Holy Week

April 2, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Every year, I receive many questions concerning the significance of Holy Week.  Because Holy Week began yesterday, I want to share with you a brief overview I wrote a couple of years ago covering the biblical basis, historical underpinnings, and common customs of this most sacred time of year.  May God bless you this week as you commemorate and celebrate Christ’s life, death, and ultimate, triumphant resurrection!

In retail, it’s the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In college basketball, it’s the month of March. For the IRS, it’s April 15. We all have months, days, and moments which are especially poignant to us and fill our hearts with anticipation and excitement. For Christians, Holy Week is just such a time.

“Holy Week” is a term used to denote the final week of Jesus’ life. It holds a special place in a Christian’s heart, especially since the New Testament gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – devote more than one-third of their pages to this single week. Indeed, the gospels have sometimes been called “Passion stories with introductions.” Their focus is unmistakably on Jesus’ final week of life.

Holy Week began to occupy a prominent place in the Church’s life very early in history. The Apostolic Constitutions (a fourth century manual of church practice for pastors and bishops) calls Holy Week the “Great Week” and calls on Christians “to fast these six days”[1] in memory of Christ’s sufferings. The six days referred to here are Monday through Saturday of Holy Week.

Holy Week is highlighted by four high holy days: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. The Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday of Holy Week, though churches sometimes hold worship services on these days, are relatively minor in comparison to the others. Because of their significance in the life of Jesus, it is well worth it to consider each of the high holy days of this sacred week.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday recounts Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as He is welcomed by adoring throngs:

The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet Him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, “Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” (John 12:12-15)

Palms were a symbol of Jewish nationalistic pride. In 164 BC, after the Greek tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had persecuted and murdered many Jews, was defeated, the Jews waved palms in celebration of their victory. A history book from that time recounts Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ demise: “Carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success.”[2]

When Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, the Jews are again being oppressed – not by Greeks, but by Romans. And so, the Jews break out their palms once more in the hope that Jesus might be the One to deliver them. Even their cry of “Hosanna” betrays their strident nationalism. “Hosanna” is from two Hebrew words: hosha, meaning “to save,” and nah, meaning “please.” Thus, the Jews cry to Jesus: “Save us please from our Roman oppressors!”

This scene of adoring crowds singing “Hosannas” captured the imagination of those in the ancient church. Dramatic reenactments of this scene were introduced in Spain, Gaul, and England, in the fifth, seventh, and eighth centuries respectively. Such reenactments continue in churches today, where congregants wave palm branches and sing, “All glory, laud, and honor, to You, Redeemer King!”

Maundy Thursday

The crowds of Palm Sunday may have loved Jesus, but the members of the religious establishment hated Him. Already on Palm Sunday, the religious leaders were plotting how they might silence Jesus. When they saw the palms and heard the crowds, they sniveled: “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after Him” (John 12:19)!

As the week progresses, the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders rises to a fever pitch. By Thursday, “Jesus knew that the time had come for Him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love”(John 13:1). Jesus, knowing that He would soon die, demonstrates His love for His disciples in two ways. First, Jesus washes His disciples’ feet in an act of service to them (cf. John 13:1-17). Second, Jesus shares with His disciples a final meal:

Jesus 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.” (Luke 22:19-20)

On Maundy Thursday, churches throughout the world share Communion as a way of both remembering Jesus’ final meal with His disciples and solemnly rejoicing in how Christ comes to us modern-day disciples with His body and blood in, with, and under simple bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins. As Jesus washed His disciples feet, some churches also include a foot-washing rite in their Maundy Thursday services as a reminder that our Lord “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

As Jesus has shown us love through His service to us and through the sharing of His body and blood with us, we are to show God’s love to others, even as Jesus commands shortly after He washes His disciples’ feet: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). The Latin word for “command” is mandatum, from which the name “Maundy Thursday” is derived. Thus, Maundy Thursday is a day of love – the love that Christ has for us and the love in Christ that we have for each other.

Good Friday

The apostle Paul wrote, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Paul says that Christ and His cross is the very center of the Christian message. Good Friday, then, the day on which Christ hung on a cross, is a most sacred day.

Because Good Friday is both sacred and solemn, it is traditionally a day of reflection. It is called “Good Friday” not because the suffering, scourging, ridiculing, and death which Christ endured was “good” in and of itself. These things were carried out by evil men. Rather, Good Friday is called “good” because of what these terrible things accomplished – the forgiveness of our sins. As Paul writes, “In Christ we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7).

Good Friday worship services take several forms. A popular late-medieval devotion known as the Way of the Cross has fourteen stations in which the events of Christ’s Passion are acted out in the streets of local communities. Worshippers proceed from one station to the next and remember Christ’s sacrifice for them. In the seventeenth century, a service spanning from noon to 3 pm, the hours during which Jesus was on the cross, became popular. This service usually focuses on the so-called “seven last words” of Jesus and includes devotions on each word. Then, in an evening service called Tenebrae, a Latin word meaning “shadows,” worshippers quietly reflect as candles are extinguished and lights are lowered over the course of the service until the sanctuary is completely blackened in remembrance of the dark day of Jesus’ death.

As somber a day as Good Friday is, it is not without a glimmer of hope. For we know that the darkness of evil and even death cannot overcome the light of hope that Christ has come to bring (cf. John 1:5).

Easter Sunday

The word “Easter” was originally a pagan word, referring to Austron, the Saxon goddess of fertility and sunrise, whose festival was celebrated in the spring. The eighth century scholar Saint Bede the Venerable explains how Saxon Christians commandeered the pagan name “Easter” and used it to refer to their celebrations of Christ’s resurrection.[3] Blessedly, the Church’s use of the word “Easter” has remained, while its pagan use has long since faded into the recesses of history. It is no surprise that Christian Easter celebrations have stood the test of time. After all, the Easter story is unforgettable and gripping:

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen!” (Luke 24:1-6)

Luke captures the excitement and unexpectedness of the scene. The women, finding Jesus’ tomb empty, wonder what could have happened. Even though Jesus had foretold His resurrection on multiple occasions (cf. Luke 9:22, 13:32, 18:33, 24:7), the idea that a man could rise from the dead was so over-the-top, the women failed to call to mind our Lord’s words. Indeed, they thought His body had been stolen (cf. John 20:15). But then a question from two men dressed in white snaps their attention to the reality of what has happened: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The angels accuse the women of being walking oxymorons. Looking for the living among the dead? That’s like writing an obituary instead of a birth announcement when you have a healthy, happy child. That’s like taking your spouse to divorce court on your wedding day. It makes no sense!

The resurrection of Christ was central to early Christian preaching and teaching. The apostle Paul explains:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 17-19)

Paul is crystal clear in his estimation of Christ’s resurrection. It is “of first importance.” It is so important, that if it is not true, all of Christianity is a ruse and we have no hope for eternity. Thus, on Easter, the Church both defends the historicity of Christ’s resurrection and celebrates its significance. For Christ’s resurrection is an historical guarantee of the promise that when Christ returns, we too will rise from the dead to share in eternity with our Lord.

The Church, over the centuries, has gloriously celebrated Easter. Many churches hold “Easter sunrise services” commonly beginning shortly before sunrise at approximately the time the women would have come to Christ’s empty tomb. Although not practiced by the early church, a tradition developed called an “Easter Vigil service.” This service takes place Saturday night and anticipates the coming resurrection of Christ.[4]

Traditionally, the worship services for Easter are the largest and loudest of the year. This is surely appropriate. For “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…So in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 22). Christ’s resurrection is the hope of our resurrections!


[1] Ante Nicene Fathers, VII:45

[2] 2 Maccabees 10:7

[3] The Venerable Bede, De Ratione Temporum

[4] For more on the Easter Vigil, see Luther Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy 
(Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1947) 462-463.

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