Our Holiest Week
A Practical Guide to the Liturgies of Holy Week

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Our Holiest Week
A Practical Guide to the Liturgies of Holy Week

By Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.

“Don’t miss the best part!” That’s my advice as we approach the end of Lent. The liturgical services on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion and the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday) are among the very best things we do in the church.

I know that they are “different” and “long.” But isn’t that to be expected? Special events—a daughter’s wedding or a grandson’s Baptism—usually cause us to change our routine and our ordinary way of doing things. And, yes, they may be a bit “longer”—special events often are. That should not surprise us.

I want to describe what goes on during these days and why. I hope to entice you to participate in these liturgies if you are not in the habit of doing so; and if you are already a “regular” during Holy Week, I hope this brief explanation will help you enter into “our holiest week” with an even greater appreciation of its meaning.

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

Entrance. “On this day the Church celebrates Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem to accomplish his paschal mystery” (Roman Missal). “Entrance” is the key to understanding the liturgy of Passion Sunday. We enter into Jerusalem with Christ. We enter into our holiest week. We enter into our final preparation for the Easter feast. Ordinarily when we go to Sunday Mass we enter the church one by one, as we arrive. But for the principal liturgy on this Sunday we enter the church together. We make a grand entrance. The parish gathers in another location. There one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem is proclaimed. “The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, / while others cut branches from the trees / and strewed them on the road. / The crowds preceding him and those following / kept crying out and saying: / ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’” (Mt 21:8-9). And then we “enter into” the Gospel. We go with Christ into Jerusalem. We process into the church.

Procession with palms. This is one of our most joyful and triumphant processions of the entire year. As we gather on this Sunday we receive a branch of palm.

Readings. After we have processed into the church we hear one of the “suffering servant” poems (Is 50:4-7): “I gave my back to those who beat me, / my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; / my face I did not shield / from buffets and spitting.”

Next we hear the beautiful passage from Philippians (2:6-11) which, in a few verses, “summarizes” the meaning of Holy Week. “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, / did not regard equality with God / something to be grasped. / Rather, he emptied himself, / ...becoming obedient to the point of death, / even death on a cross. / Because of this, God greatly exalted him / and bestowed on him the name / which is above every name.”

The Passion. The Gospel proclaimed on this day is one of the accounts of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew, Mark or Luke. (The Passion from the Gospel according to John is read each year on Good Friday.) As the Passion is read we find ourselves going with Christ to Calvary and standing at the foot of the cross. We find ourselves calling out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Yet only a moment ago, when we were entering the church, we were triumphantly singing, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The contrast is striking. Is this not all too often our story? One moment I am full of good resolutions and promises to follow Christ; but when the times get hard, I find myself ready to crucify Jesus by my sins.

Entering more reflectively into the liturgies of Holy Week enables us to becoming better, more consistent disciples of Jesus.

The Easter Triduum

The Easter Triduum—Holy Thursday evening through Easter Sunday evening—is the “high point” of the Church Year. The Latin word triduum means “a three-day period.” We use the word to name collectively Friday (which in the Hebrew way of reckoning begins Thursday evening), Saturday and Sunday. St. Augustine, the great fifth-century bishop of North Africa, speaks of the “triduum of Christ crucified, buried and risen.” Shortly after the time of Augustine the Church at Rome began to celebrate a special commemoration of the Last Supper on the Thursday evening before Good Friday and this celebration was included in “The Three Days.” Now, as the Roman Calendar (19) says, “The Easter Triduum begins

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