About Holy Week

What is Holy Week?

Holy Week is the week before Easter.

How did it come into use in the church?

Since a significant percentage of the first Christians were converts from Judaism, the Jewish time of preparation for the Passover naturally found its way into Christian practice. References to the “Great Week” (as it was called then) can be found in the writings of the early church from around the third or fourth centuries A.D.

What are the days of Holy Week which are typically observed?

Holy Week begins on a joyful note with Palm Sunday, recalling the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem: The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:12-13).

As the week progresses it becomes more somber. While most churches in our time do not have services on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, there are Scripture readings appointed for those days.

For Monday in Holy Week the Gospel reading from John 12 reviews the Palm Sunday account and continues from there. Noteworthy in the text is Jesus speaking of his impending death: And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32)

On Tuesday in Holy Week the Gospel reading is from Mark 14-15 and essentially summarizes all the events of Holy Week up through Jesus’ death and burial.

Luke 22-23 is the Gospel reading for Wednesday in Holy Week. It somewhat parallels Tuesday’s reading but adds additional details.

The Gospel reading from John 13 for Holy Thursday (also known as “Maundy Thursday”) recounts Jesus washing His disciples’ feet, but also has ominous overtones pointing toward Good Friday: During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him.... (John 13:2). Another part of Holy Thursday is the Passover ceremony, which prior to the time of Christ looked forward to the Messiah. However, this Passover is different, as Jesus institutes his “New Covenant” during the meal: And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20, emphasis added).

Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus. Picking up where the Holy Thursday service leaves off, the Gospel reading (from John 18-19) begins with his betrayal and arrest, then continues through his death and burial.

Holy Saturday recalls the burial of Jesus and the guard at the tomb, using the text of Matthew 27:57-66. It continues the somber tone of Holy Thursday and Good Friday.

This brings us to Saturday evening and a service known as “The Vigil of Easter” or “Easter Vigil”. (Note that while our current system of time marks the transition to the next day at midnight, in ancient Israel the next day began at sunset.) While many modern American Christians have never even heard of it, the service has been in use since ancient times: like Palm Sunday, it possibly took its inspiration from “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome” as Mark names them in his Gospel. Luke writes: The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. (Luke 23:55-56,24:1) Put yourself in their shoes (or sandals!) for a moment: do you think you’d get much sleep the night before going to the tomb as they did, or would your mind be on your plans for the morning?

You can read more in-depth information about Holy Week here.

All scripture references are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

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