Worship preview for Holy Week
Until the late fourth century, the Christian church celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ over a single 24-hour period. The one continuous celebration began after sunset on the Saturday before Easter day with a vigil of readings, prayers and psalms. This led into the celebration of baptisms during the night, and the Easter Lord’s Supper at dawn on Easter day. This liturgy celebrated the deliverance of Israel from Egypt through the Red Sea as a symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ. This single festival was called the ‘Pascha’ (Hebrew and Greek for ‘Passover’).
The development of a ’holy week’ at the end of the fourth century (followed later by the emergence of the Christmas cycle at the end of the sixth century) marked an significant shift in the nature of Christian liturgy. For the first time the idea of ’liturgical realism’ appeared, that is, a way of worshipping which sought to involve the worshipper in the events of the life of Christ.
At the end of the fourth century, a pilgrim named Egeria was the first person to record descriptions of the celebrations which were held in and around Jerusalem during the week before Easter. Many Christians like her were taking the opportunity afforded by the end of persecution to travel to Jerusalem in order to worship at the sites where the events of the passion narratives took place. It was at these shrines that the ceremonies of Palm Sunday and Good Friday (among others) were developed. When the pilgrims returned home, they enthusiastically imported these dramatic ceremonies into the liturgies of their local churches. Before long, Holy Week had become a universal celebration in the Christian church.
On Maundy Thursday, the church recalls the events of Jesus’ life the day before he was crucified. This includes Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The name “Maundy Thursday” is thought by many to have derived from the foot washing incident and Jesus’ command to his disciples to “love one another even as I have loved you.” The Latin word for ‘commandment’ is ‘mandatum.’
The Maundy Thursday service must convey both the grim reality that our Savior is preparing to sacrifice himself on the cross and the joy that is ours through the Holy Sacrament. The medieval liturgies emphasized great joy on this day, but it must be remembered that the custom of that period was for worship every day of the week. In that setting, a day of joyful celebration was quite effective in presenting the meaning of the Sacrament. Today, however, we live in quite a different era. For many Christians, this may be the only Holy Week service they attend. Under these conditions, it may be better to restrain somewhat the exuberant joy that was evident in the medieval church in order to impress the modern worshiper with the solemnity of this sacred week.
Another ancient ceremony that can be meaningful still today is the stripping of the altar after the service. This was done along with washing the altar in preparation for Good Friday worship. The stripping of the altar table is seen as a symbol of the way in which Christ was stripped of his clothing and his dignity before his crucifixion. The rite points ahead to Good Friday.
Good Friday is the most solemn of all days in the Christian church year. But the English title Good Friday reflects the joy of Christ’s completed act of redemption. Worship is customarily simple and shorn of anything that might contribute to a festival tone. Our hymns do not cry over the sufferings of Christ, but rather solemnly rejoice that “with his stripes we are healed.”
Many congregations worship with a Tenebrae service, which is Latin for ‘darkness.’ This type of commemoration is a little bit newer in Christian tradition, going back only 1,100 years or so. A series of candles are extinguished during the service to represent the gathering darkness of sin which hangs over the world as the life of the Son of God grows closer and closer to its end. The last candle represents Jesus, reminding us that even in death Jesus is the Light of the world—a light no darkness can overcome (John 1:5). A book is slammed shut at the end of the service to simulate the earthquake at the crucifixion, the closing of the tomb, and the tumultuous clash of Jesus with Satan.