(Note: This was originally two e-mails send out last year to our Young Adult Group at Church as an explanation of Holy Week. To me, Holy Week is the best week to be at St. John’s; as a parishioner once said to me, “we do it right!” This week, don’t forget this most important week of the year. Go to Church. Make your confession before Easter. Pray as much as you can and are able.)
What is Palm Sunday?
The Sunday before Easter is Palm Sunday, commemorating the triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem (Mt. 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11 and Luke 19:29-40), which happened a week before the resurrection. It includes a procession with Palms that has a long tradition. The fourth century Nun and Pilgrim to the Holy Land, Egeria wrote about a series of processions that took place on Palm Sunday in Jerusalem in the 380’s. By the 1100’s the practice became universally accepted. Eamon Duffy’s book, The Stripping of the Altars describes in detail the complex processions that took place in Pre-Reformation England. What we do on Sunday (like all Sundays) has a long history behind it.
On Sunday, we will gather outside on the front steps and one of the Gospel versions of the Triumphant entry is read. Palm branches are blessed and passed out. Then, we process around the building (only once, though — if we did it seven times the building might fall down). Now, this is more than just a nice walk-about around the Church. In processing, we are reenacting Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. As one of the Collects says, “That we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life an immortality.” As we process around the Church, do not consider what the Baptists across the street are thinking or what motorists who pass by are wondering. Lift your mind to heavenly things: like, for example, how we who praise him this day will soon demand a crucifixion; that we praise him with our lips, but crucify him in our hearts. Carry your palms with pride, for they will be later burned to ash for next year’s Ash Wednesday service.
Upon returning to Church, we will sing the ninth century hymn (written specifically for Palm Sunday), “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” Then — almost immediately — the focus of the service switches from Triumphant Entry to the upcoming suffering. The readings for Sunday (Isaiah 50:4-9 and Philippians 2:5-11) are sober reminders of Christ’s submission even to death. Then, the Gospel of the Passion is read by a variety of people, each enacting different roles. The congregation enacts the role of the crowd by shouting, “Crucify! Crucify!” (Yet another sober reminder). We finally stand when the lengthy reading gets to Golgotha and there is a period of silence after the death of Christ. As Dennis Michno put it, “As it begins in triumph it should end in silence . . . The strength of this day is in its ‘schizophrenic’ nature.”
It might strike you as odd that Palm Sunday is more than just a commemoration and reenactment of the triumphant entry but includes Good Friday in it, also. “Couldn’t they just come on Good Friday and hear it then?” we might ask ourselves. It is this way, so those who could only come to Church on Sundays would still be able to fully participate in the Passion of Christ. It is a good reminder that catholic tradition is not just for the spiritual Übermensch, but also for those who — because of their station in life — cannot live at the Church like some of us want to do. Even in Church attendance during Holy Week, there is no room for pride, because catholic tradition is for all people, even those who can’t be present at all the services.
What is Maundy Thursday?
Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of Holy Week. It commemorates the events of that day: namely, the first Eucharist, the washing of the Disciples’ feet by Christ and his arrest. The term “Maundy” comes from Latin word, mandatum, which means commandment or mandate. This mandatum for Maundy Thursday comes from Christ’s command that “a new commandment I give you, that you love one another even as I have loved you.” (Jn. 13:34) Here, we see the strength of Christ who gave himself in service to all humankind: in the Eucharist where “his flesh is true food” (Jn. 6:55), in his humiliating act of washing the disciples’ feet and in his arrest at the kiss of one of his best friends. The Latin hymn Ubi Caritas (which we sang at the retreat) will be used numerous times throughout this service.
After the homily, there will be foot-washing available. In years past, you would wash whomever was in front of you in line and let whoever is behind you wash your feet. While feet have a definite ick factor to them, we must not forget what Christ said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” (Jn. 13:8) I strongly encourage you to engage in this tradition. We are not greater than our master and we are blessed if we do them (Jn 13:16-17). What could have been a humiliating act is sanctified by Christ who gave of himself to all.
The arrest of Christ takes place — symbolically, of course — at the end of the Mass with the stripping of the Altar. While this is done, Psalm 22 is chanted by the choir. Psalm 22, which is a lament, has this verse: “They part my garments among them : and casts lots upon my vesture” (18). Matthew tells us that after crucifying Our Lord, the soldiers “divided up his clothes by casting lots” (27:35). So, the prime symbols of Christ in the Church: the altar and the priest are stripped of their vestments. Even though the Church is austere during Lent (veiled crosses, no alleluias, etc.), at Maundy Thursday it is stripped of all its beauty, just as Christ was. There is a great sense of nakedness at the end of this service.
The remaining Hosts from the Mass are taken to the Altar of Repose (which is to symbolize the garden) and the faithful gather to watch with Him through the night. By the end of the Maundy Thursday service, all beauty is taken from the Church, except for her Lord. But after the Good Friday service, even He will be taken from us.
What is the Watch?
At the end of the Maundy Thursday Service, the remaining Eucharistic elements are taken to the side Chapel. After the Last Supper, Christ retired to the Mount of Olives to pray, accompanied by Ss. Peter, James and John (Mt 26: 36-46; Lk 22: 40-46; Mk 14: 32-42). Christ told them to wait and pray while he went “a stone’s throw away”, resigning himself to the upcoming acts of torture. His suffering became so great that he began to sweat blood. Christ returned to his disciples and found them sleeping; he rebuked them, saying “Could you not watch with me one hour?” Since that time, many Christians began watching with the Sacrament (which is the real presence of Christ) as a way to prepare with him for the upcoming actions of Good Friday. We, too, carry on this tradition: the Church will be open through all night and someone will be with the sacrament until the Good Friday service around noon. If you can’t make an hour commitment in the middle of the night, consider stopping by on your way to work or for sometime before the Good Friday service. Let us keep company with Our Lord.
What is a Tenebrae Service?
This year at Midnight of Maundy Thursday, we will have a Tenebrae service. Tenabrae is Latin for “shadows” and it is a compilation of the early morning monastic hours of Matins and Lauds. It consists of 15 Psalms and 9 Readings from Lamentations. After each Psalm, one of fifteen candles is extinguished. During the Song of Zechariah (Lk. 1:68-79), all of the lights are turned off and we are thrust into darkness — with the exception of one candle. This lone candle is hidden from sight, symbolizing Christ and his descent among the dead. Then, Psalm 51 and a truncated Collect are prayed. At the end of the service a loud noise is made (usually by banging a hymnal on a pew) and the lone, lit candle is replaced from its hiding place. The loud noise is to symbolize the earthquake that happened when Christ died. We leave in silence. If you’ve ever been to a Tenebrae service, you know how moving it is. I encourage you to come.
What is Good Friday?
Good Friday is the Friday preceding Easter. It commemorates the crucifixion and death of Our Lord. Having watched through the Night with Our Lord, the Church follows him to the foot of the Cross, by which he redeemed the world. The fourth-century pilgrim Egeria (remember her?) wrote about a complex day spent entirely in prayer by the Church in Jerusalem. They kept the whole day in three specfic parts; we keep them in only an hour. In this special liturgy, three things happened in Egeria’s day and will in our own: 1) The Passion of John is read; 2) “The Solemn Collects” are prayed; and 3)The Cross is Venerated.
1) On Palm Sunday one of the Passion stories is read from either Matthew, Mark or Luke. On Good Friday, however, the Passion story of John (18:1-19:37), is always read. Just like Palm Sunday, it will be read by a group of lectors, each acting a different part. We will sit through until they get to Golgotha and there will be a moment of silence at the death of Christ. Listen to the words and reflect on them. Perhaps we should all ask ourselves after the reading, “how does the suffering and death of Christ effect my life?”
2) The Solemn Collects are a series of prayers, where an assisting minister bids our prayers for the Church, the government, the world and those who do not know Christ and the Priest adds a final Collect. Think of this like the Prayers of the People on Sunday morning — only on steroids. We will kneel for the bidding and stand for the collects.
On this day, we pray for “those who have not received the gospel of Christ.” (BCP 279) Following after the Roman Rite, The 1549 Prayer Book prays it this way: “. . . have mercy upon all Jews, Turks, Infidels, and heretics, and take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy word; and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to thy flock . . .” The liturgical reforms of the 1928 BCP softened this language. Nowadays, we pray for “those who have lost their faith” or “become hardened by sin and indifference (BCP 279).” Perhaps we should ask ourselves while we pray, “what difference does the suffering and death of Christ make in the world?”
3) Then, a wooden cross is carried in and placed in front of the altar for the veneration of the cross. This also is a very old rite that Egeria wrote about in her day. During the veneration, The Reproaches are sung to a fantastic setting written by our own Organist & Choirmaster. The Reproaches are an early medivael prayer that uses the refrain, “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One have mercy on us and on the whole world!” (more on this text at a later date). The verses hit you right in the gut, each describing a gracious and loving act of God that is repaid by the suffering of Christ. For example: “I gave you a royal scepter but you gave me a crown of thorns. I raised you up in power, but you raised me on the Cross.” Perhaps we should ask ourselves again, “what difference does the suffering of Christ make?
After all of this, the remaining Sacrament is consumed by everyone at the service in a truncated form of the Eucharist. This is the Sacrament that was consecrated on Maundy Thursday and people keept the watch in front of it. It is entirely consumed: until the Vigil, the Church is left without her Lord. All the beauty is stripped from the sanctuary on Maundy Thursday. But, on Good Friday, the tabernacle is left open and empty, with its red vigil candle blown out. In other words, we are symbolically left (much like on the actual Good Friday) without a Lord. It is a frightening and lonely experience.