Holy Week is the most solemn and glorious week in Christianity, the pinnacle of the liturgical year. It is more sacred than Christmas! This is because Holy Week commemorates the final week of Our Lord’s life, the very purpose for which Christmas happened.
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday (when Jesus made his final entrance into Jerusalem) and culminates with Easter Sunday. As Holy Week progresses to its final days the solemnity heightens.
THE SACRED TRIDUUM
Agnus Dei painting by Francisco Zurbarán
Sundown on Holy Thursday to sundown on Easter Sunday is considered the most solemn part of the liturgical year. This three-day period is referred to as the Easter Triduum, also known as the Sacred Triduum, or Paschal Triduum.
Basically, the Sacred Triduum is one great festival recounting the last three days of Jesus’ life on earth, the events of his Passion and Resurrection, when the Lamb of God laid down his life in atonement for our sins.
“Though chronologically three days, they are liturgically one day unfolding for us the unity of Christ’s Paschal Mystery” (USCCB).
It is known as the “Paschal Mystery” because it is the ultimate fulfillment of the ancient Jewish Passover (or Pasch), which itself was a recollection of how God brought the Jews out of their slavery in Egypt. The spotless lamb was slaughtered at the Passover meal and consumed, and that night the destroying angel “passed over” the homes marked with the blood of the Passover Lamb, and those covered by the Blood were saved. This was the Old Testament prefigurement of Jesus’ work at the Last Supper―where he inserted himself as the Paschal Lamb―and Calvary, where the sacrifice was offered to save us from our slavery to sin. With the Holy Eucharist, we consume the victim that died for our sins.
The Paschal Mystery is, therefore, God’s plan of redemption for the fallen human race through the Passion, death, and resurrection of God-man, Jesus Christ. It is one marvelous event stretched out over three days.
Here is a breakdown of each of the three days that make up the Easter Triduum:
The evening Mass on Holy Thursday is referred to as The Mass of the Lord’s Supper. This is where the Church relives the institution of the Eucharist and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at the Last Supper, as well as the institution of the priesthood, which took place the evening before Jesus was crucified.
After the homily there is an optional washing of the feet ceremony, where the priest washes the feet of others to signify his role as servant, just as Jesus did with his disciples. Extra hosts are consecrated at this Mass to be used on Good Friday when no Mass will be celebrated.
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday concludes with a procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the “altar of repose,” a place where the consecrated host is kept other than the main altar where Mass is normally celebrated.
Because of its connection to the Last Supper, where Jesus instituted the Mass and the twelve Apostles first received Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament (“Take, eat, this is my body . . .”), Holy Thursday is a day especially given to adoration of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist; many parishes will have Eucharistic Adoration at this altar of repose late into the night.
Good Friday is a mandatory day of fasting and abstinence. This is the day of the crucifixion, the day Jesus died for the sins of the world. The parish altar looks very different on Good Friday, it is plain and bare. There is no consecrated Host in the Tabernacle at the main altar of the church; it was carried away on Holy Thursday night to the “altar of repose” to signify Jesus’ death. The candle by the Tabernacle is blown out, and the Tabernacle doors are left open to show that it is empty. Jesus is gone. This is quite dramatic, highlighting that Good Friday is a solemn day of prayer and mourning.
The ceremony on Good Friday is not a Mass, but rather a communion service using the consecrated hosts from Holy Thursday. It often takes place at 3pm, the hour that Jesus breathed his last on the cross. Veneration of the Cross also takes place at this service, processing to kneel before a cross and either touching it or kissing it. Often the priest will begin the service prostrate in front of the altar.
On this day Christ is in the tomb. There is no daytime Mass on Holy Saturday. It is still a day of fasting and sorrow, the final one before the Easter Vigil begins that evening. We remember, with Mary and the disciples, that Jesus died and was separated from them for the first time as he lay in the tomb. The faithful often continue their Good Friday fast through Holy Saturday.
In the Apostles Creed we pray “He descended into hell” (translated Hades, that is, the temporary abode of the dead – not the eternal lake of fire) which describes what Jesus did in the time between his burial and Resurrection. Jesus descended to the realm of the dead on Holy Saturday to save the righteous souls, such as the Old Testament patriarchs, who died before his crucifixion.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls Jesus’ descent into the realm of the dead “the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission,” during which he “opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.” Before Holy Saturday, there were no souls enjoying the beatific vision of God in heaven! Christ’s work on Holy Saturday is also known as the “Harrowing of Hell.”
EASTER VIGIL / ESTER SUNDAY
A vigil Mass is held after nightfall on Holy Saturday, or before dawn on Easter Sunday, in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. This is called the Easter Vigil, the most glorious, beautiful, and dramatic liturgy for the Church.
The vigil is divided into four parts and can last up to three hours: 1) the service of light, 2) the liturgy of the Word, 3) the liturgy of Baptism, and 4) the liturgy of the Eucharist. This is also the Mass where many in RCIA are brought into full communion with the Catholic Church.
The Easter Vigil liturgy is the most beautiful liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church. This walks through the Easter Vigil, and includes the words to the Exsultet.
Although celebrated Holy Saturday evening, it is the dramatic Easter vigil liturgy that marks the beginning of Easter. We are awaiting our master's return with our lamps full and burning, so that he will find us awake and seat us at his table (cf. Luke 12:35ff). All Catholics should try to attend this beautiful service. The vigil is divided into four parts:
Service of Light:
Liturgy of the Word
Liturgy of Baptism, and
Liturgy of the Eucharist.
1) Service of Light
The atmosphere in the church is different: the holy water fonts are drained, all the lights are out, the tabernacle is empty. The service begins outside the church. A new fire is lit and blessed.
A Paschal Candle is prepared with these words while the priest marks the candle:
Christ yesterday and today (vertical arm of the cross)
the Beginning and the End (horizontal arm of the cross)
the Alpha (alpha above the cross)
and the Omega (omega below the cross)
All time belongs to him (numeral 2 in upper left corner of cross)
and all the ages (numeral 1 in upper right corner of cross)
To him be glory and power (numeral 4 in lower left corner)
through every age and for ever. Amen (numeral 0 in lower right corner)
Then the priest may insert five grains of incense into the candle in the form of a cross,
1. By his holy
2. and glorious wounds,
3. may Christ the Lord
4. guard us
5. and protect us. Amen.
The priest lights the candle from the new fire, saying: May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.
The candle is then processed through the church, with the deacon lifting the candle at three different times, singing: The Light of Christ. (or Lumen Christi) and the congregation sings in reply: Thanks be to God (or Deo gratias).
Everyone lights their candle from the Easter candle and continue in procession until the whole church is alight. The Paschal candle symbolizes Christ, the Light of the World.
Next follows the glorious Easter song of the Catholic Church: the Exsultet (Easter proclamation). "This magnificent hymn, which is remarkable for its lyric beauty and profound symbolism, announces the dignity and meaning of the mystery of Easter; it tells of man's sin, of God's mercy, and of the great love of the Redeemer for mankind, admonishing us in turn to thank the Trinity for all the graces that have been lavished upon us" This is usually sung by the deacon.
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exults,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King's triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples....
It is truly right and just,
with ardent love of mind and heart
and with devoted service of our voice,
to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father,
and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.
Who for our sake paid Adam's debt to the eternal Father,
and, pouring out his own dear Blood,
wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.
These, then, are the feasts of Passover,
in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb,
whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.
This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel's children,
from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night
that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin.
This is the night
that even now, throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.
This is the night
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.
Our birth would have been no gain,
had we not been redeemed.
O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
O truly blessed night,
worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!
This is the night
of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me,
and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and your servants' hands.
an evening sacrifice of praise,
this gift from your most holy Church.
But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God's honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.
O truly blessed night,
when thing of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.
Therefore, O Lord,
we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honor of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night,
Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.
May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death's domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
2) Liturgy of the Word
During the Easter vigil, nine readings are provided: seven Old Testament and two New Testament. Not all are required to be read due to time constraints, but at least three Old Testament readings must be read, including Exodus 14. These readings help us meditate on the wonderful works of God for his people since the beginning of time. The readings are:
- the story of creation, Gen 1:1-2; 2;
- Abraham and Isaac, Gen 22:1-18;
- Crossing of the Red Sea, Exodus 14:15–15:1;
- Isaiah 54:5-14;
- Isaiah 55:1-11;
- Baruch 3:9-15.32–4:4;
- Ezekiel 36:16-17.18-28;
- Romans 6:3-11; and
- Gospel reading Mark 16:1-7.
The Gloria is sung before the reading of the Epistle of the Romans, and the Alleluia is sung before the Gospel.
3) Liturgy of Baptism
During this time the Easter water is blessed, new members are brought into the Church through baptism, part of the liturgy includes the Litany of the Saints. Afterwards the faithful are blessed with water and all renew their baptismal promises.
4) Liturgy of Eucharist
So resumes the Mass, with the special prayers inserted during the Eucharist Prayer. The whole church is called to join at the sacrificial table that Christ prepared for us through his death and resurrection. The Mass ends with the glorious
V. The Mass is ended, go in peace, alleluia, alleluia. R. Thanks be to God, alleluia, alleluia.
CELEBRATING EASTER FULLY
Easter Sunday is what we’ve all been waiting for! The 40 days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent was in preparation for this day, when our hearts and souls can drink in deeply the culmination of the Pascal mystery: the Resurrection.
“Therefore Easter is not simply one feast among others, but the ‘Feast of feasts’, the ‘Solemnity of solemnities’, just as the Eucharist is the ‘Sacrament of sacraments’. St. Athanasius calls Easter ‘the Great Sunday’ and the Eastern Churches call Holy Week ‘the Great Week’. The mystery of the Resurrection, in which Christ crushed death, permeates with its powerful energy our old time, until all is subjected to him.” (CCC #1168, 1169)
To celebrate the Sacred Triduum fully check your local parish bulletins for event times on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of Holy Week.