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What is Holy Week?
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Holy Week is the week which precedes the great festival of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, and which consequently is used to commemorate the Passion of Christ, and the event which immediately led up to it. In Latin is it called hebdomada major, or, less commonly, hebdomada sancta, styling it he hagia kai megale ebdomas. Similarly, in most modern languages (except for the German word Charwoche, which seems to mean "the week of lamentation") the interval between Palm Sunday and Easter Day is known par excellence as Holy Week.
Antiquity of the celebration of Holy Week
From an attentive study of the Gospels, and particularly that of St. John, it might easily be inferred that already in Apostolic times a certain emphasis was laid upon the memory of the last week of Jesus Christ's mortal life. The supper at Bethania must have taken place on the Saturday, "six days before the pasch" (John 12:1-2), and the triumphant entry into Jerusalem was made from there next morning. Of Christ's words and deeds between this and His Crucifixion we have a relatively full record. But whether this feeling of the sanctity belonging to these days was primitive or not, it in any case existed in Jerusalem at the close of the fourth century, for the Pilgrimage of Ætheria contains a detailed account of the whole week, beginning with the service in the "Lazarium" at Bethania on the Saturday, in the course of which was read the narrative of the anointing of Christ's feet. Moreover, on the next day, which, as Ætheria says, "began the week of the Pasch, which they call here the "Great Week", a special reminder was addressed to the people by the archdeacon in these terms: "Throughout the whole week, beginning from to-morrow, let us all assemble in the Martyrium, that is the great church, at the ninth hour." The commemoration of Christ's triumphal entry into the city took place the same afternoon. Great crowds, including even children too young to walk, assembled on the Mount of Olives and after suitable hymns, and antiphons, and readings, they returned in procession to Jerusalem, escorting the bishop, and bearing palms and branches of olives before him. Special services in addition to the usual daily Office are also mentioned on each of the following days. On the Thursday the Liturgy was celebrated in the late afternoon, and all Communicated, after which the people went to the Mount of Olives to commemorate with appropriate readings and hymns the agony of Christ in the garden and His arrest, only returning to the city as day began to dawn on the Friday. On the Friday again there were many services, and in particular before midday there took place the veneration of the great relic of the True Cross, as also of the title which had been fastened to it; while for three hours after midday another crowded service was held in commemoration of the Passion of Christ, at which, Ætheria tells us, the sobs and lamentations of the people exceeded all description. Exhausted as they must have been, a vigil was again maintained by the younger and stronger of the clergy and by some of the laity. On the Saturday, besides the usual offices during the day, there took place the great paschal vigil in the evening, with the baptism of children and catechumens. But this, as Ætheria implies, was already familiar to her in the West. The account just summarized belongs probably to the year 388, and it is of the highest value as coming from a pilgrim and an eyewitness who had evidently followed the services with close attention. Still the observance of Holy Week as a specially sacred commemoration must be considerably older. In the first of his festal letters, written in 329, St. Athanasius of Alexandria speaks of the severe fast maintained during "those six holy and great days [preceding Easter Sunday] which are the symbol of the creation of the world". He refers, seemingly, to some ancient symbolism which strangely reappears in the Anglo-Saxon martyrologium of King Alfred's time. Further he writes, in 331: "We begin the holy week of the great pasch on the tenth of Pharmuthi in which we should observe more prolonged prayers and fastings and watchings, that we may be enabled to anoint our lintels with the precious blood and so escape the destroyer." From these and other references, e.g., in St. Chrysostom, the Apostolic Constitutions, and other sources, including a somewhat doubtfully authentic edict of Constantine proclaiming that the public business should be suspended in Holy Week, it seems probable that throughout the Christian world some sort of observance of these six days by fasting and prayer had been adopted almost everywhere by Christians before the end of the fourth century. Indeed it is quite possible that the fast of special severity is considerably older, for Dionysius of Alexandria (c. A.D. 260) speaks of some who went without food for the whole six days (see further under LENT). The week was also known as the week of the dry fast (xerophagia), while some of its observances were very possibly influenced by an erroneous etymology of the word Pasch, which was current among the Greeks. Pasch really comes from a Hebrew meaning "passage" (of the destroying angel), but the Greeks took it to be identical with paschein, to suffer.
Special observances of Holy Week
We may now touch upon some of the liturgical features which are distinctive of Holy Week at the present time. Palm Sunday comes first in order, and although no memory now remains in our Roman Missal of the supper at Bethany and the visit to the "Lazarium", we find from certain early Gallican books that the preceding day was once known as "Lazarus Saturday", while Palm Sunday itself is still sometimes called by the Greeks kyriake tou Lazarou (the Sunday of Lazarus). The central feature of the service proper to this day, as it was in the time of Ætheria, is the procession of palms. Perhaps the earliest clear evidence of this procession in the West is to be found in the Spanish "Liber Ordinum" (see Férotin, "Monumenta Liturgica", V, 179), but traces of such a celebration are to be met with in Aldhelm and Bede as well as in the Bobbio Missal and the Gregorian Sacramentary. All the older rituals seem to suppose that the palms are blessed in a place apart (e.g. some eminence or some other church of the town) and are then borne in procession to the principal church, where an entry is made with a certain amount of ceremony, after which a solemn Mass is celebrated. It seems highly probable, as Canon Callewaert has pointed out (Collationes Brugenses, 1907, 200-212), that this ceremonial embodies a still living memory of the practice described by Ætheria at Jerusalem. By degrees, however, in the Middle Ages a custom came in of making a station, not at any great distance, but at the churchyard cross, which was often decorated with box or evergreens (crux buxata), and from here the procession advanced to the church. Many details varying with the locality marked the ceremonial of this procession. An almost constant feature was, however, the singing of the "Gloria laus", a hymn probably composed for some such occasion by Theodulphus of Orléans (c. A.D. 810). Less uniformly prevalent was the practice of carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a portable shrine. The earliest mention of this usage seems to be in the customs compiled by Archbishop Lanfranc for the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury. In Germany, and elsewhere on the Continent, the manner of the entry of Christ was sometimes depicted by dragging along a wooden figure of an ass on wheels (the Palmesel), and in other places the celebrant himself rode upon an ass. In England and in many parts of France the veneration paid to the churchyard cross or to the rood cross in the sanctuary by genuflections and prostrations became almost a central feature in the service. Another custom, that of scattering flowers or sprays of willow and yew before the procession, as it advanced through the churchyard, seems to have been misinterpreted in course of time as a simple act of respect to the dead. Under the impression the practice of "flowering the graves" on Palm Sunday is maintained even to this day in many country districts of England and Wales. With regard to the form of the blessing of the palms, we have in the modern Roman Missal, as well as in most of the older books, what looks like the complete Proper of a Mass — Introit, Collects, Gradual, Preface, and other prayers. It is perhaps not unnatural to conjecture that this may represent the skeleton of a consecration Mass formerly said at the station from which the procession started. This view, however, has not much positive evidence to support it and has been contested (see Callewaert, loc. cit.). It is probable that originally the palms were only blessed with a view to the procession, but the later form of benediction seems distinctly to suppose that the palms will be preserved as sacramentals and carried about. The only other noteworthy feature of the present Palm Sunday service is the reading of the Gospel of the Passion. As on Good Friday, and on the Tuesday and the Wednesday of Holy Week, the Passion, when solemn Mass is offered, is sung by three deacons who impersonate respectively the Evangelist (Chronista), Jesus Christ, and the other speakers (Synagoga). This division of the Passion among three characters is very ancient, and it is often indicated by rubrical letters in early manuscripts of the Gospel. One such manuscript at Durham, which supposes only two readers, can hardly be of later date than the eighth century. In earlier times Palm Sunday was also marked by other observances, notably by one of the most important of the scrutinies for catechumens (see CATECHUMEN, III, 431) and by a certain relaxation of penance, on which ground it was sometimes called Dominica Indulgentiae.
The proper Offices and Masses celebrated during Holy Week do not notably differ from the Office and Mass at other penitential seasons and during Passion Week. But it has long been customary in all churches to sing Matins and Lauds at an hour of the afternoon or evening of the previous day at which it was possible for all the faithful to be present. The Office in itself presents a very primitive type in which hymns and certain supplementary formulae are not included, but the most conspicuous external feature of the service, apart from the distinctive and very beautiful chant to which the Lamentations of Jeremias are sung as lessons, is the gradual extinction of the fifteen candles in the "Tenebrae hearse", or triangular candlestick, as the service proceeds. At the end of the Benedictus at Lauds only the topmost candle, considered to be typical of Jesus Christ, remains alight, and this is then taken down and hidden behind the altar while the final Miserere and collect are said. At the conclusion, after a loud noise emblematical of the convulsion of nature at the death of Christ, the candle is restored to its place, and the congregation disperse. On account of the gradual darkening, the service, since the ninth century or earlier, has been known as "Tenebrae" (darkness). Tenebræ is sung on the evening of the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, the antiphons and proper lessons varying each day.
Maundy Thursday, which derives its English name from Mandatum, the first word of the Office of the washing of the feet, is known in the Western liturgies by the heading "In Coena Domini" (upon the Lord's supper). This marks the central rite of the day and the oldest of which we have explicit record. St. Augustine informs us that on that day Mass and Communion followed the evening meal or super, and that on this occasion Communion was not received fasting. The primitive conception of the festival survives to the present time in this respect at least, that the clergy do not offer Mass privately but are directed to Communicate together at the public Mass, like guests at one table. The Liturgy, as commemorating the institution of the Blessed Sacrament, is celebrated in white vestments with some measure of joyous solemnity. The "Gloria in excelsis" is sung, and during it there is a general ringing of bells, after which the bells are silent until the Gloria is heard upon Easter Eve (Holy Saturday). It is probable that both the silence of the bells and the withdrawing of lights, which we remark in the Tenebræ service, are to be referred to the same source — a desire of expressing outwardly the sense of the Church's bereavement during the time of Christ's Passion and Burial. The observance of silence during these three days dates at least from the eighth century, and in Anglo-Saxon times they were known as "the still days"; but the connection between the beginning of this silence and the ringing of the bells at the Gloria only meets us in the later Middle Ages. In the modern celebration of Maundy Thursday attention centres upon the reservation of a second Host, which is consecrated at the Mass, to be consumed in the service of the Presanctified next day. This is borne in solemn procession to an "altar of repose" adorned with flowers and lighted with a profusion of candles, the hymn "Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium" being sung upon the way. So far as regards the fact of the consecration of an additional Host to be reserved for the Mass of the Presanctified, this practice is very ancient, but the elaborate observances which now surround the altar of repose are of comparatively recent date. Something of the same honour used, in the later Middle Ages, to be shown to the "Easter Sepulchre"; but here the Blessed Sacrament was kept, most commonly, from the Friday to the Sunday, or at least to the Saturday evening, in imitation of the repose of Christ's sacred Body in the Tomb. For this purpose a third Host was usually consecrated on the Thursday. In the so-called "Gelasian Sacramentary", probably representing seventh-century usage, three separate Masses are provided for Maundy Thursday. One of these was associated with the Order of the reconciliation of penitents (see the article ASH WEDNESDAY), which for long ages remained a conspicuous feature of the day's ritual and is still retained in the Pontificale Romanum. The second Mass was that of the blessing of the Holy Oils, an important function still attached to this day in every cathedral church. Finally, Maundy Thursday has from an early period been distinguished by the service of the Maundy, or Washing of the Feet, in memory of the reparation of Christ for the Last Supper, as also by the stripping and washing of the altars (see MAUNDY THURSDAY).
Good Friday is now primarily celebrated by a service combining a number of separate features. We have first the reading of three sets of lessons followed by "bidding prayers". This probably represents a type of aliturgical service of great antiquity of which more extensive survivals remain in the Gallican and Ambrosian liturgies. The fact that the reading from the Gospel is represented by the whole Passion according to St. John is merely the accident of the day. Secondly there is the "Adoration" of the Cross, equally a service of great antiquity, the earliest traces of which have already been noticed in connection with Ætheria's account of Holy Week at Jerusalem. With this veneration of the Cross are now associated the Improperia (reproaches) and the hymn "Pange lingua gloriosi lauream certaminis". The Improperia, despite their curious mixture of Latin and Greek — agios o theos; sanctus Deus, etc. — are probably not so extremely ancient as has been suggested by Probst and others. Although the earliest suggestion of them may be found in the Bobbio Missal, it is only in the Pontificale of Prudentius, who was Bishop of Troyes from 846 to 861, that they are clearly attested (see Edm. Bishop in "Downside Review", Dec., 1899). In the Middle Ages the "creeping to the cross" on Good Friday was a practice which inspired special devotion, and saintly monarchs like St. Louis of France set a conspicuous example of humility in their performance of it. Finally, the Good Friday service ends with the so-called "Mass of the Presanctified", which is of course no real sacrifice, but, strictly speaking, only a Communion service. The sacred ministers, wearing their black vestments, go to fetch the consecrated Host preserved at the altar of repose, and as they return to the high altar the choir chant the beautiful hymn "Vexilla regis prodeunt", composed by Venantius Fortunatus. Then wine is poured into the chalice, and a sort of skeleton of the Mass is proceeded with, including an elevation of the Host after the Pater Noster. But the great consecratory prayer of the Canon, with the words of Institution, are entirely omitted. In the early Middle Ages Good Friday was quite commonly a day of general Communion, but now only those in danger of death may receive on that day. The Office of Tenebræ, being the Matins and Lauds of Holy Saturday, is sung on Good Friday evening, but the church otherwise remains bare and desolate, only the crucifix being unveiled. Such devotions as the "Three Hours" at midday, or the "Maria Desolata" late in the evening, have of course no liturgical character. (See also GOOD FRIDAY.)
The service of Holy Saturday has lost much of the significance and importance which it enjoyed in the early Christian centuries owing to the irresistible tendency manifested throughout the ages to advance the hour of its celebration. Originally it was the great Easter vigil, or watch-service, held only in the late hours of the Saturday and barely terminating before midnight. To this day the brevity of both the Easter Mass and the Easter Matins preserves a memorial of the fatigue of that night watch which terminated the austerities of Lent. Again the consecration of the new fire with a view to the lighting of the lamps, the benediction of the paschal candle, with its suggestions of night turned into day and its reminder of the glories of that vigil which we know to have been already celebrated in the time of Constantine, not to dwell upon the explicit references to "this most holy night" contained in the prayers and the Preface of the Mass, all bring home the incongruity of carrying out the service in the morning, twelve hours before the Easter "vigil" can strictly speaking be said to have begun. The obtaining and blessing of the new fire is probably a rite of Celtic or even pagan origin, incorporated in the Gallican Church service of the eighth century. The magnificent "Praeconium Paschale", known from its first word as the "Exsultet", was originally, no doubt, an improvisation of the deacon which can be traced back to the time of St. Jerome or earlier. The Prophecies, the Blessing of the Font, and the Litanies of the Saints are all to be referred to what was originaly a very essential feature of the Easter vigil, viz., the baptism of the catechumens, whose preparation had been carried on during Lent, emphasized at frequent intervals by the formal "scrutinies", of which not a few traces are still preserved in our Lenten liturgy. Finally, the Mass, with its joyous Gloria, at which the bells are again rung, the uncovering of the veiled statues and pictures, the triumphant Alleluias, which mark nearly every step of the liturgy, proclaim the Resurrection as an accomplished fact, while the Vesper Office, incorporated in the very fabric of the Mass, reminds us once more that the evening was formerly so filled that no separate hour was available to complete on that day the usual tribute of psalmody. Strictly speaking, Holy Saturday, like Good Friday, is "aliturgical", as belonging to the days when the Bridegroom was taken from us. Of this a memorial still remains in the fact that, apart from the one much anticipated Mass, the clergy on that day are not free either to celebrate or to receive Holy Communion.
APA citation. Thurston, H. (1910). Holy Week. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved March 22, 2023 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07435a.htm
MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Holy Week." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 22 Mar. 2023 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07435a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to Fr. Dale P. Waddill.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.