The Liturgy

In just a few days, we as a Church will join other Christians from all around the world to celebrate Holy Week, the week of events that commemorate the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. To help you prepare for this special time in the life of the Church, I will give you a brief overview of the most important liturgies of the Church’s holiest days.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is officially called “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion,” and marks the beginning of Holy Week. As far as scholars can tell, it was first observed in the fourth century in the Jerusalem Church. In the earliest celebrations, Christians would sing hymns, recite prayers and listen to sermons as they walked through several of the holy sites in the city. Upon reaching the place where it is believed Jesus ascended into heaven, the Mount of the Ascension, clergy recited the narrative of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  After which, the procession would go back to the Church of the Holy Cross for an evening service, while the faithful carried palm and olive branches.

This tradition began to spread throughout the Christian world, and by the ninth century, a procession would begin in each with the blessing of palms, proceed outside the church building and then return inside, where the faithful continued to hold on to their palm branches while one of the Passion narratives was read. In this way, people could recall in a real and physical way how those people who greeted Christ while waving palm branches would then stand witness to his Death on the cross just a few days later.

Holy Thursday

Holy Thursday begins the Paschal Triduum, which, since the fourth century, commemorates the Paschal Mystery, that is, Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. On this day, the Church commemorates the historical Gospel events surrounding the Last Supper Jesus shared with his Apostles. In the early Church, Holy Thursday was the day repentant sinners were absolved and reincorporated into the parish community so they could participate in the paschal festivities; new oils to be used at Baptisms and Confirmations at the Easter Vigil were consecrated; and Christians in Jerusalem would gather at the approximate place and hour that Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper to imitate the tradition. Remembering the institution of the Eucharist is at the heart of Holy Thursday.

Parish liturgies take place in the evening and with a joyful tone. White vestments are worn, bells are rung and the “Glory to God,” not sung since the beginning of Lent, resounds for a brief moment until it returns at the Easter Vigil. The tabernacle is empty so that all the faithful may receive from bread consecrated at that Mass. After the Gloria, the sound of bells is silent until the Easter Vigil, symbolizing the humiliation and suffering of Jesus.

Good Friday

On Good Friday, the Church commemorates the Death of Jesus on the Cross. This moment will be completed the following day as the Saturday night hours change into Sunday morning and Death turns into Resurrection. On this day, we read St. John the Evangelist’s account of how Jesus was mocked and beaten, ordered to carry the cross, crucified and put to death, which might make it difficult to see what is so “good” about Good Friday. The good in Good Friday emphasizes our salvation, which comes from the historical event of the Crucifixion of Jesus.

Good Friday is the only day of the year that a Mass is not celebrated, which reflects the sacrificial action of Jesus on the cross. The solemn and reverent tradition of venerating the cross dates back to the fourth century, when Christians would gather at Golgotha, where relics of the cross were displayed. As people would process past these relics, they would touch them with their forehead and then kiss them. By the eighth century, the relics of the cross were transferred to Rome, and with them, the tradition of venerating them on Good Friday. This was the origin of our adoration of the holy cross.

Holy Saturday and Easter Vigil

Holy Saturday is the day the Church waits with prayer and fasting for the Resurrection of the Lord. It is a day of meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus, as well as his descent into hell. We wait with anticipation for the Resurrection of Christ.

At nightfall on Holy Saturday, Christians will gather around a blazing fire. An Easter candle, prominently decorated with the symbols of Christ’s suffering and divinity is lit from that fire. From this one light, the candles of hundreds will be lit and the church illumined. It is important that the liturgy for the vigil begin and end in darkness so that the light of the candle can truly break the darkness of the night, just as Christ, risen in glory, shatters the darkness of the world. The readings that are proclaimed tell the stories of all that God has done for his people from the beginning of time. As daylight approaches, water is blessed and new Christians are baptized. It is the night when the Church is called to the feast the Lord has prepared for us as a memorial of his Death and Resurrection until he comes again in glory.

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday concludes our experience of the Paschal Mystery — Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection — and it is the culmination of all that we’ve been about as Christians since Ash Wednesday. We gather to celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead, which is the chief tenet of the Christian faith. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes that for those who trust in Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, “death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54)