christian Year.”2 At the conclusion of Easter Vigil, communion is given, signifying that Easter has begun and breaking our fast. This is also the first moment that “Allelulia” and “Gloria” are permitted to be sung or spoken since the beginning of Lent. The oldest Christian traditions call for an all night East Vigil, beginning at sundown on Saturday and culminating at sunrise Easter morning. I’ve never been to an all night worship service, but I can imagine it is quite emotional if not exhausting. I think I might like to try it sometime. The next time you read or hear about a candlelight vigil on the news (seems to be a common activity on college campuses for humanitarian or environmental causes) think about what it would mean to keep an all-night vigil for Christ. 

Of course, given the busy busy busy mantra of society, many modern Christian communities offer only a condensed Easter Vigil, beginning at sundown on Holy Saturday and lasting a duration of no more than 3 hours. As a guideline, most liturgical guides suggest if a church is going to hold an Easter Vigil it be scheduled for at least 1.25 hours in length, out of respect for tradition and the importance of this event.

Some Christian communities (I’m looking at most of you, protestants) don’t offer Easter Vigil services at all. Ideally, for these congregants, to abide in the spirit of the Easter Vigil, the fasting and praying and personal preparations in the heart for Easter should carry through until Easter morning worship, since that is the first service attended after the death of Jesus for these folks.

In an upcoming post, I’ll write on Easter itself and the Easter season (which lasts from Easter morning until Pentacost3.

1 Catholics hold that Lent ends when Holy Week begins, while most other Christian traditions view Holy Week as part of Lent.

2 A great link with full details on the Methodist traditions for Easter Vigil.

3 Pentacost is both a Jewish religious feast and the anniversary of the founding of the Christian church in the world.


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