Holy week is the last week of Lent, which is the week immediately preceding Easter. In many Christian churches, including ours, Holy Week is a time to commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus through various worship services.
Easter Tridumm…A Space of Three Days
The conclusion to the week is called the Easter Triduum (a space of three days). The Easter Triduum begins Thursday evening of Holy Week and concludes with the Easter Vigil on Saturday. These Holy Week observances move us beyond the joyful celebrations of Palm Sunday and Easter, and focus on the suffering, humiliation, and death that are a part of Holy Week. It is important to place the hope of the resurrection, the promise of newness and life, against the background of death and endings. We walk through the shadows and darkness of Holy Week and Good Friday, realizing the horror and magnitude of sin and its consequences in the world. We see the dying Jesus on the cross taking on our sin. We contemplate the ending and despair that the disciples felt on Holy Saturday. Then we truly understand the light and hope of Easter Sunday morning!
At Immanuel we celebrate on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and on Holy Saturday with the Easter Vigil. This week began with the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem that was marked by the crowds who were there for the Passover waving their palm branches and proclaiming him as the Messianic King. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus rode into the city on a donkey fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. He emphasized the humility that was to characterize the kingdom he proclaimed. The irony is that the crowds, only five days later, would cry out for his execution. It reminds us of the human tendency to want God on our own terms.
We will wave our palm branches and sing songs of celebration on Palm Sunday this year as our children will be an integral part of the service. It is important that we involve them in the worship life of Immanuel Lutheran Church. There is also an emphasis on the passion of Jesus in our service on Palm Sunday. It is a time to reflect on the suffering and death of Jesus. This provides an opportunity for people who cannot attend a Good Friday service to experience the contrasts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our Sunday worship services are always celebrations of the resurrection of Jesus during the entire year and therefore on Palm Sunday we do not end with a mournful or negative note. We will do this on Good Friday, which is the reason Holy Communion is not celebrated.
The Last Days…
Many events happened on the last days before Jesus was arrested. These include the last meal together, the Passover meal, the institution of Holy Communion, the betrayal by Judas, and Jesus praying in Gethsemane while the disciples fell asleep. During the last few days Jesus and his disciples had made their way from Galilee toward Jerusalem. Jesus was very popular, the crowds were friendly, and the future seemed bright. Even when he entered Jerusalem, there was a joyous welcome! But there was still a growing darkness as the crowds began to drop back while Jesus spoke of commitment and servanthood. The religious leaders were murmuring among themselves as they were threatened by the new future that Jesus proclaimed.
Even as Jesus and his disciples came together on Thursday evening to share the meal, they already stood in the shadow of the cross. Later that night, after the meal, as Jesus and his disciples were praying in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was arrested and taken to the house of Caiaphas the High Priest. On Friday he would die.
This last meal on Thursday evening was a Passover meal to remember the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt when death passed over the Hebrew homes as the final plague fell upon the Egyptians. Traditionally the Christian church calls this day Maundy Thursday. The term Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum from which we get the English word mandate. The term is usually translated command or commandment. As Jesus and the disciples were eating their final meal together before Jesus arrest, he washed the disciple’s feet in a bold demonstration of humility and servant hood.
We will have Holy Communion and at the conclusion of the service, the altar will be stripped. As the various items are removed from the altar, the purpose and symbolism behind each action will be narrated. The stripping of the altar symbolizes the abandonment of Jesus by his disciples and the stripping of Jesus by the soldiers prior to his crucifixion. Like the darkness on Good Friday, this reminds us of the humiliation of Jesus and the consequences of our sin. We continue our preparation for the celebration of new life and hope that comes on resurrection day.
On Good Friday we commemorate the arrest of Jesus, his trial, crucifixion and suffering, death, and burial. Since Holy Communion is a celebration and we are observing the death of Jesus, we do not have communion on Good Friday. You can expect a series of Scripture readings, a drama based on the Apostle John and time for prayer and meditation. Our service will end in darkness, reminding us not only of Jesus’ death but of the hopelessness in the world without God. The final candle, the Christ candle, will be carried out of the sanctuary to symbolize the death of Jesus. There will be a loud noise to symbolize the closing of Jesus’ tomb.
The seventh day of the week, the day Jesus rested in the tomb is Holy Saturday. It is a traditional day of quiet meditation as Christians for centuries have contemplated the darkness of the world without a future and without hope apart from God and his grace. It is a time to remember family and the faithful departed as we all await the resurrection.
In some places throughout the early centuries of the church’s life, the people of God would hold vigil, which means keep watch, through the night in expectation of Christ’s return. This became a common feature of the celebration of his crucifixion and resurrection. The vigil consists of prayer, hymns, and readings especially from the Old Testament, culminating in the celebration of the resurrection at dawn. As the church gathered, individuals who had prepared throughout Lent to be joined to Christ were baptized.
While making vigil through the night may not be common today, Christians nonetheless gather on Holy Saturday to wait in expectation for the news of Christ’s resurrection and for his second coming. At Immanuel we have a service of watching that ushers in the resurrection, the Vigil of Easter. Because the Vigil of Easter marks the final day in the sacred Triduum, the vigil service ends with the Benediction, which has not been heard since the beginning of the Triduum.
What is Lent? Lent is a time of soul searching, repentance, and re-dedication (or dedication) of your life to Christ. More about Lent