What is Holy Week and why does it matter?

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Today marks the beginning of Holy Week for Christians around the world. Christian worship services take churches through the most important moments in the story of Jesus Christ.

This is the high point of the whole year as we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We begin Holy Week today with Palm Sunday, when we recall the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. All four gospels tell how Jesus rode into Jerusalem amid great hope and exception. People shouted, “Hosanna!” which means “Save us.” At a time of turmoil and uncertainty, the crowds hopes that Jesus would put down the imperial oppressors and restore justice to the land.

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As Jesus rode, the gospels tell us that the people spread cloaks and branches on the road. John’s gospel says the people came with palm branches, and so that is why we still use palm branches in our services today. We wave palm branches to recall the excitement and hope of that time. In today’s service, we also read the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering and death on the cross.

Crosses made from palm leaves distributed on Palm Sunday.

Crosses made from palm leaves distributed on Palm Sunday.

It’s jarring to encounter excitement and despair in the same service, but this poignant contrast reminds us that God always meets us where we are.

Traditions for Holy Week vary, but many Christians observe the Three Holy Days on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week. These three days take us to the very heart of the gospel.

Thursday is usually called Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday. The word “maundy” comes from a Latin word that means “commandment,” because on this night we recall how Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).

Love one another. It sounds nice, right? We might think it’s easy.

But Jesus said that we should love others as he loved us. How did he love people? He loved everyone perfectly, even those that society said should be avoided. He always spoke the truth. He urged transformation. He brought healing. And ultimately he gave his life for us.

We Christians are reminded that our call is to love others perfectly, extravagantly and sacrificially. This Christian love is not merely a feeling, but is a way of life.

This week covers the whole gamut of human emotion and experience.

 

On Maundy Thursday, many churches recreate the ritual that Jesus introduced to show this call to love. People wash one another’s feet, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. It was awkward in Jesus’ day, and it’s super awkward now. To wash a stranger’s foot or to have our feet washed by another pushes us right out of our comfort zone and teaches us that we must be ready to love others even when it’s uncomfortable for us.

On Maundy Thursday churches also commemorate the Last Supper, when Jesus introduced the sacrament of Holy Communion. This is yet another way to share Christ’s love with one another – to share in his presence in the blessed bread and wine.

Good Friday is a strange name for a very somber day in which we remember the death of Jesus Christ. Some say this comes a time when the day was “God’s Friday” but it’s more likely a use of “good” in an ancient sense to mean “holy.”

It is most certainly a holy day.

It is customary to read the story of Jesus’ suffering and death from the Gospel of John. Churches often venerate a simple wooden cross by kissing it or by kneeling in prayer near it. Special and very ancient prayers for the whole world are offered. Sometimes Holy Communion is shared.

Holy Saturday is a quiet day, but then we come to the culmination not only of Holy Week, but of the whole Christian year. On Easter Eve, after sundown Saturday, many churches gather for the Great Vigil of Easter.

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The service begins in pitch darkness with the lighting of a fire and the blessing of a special Easter candle. As the people hold candles lighted from the Easter flame, the stories of God’s salvation history are read. New Christians are baptized. The lights come on in a blaze of glory with alleluias, festive music and bells. And then, in great joy, the church celebrates the first Holy Communion of Easter.

Sunday morning is the icing on the cake, as the church fills with worshipers to celebrate Easter with favorite hymns, joyous music and the reading of the Easter story from one of the gospels.

This week covers the whole gamut of human emotion and experience. Through the week, from Sunday to Sunday, we encounter hope, despair, friendship, tender love, betrayal, pain, fear, sorrow, wonder and finally, wondrous joy.

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Holy Week reminds us of God’s great love for us. Despite our rejection of Jesus’ perfect love, God’s victory over death, sin, hate and fear shows us that, in the end, love, grace, justice and mercy have the last word.

Find a church and check out Holy Week. If you’ve never gone to all the services, you might just find your life transformed through powerful encounters with scripture, music, ritual and sacraments.

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