from the March 21, 2016 eNews issue
Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a tender plant and like a root out of a dry ground; he had no form and he had no majesty that we should look at him and there is no attractiveness that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others and a man of sorrows, intimately familiar with suffering; and like one from whom people hide their faces; and we despised him and did not value him.
Surely he has borne our sufferings and carried our sorrows; yet we considered him stricken and struck down by God and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions and he was crushed for our iniquities and the punishment that made us whole was upon him and by his bruises we are healed.
— Isaiah 53:1–5, (ISV)
Sunday, March 20, was the start of Holy Week for this year. We observe Holy Week to commemorate the culmination of Christ’s physical ministry here on earth to fulfill the promise of a Redeemer that was promised in the Garden of Eden:
I’ll place hostility between you and the woman, between your offspring and her offspring. He’ll strike you on the head and you’ll strike him on the heel.
— Genesis 3:15, (ISV)
Let’s take a look at the history of Holy Week in the early Church.
The Origins of Holy Week
Holy Week used to be call “the great week.” The oldest known use of the term comes from Egeria in her account of her trip to the Holy Land, known as Peregrinatio Silviœ. In the account of travels of Egeria from the time about 385 A.D. there is a detailed description of liturgical celebrations by which the “great week,” beginning with Palm Sunday, was observed in Jerusalem.
This account brings two things into sharp focus:
- The liturgical usages, especially the custom to celebrate the week before Easter, have their origin in Jerusalem;
- At the time Egeria wrote, similar celebrations must have been unknown in the West and the customs in Jerusalem were new concepts.
The great week in the East was distinguished at the time by strict fasting; but the custom was not uniform; some fasted the whole week, others fasted fewer days; some only fasted Friday and Saturday of the week. As early as the time of John Chrysostom all public amusements were forbidden, all public offices closed, prisoners dismissed, slaves were released and the poor were provided with extra alms.
The Western Church adopted the same name for this week; its official designation in the Roman Church was hebdomada magna sabbati [Great Week]. It was called also sancta sabbati [Holy Week]. It is mentioned in liturgical writings as early as the twelfth century. The German expression Karwoche (Karfreitag) is derived from karen, “to wail, to mourn,” denoting a week of mourning. With the Greeks the “great week” began only with the Monday after Palm Sunday, while in the West it commenced with Palm Sunday itself. Originally it was the same way in the East.
Palm Sunday in the East
The oldest description of the liturgical celebration of this day in Jerusalem in the fourth century is given in the Peregrinatio Silviœ. The festival began at one o’clock in the afternoon in the church on the Mount of Olives, with singing of hymns and Scripture readings. The characteristic feature of the celebration were the processions from one church to another which took place accompanied by the repeated chant of the people, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” Children held branches of palms or olives in their hands and accompanied the bishop who represented Christ, rode on a donkey. Ephraem the Syrian testifies that the same procession of palms took place as early as the fourth century inEdessa. In the fifth century the festival of palms had spread over the whole of Palestine. It should be noted that the oldest testimonies for the procession of palms on Palm Sunday are entirely silent about a consecration of the palms and these testimonies present Palm Sunday as a day of joy, not as a day of mourning; and the epistle read on this day was Phil. 4:4–9.
Palm Sunday in the West
In the West there was originally no such celebration with branches of palms or other branches on this day. The oldest Western commentaries for Palm Sunday agree that the day was one of mourning. It was still the same way at the time of Leo the Great (400–461), who called this Sunday Dominica passionis [passion of Our Lord] because the history of the Passion was read. Also, up until that time, Spanish pilgrims had not known of a procession of palms as Egeria experienced it in Jerusalem. The oldest Western testimony for the procession of palms and their consecration is found in the Liber ordinum [Order of Books] of the Spanish Visigothic Church. It was in fifth century that the Eastern custom came to Spain. The consecration of palms is probably of Western origin and was at first entirely independent of Palm Sunday procession. The consecrated branches were believed to possess the power of exorcism, to expel diseases and to guard against demons, lightning, fire and storms. It is not known at what time and place consecration of palms and Palm Sunday procession were combined. One of the oldest testimonies of a special celebration of Palm Sunday in the West is a passage in the work of the Anglo-Saxon bishop, Aldhelm of Sherborne, De laudibus virginitatis. He speaks of a “very holy solemnity of the palms.” Amalarius of Metz wrote on Palm Sunday branches were carried through the churches while Hosanna was sung; he says nothing of the consecration of palms. In the later Middle Ages the procession developed to imitate as faithfully as possible the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. As in the East, the bishop, as Christ, rode upon an ass or a horse. There also developed the ceremony of consecration. Not only were branches consecrated, but also flowers, which were then carried in the procession. Therefore the Sunday was also called flower day. (The symbol was taken up by other countries under the authority of the Church, i.e., Gaul and Spain.)
In some Roman Catholic Churches, especially in Europe and South America, the following observances take place on Palm Sunday:
- The consecration of palms;
- The procession;
- The mass which bears the character of mourning.
(The Greek Orthodox Church does not count Palm Sunday as belonging to the “great week,” and has given this day an aura of joy.)
Monday to Thursday
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the “great week,” according to the Peregrinatio Silviœ were distinguished by special services. On Tuesday of the week the bishop would personally read theGospel of the day. On Wednesday the vigil took place in the Church of the Resurrection; the presbyterwould then read the Gospel of the day, the history of the betrayal, at which time the congregation would shout loud cries of resentment. The same lessons are to a certain extent still used in the Greek Orthodox Church. In the Roman Catholic Church those days took on the character of passion.
Peregrinatio Silviœ gave a detailed account of the celebration of Holy [Maundy] Thursday in Jerusalem, though in the book, there is no mention of the name Maundy Thursday or the preceding days. Mention was made, however, of a celebration of the Last Supper. This evidently makes up the proper celebration of the day while the services in the evening are to be regarded as preparations for the following Friday. The custom of celebrating the Last Supper on this day extended throughout the West.Augustine testifies to the same custom in Africa in the fifth century.
An important ceremony on Maundy Thursday was the washing of feet. On the same day there also took place the solemn readmission or reconciliation of the penitents to the congregation, but this custom was not universal in the West. Ambrose testifies to its existence in Milan and Innocent I in Rome. In the Middle Ages this custom was deemphasized.
Another custom of the ancient church on this day was the consecration of the Chrism [Holy Oil] by the bishop. Originally this consecration took place during the act of baptism; but when the bishops had to leave baptism to the presbyters they still claimed for themselves the consecration of the oil as early as the fourth century in Rome. It is very probable that these blessings were then performed on Maundy Thursday; for baptism took place shortly before Easter.
According to the oldest testimonies, this day bears throughout the character of mourning. This appears in the interesting description of the celebration of this day in Peregrinatio Silviœ. The writing shows that on this day it was customary in the early Church to observe strict fasting and vigilance. A crucifix was exhibited and adored and the divine services consisted of reading of the Scripture, hymns and prayers, but not in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. About the middle of the third century it was customary also in Alexandria to abstain entirely from food on both days although not unconditionally. John of Naples, a contemporary of Paulinus of Nola (d. 431), wrote he administered the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, but on the next day devoted himself entirely to prayer, which shows that on this day no mass was celebrated.
In some parts of Spain in the seventh century the churches were closed on Good Friday. Even in the ninth century in Rome no communion was celebrated. Nevertheless, Good Friday was always distinguished by a peculiar celebration. In the Middle Ages it was customary to also have a solemn ceremonial burial, which used to follow immediately the adoration of the cross—the cross was laid down in a “holy” grave in the tomb chapel and covered with a piece of cloth (sudarium) and in connection with it there were sung corresponding prayers. This custom is said to have arisen in the 10th century. The adoration of the cross was followed by the “shortened” mass, which is explained as follows: On Holy Thursday there are consecrated two wafers; one is eaten by the priest, the other he places back in the chalice which he puts on a side altar. This “presanctified” wafer was carried on Good Friday by the priest and the entire clergy in procession from the side altar to the main altar.
In the Greek Orthodox Church the “great Sabbath” was held higher than Good Friday. Until the time of evening prayers it still bears the character of mourning and earnestness; therefore it is a day of the strictest fasting. The liturgical service of this day has an especially dramatic character.
Changes with the Protestant Reformation
The Reformation brought about the general abolishment of the Roman Catholic ceremonies of the week. Luther had so great an aversion against them that in his writing, the Formula missœ of 1523, he made no mention of any celebration. In Wittenberg, therefore, these customs seem to have disappeared at a very early time. But from sermons of Luther dating from the years 1521 and 1522 it is evident that at that time Holy Thursday and Good Friday were distinguished by special services with sermons in Wittenberg. All Roman Catholic abuses in connection with the celebration of Holy Week were removed, but the traditional Scripture readings of Holy Week were adhered to. The Wittenberg church order of 1533 prescribed even double preaching for Holy Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It is a characteristic trait of the 16th and 17th centuries that Holy Thursday and Good Friday were treated as being of an entirely equal value.
The custom of celebrating Holy Week was in no way uniform in the first decades of the Reformation. There were territories in which it was celebrated as closely as possible in connection with the old Catholic customs.
The Reason for This Season
No matter the history of the Holy Week, there is one thing we need to keep in mind. During that week, Christ knew what fate awaited him. Even when He was in the midst of the deepest possible agony and pain, He offered up His suffering to the Father as a sacrifice for our sins, His suffering had meaning.
- Holy Week Timeline
— About Christianity
- FAQ: Christian Holidays during Holy Week
- Christians Celebrate Palm Sunday, Starting Holy Week
— NBC News
– FROM: KHouse.Org