Herald JournalHerald Journal, March 21, 2005

The history of Holy Week

By Heidi Stutelberg

For most Christians, Lent is a time of penance, prayer, and preparation for or recollection of baptism, in preparation for the celebration of Easter.

The 40 days of Lent contain a number of special days which date back to the fourth century in their origins.

For example, Passion Sunday is the fifth Sunday of Lent, and Palm Sunday is the last or sixth Sunday of Lent.

The week preceding Easter is Holy Week. From the fifth to ninth century, strict fasting was required; only one meal was allowed per day, and meat and fish (and sometimes eggs and dairy) were forbidden.

During and since the ninth century, fasting restrictions were gradually loosened.

By the 20th century, meat was allowed, except on Fridays. Pope Paul VI began a trend in 1966 to perform acts of charity in conjunction with Lent.

The Christian observance of Lent may have a parallel in the fasting practiced in Greco-Roman mystery religions, in which was considered an aid to enlightenment and often preceded prophecy.

Ash Wednesday

The first day of Lent, being the seventh Wednesday before Easter and the 40th weekday before Easter.

On this day ashes are placed on the foreheads of the faithful to remind them of death, of the sorrow they should feel for their sins, and of the necessity of changing their lives.

The practice, which dates from the early Middle Ages, is common among Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Episcopalians, and many Lutherans. It was also adopted by some Methodists and Presbyterians in the 1990s.

Holy Week

Its chief days are Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It is a week of devout observance, commemorating the passion and Jesus’ death on the cross.

Palm Sunday

The Sunday before Easter, sixth and last Sunday in Lent.

It recalls the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem riding upon a donkey, when his followers shouted “Hosanna” and scattered palms in his path.

In the Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches, ceremonies of the day are the blessing and distribution of crosses made from palm leaves and the recitation of one of the three synoptic accounts of the passion. Many wear crosses made of the palm.

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday is the traditional English name for Thursday of Holy Week. In Latin it means mandatum, or “word in the ceremony.”

It is so named because it is considered the anniversary of the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper (that is, the mandatum novum or “new commandment”).

In some churches, Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet is symbolically reenacted.

In Great Britain there is a survival in the distribution by the sovereign of special “Maundy money” to certain of the poor at Westminster Abbey.

In the Roman Catholic Church, Maundy Thursday is a general communion day; a single Mass is sung, in the evening, and a host, consecrated for the morrow, is placed in a specially adorned chapel of repose.

The altars are stripped bare until the Easter vigil mass.

Good Friday

Good Friday is the anniversary of Jesus’ death on the cross.

According to the Gospels, Jesus was put to death on the Friday before Easter Day.

Since the early church Good Friday has been observed by fasting and penance.

In the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican traditions, the celebration of the Eucharist is suspended; liturgical service involves veneration of the cross, the passion narrative from the Gospel of St. John, and communion using bread and wine consecrated the previous day, Maundy Thursday.

Other forms of observance include prayer and meditation at the Stations of the Cross, a succession of 14 images, usually on wooden crosses, depicting Christ’s crucifixion and the events leading up to it.

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