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What Happens in Holy Week?

What Happens in Holy Week?

by Mother Marcia

Christians celebrated the last week of Jesus' life as a repeating time of remembering, even as our Jewish brethren recall God's liberating act in the celebration of Passover every year. The climatic triad of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are familiar, and even the other days of Holy Week often are noted, perhaps with Stations of the Cross or special prayer services or Tenebrae, but we seldom look at the Scriptural events on those less known days. So here is a short version of the events from Holy Monday through Holy Saturday!


Palm Sunday, often called Passion Sunday as we read the Passion narrative or act it out, is followed by Holy Monday. Holy Monday is the event in Scripture of what is termed 'the cleansing of the Temple'. Jesus enters the Temple in Jerusalem to find that people are hawking their wares in the house of God. In particular, the money changers are taking the local currency, mainly Roman coinage, and charging to convert these into 'temple money' which could be offered as gifts for sacrifice or used to purchase sacrificial animals. Often these trades were a way to exploit the poorest worshipers. Jesus angry, overturned the tables, and drove the dealers out of the Temple, claiming the Temple as God's house and a place for prayer. Holy Monday might be seen as a day when Jesus demonstrated the corruption of the religious institution of his time.


Holy Tuesday. On this day, Jesus curses a fig tree. Following Monday's scriptural theme, like the religious leaders of the day, the tree demonstrated a rich appearance but bore no fruit. Later, the tree itself shrivels up. On Tuesday, the conflictual tension between Jesus and the leaders of the Jewish authority increases as he is questioned by the authorities who are not convinced he is the Messiah. Jesus tells several parables in an effort to get them to acknowledge his role and his authority from God. (Matthew 21:23-23:39) Jesus begins by asking the religious leaders: "The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?" The religious leaders cannot answer since each answer would have consequences for their authority. So they say, "We do not know!" Next he tells the story of the man with two sons. One refused to work in the vineyard, the second agreed. But the second did not go, and later the first changed his mind and went.


"Which of these did the will of his father?" asks Jesus. He then said to them, "Truly, I tell you the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the Kingdom of God before you!" He then tells the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard, who kill the heir sent by the father.

In acknowledging the fate of the tenants, the authorities capture their own. Jesus concludes: "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits."


This last spurs the chief priests to want to arrest Jesus, but they hesitate due to the crowds.

Holy Wednesday, or often called, 'Spy Wednesday'. Scripture doesn't give us many hints about this day prior to the Last Supper. It's name comes from the action of Judas Iscariot, the spy, in approaching the Temple leadership under Caiaphas, to arrest and kill Jesus. (Matthew 26:14) "Then one of the 12, the one called Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests and asked, 'What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?' So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on, Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over."


This day is often called 'darkness' and is observed with the celebration of Tenebrae. Tenebrae is an ancient Good Friday service in which darkness is increased by the progressive extinguishing of candles. This 12th century service is an extended meditation on the passion of Christ, the readings are often taken from John 18:1-19:42.

Maundy Thursday, which we celebrate with the Christian version of a Passover Seder, reflecting the tradition that the Last Supper was a Passover meal, contains not only the drama of the betrayal by Judas, but the footwashing as an act and commandment by Jesus for his followers. ( John 13:1-20) It reminds us of that new commandment, mandatum in Latin, that Jesus gave his disciples to love one another as he has loved them.


At the end of the Maundy Thursday service, in preparation for the Good Friday death of Jesus, the altar is stripped, washed and all vessels taken away, as well as the remains of the Holy Eucharist which are consumed. There will be no Holy Eucharist without the Host.

Good Friday, with its obsolete sense of the word 'good' meaning something holy or pious, is the most somber day for all Christians, commemorating Jesus' trial before Pilate, his sentence of death, his torture, and his crucifixion and burial. Good Friday is the day of 'counting the cost' of Christ's sacrificial death and is observed with fasting and penitential prayer.


The Triduum of Holy Week concludes with Holy Saturday, the day of waiting. After the solemn vigil of staying with Jesus in his death, the church comes to the Easter Vigil. First, the liturgy recalls the vigil of 'keeping watch' with Jesus' friends and female disciples at the tomb, beginning in the darkness before dawn. Then the Easter fire is lit, and the paschal candle representing the Risen Christ brings light into the darkness, and with great jubilation 'Christ is risen' is proclaimed and the first Holy Eucharist of Easter begins. Often, as in ancient tradition this includes the baptism of new converts to the faith, and the renewal of baptismal vows by all the faithful.


Holy Week is an emotional week for Christians but one that anticipates the hope and glory of the resurrection of Jesus at Easter, which is the heart of the Christian Gospel and the center of Christian faith and worship.


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