Holy Week is the last week of Lent, beginning with Palm Sunday, commemorating the last week of the earthly life of Christ. Frank Senn points to the Gospel of John in suggesting that the foundation for our current liturgical rites have Biblical roots. (John 12:1-2), (ITCL, Senn, p. 127). He refers to the first festal letters, written in AD 329 by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, which speaks of “those six holy and great days which are the symbol of creation of the world” (ITCL, Senn p. 128), the diaries of a Spanish nun named Egeria, who in the late AD 380’s, documented her pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where processions, prayers and ceremonies marked Holy Week. He suggests that pilgrims undoubtedly carried what they experienced back to their own parish communities where they were implemented locally, including the procession with palms, the veneration of the cross, and the lighting of the great candle within the sepulcher at the beginning of the Paschal Vigil. Senn also references the sermons of John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo showing that the observance had been adopted almost everywhere by the end of the fourth century.
The rites of Holy Week developed over the centuries. The Palm Sunday procession we know today, became popular in the middle ages. We celebrate the commemoration of Christ’s arrival into Jerusalem to accomplish his paschal triumph. On Holy Thursday, we celebrate reconciliation, blessing of the sacramental oils for Baptism, the institution of the Eucharist and now include the foot washing, commemorating the servitude behaviors of Christ, stripping of the alter after communion and the procession with the sacrament to an altar of repose for adoration on Good Friday. (ITCL, Senn, p. 132). On Good Friday, we celebrate a non-liturgical mass. This includes the Liturgy of the Word, the Veneration of the Cross, and Holy Communion, ending with a silent procession exiting the church. On Holy Saturday, we celebrate the climax of Holy Week, the Vigil mass. This mass begins at or after sunset and ends around midnight but must end before dawn. This mass celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. Catechumens and candidates for full communion are initiated into the church through baptism and confirmation. After the Easter season, we then return to Ordinary time until Advent.
Introduction to Christian Liturgy – Frank C. Senn, Fortress Press, MN. 2012 Print