Holy Week Sunday School
March 28, 2021
Fr. Scott Greene
Introduction- Truly this is the holiest week in the Christian Year, the encapsulation of the core of what we believe. Without this week, nothing we believe would matter. If this week did not happen then everything we stand for as Christians would mean nothing, we would be fools. This is our faith distilled into its most important events. This week culminates in the greatest miracle and triumph of all time, the Resurrection of our Lord. Christians throughout the ages have taken this week very seriously and very early on developed a way of remembering this week. The liturgies for this week all have unique characteristics that defy the normal expectations we have of the other 51 weeks of the Church Year. I want to walk through them with you this morning to better prepare you for the journey we are all about to walk.
The Week as a whole - The traditions we celebrate starting today date as far back as we have records for, to at the latest the 4th century. These extremely ancient liturgies are stark in contrast to our modern liturgies. They have been preserved in their older form so they do not include parts of the liturgy that have evolved overtime. This can really be seen in the Good Friday service that is truly unique. First however is this mornings service, Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday - This service commemorates our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, with the people waving palm branches wanting our Lord to storm the palace and take political control over the nation. This event fulfilled many prophecies and was very symbolic. Political rule was not the intention of our Lord, but this event is what set into motion our Lord’s death sentence. No longer could this Jesus be trusted by the religious authorities. This day is 7 days before the Resurrection.
The actual commemoration of the event takes place during the Liturgy of the Palms that takes place before the start of the service. This is a mini service in and of itself. It starts with the collect and is followed by a reading from Exodus and Matthew. Next is followed actual blessing of these palm branches as sacramentals for our spiritual health. These physical objects point us to a deeper faith in God. We see next something very similar to the prayers we pray every Sunday called the Sursum Corda (lift up your hearts) which is a conversation between the priest and the congregation right before we celebrate the Eucharist. This follows as we would expect with the Sanctus (Holy), which concludes with “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord” quoting our reading. This is very unique and not found in any other liturgy that is not the Eucharist itself. Then the priest says a few blessings over the palms recalling different aspects of what they represent. Then follows the distribution of the newly blessed palms to the people. This is one of a few other times that people receive something during the service and can take it home with them. Remember back to Epiphany and the blessed chalk.
After receiving the Palms, we now enact our faith by going on a procession around the Church waving our branches and singing praises to God joining in with the crowd that also sung His praises. Upon arriving at the Church doors once again the service starts for a second time. This is known as the solemn entrance. This time however, the theme has changed from praise and honor to our rightful King to the Passion narrative. As quick as one trip around the Church people are ready to offer up their king to be murdered. The Passion narrative is quite long and is best read with multiple people as to not fatigue the reader and to differentiate who is speaking. The congregation joins in yelling to crucify our Lord, placing ourselves in the story.
The joyful tone at the beginning joined with the murderous tone later on is a reminder of just how quickly we turn on our Lord in our own lives.
Monday of Holy Week - Normal Mass, Jesus Clears the Temple
Tuesday of Holy Week- Normal Mass, Jesus Goes to the Mount of Olives
Spy Wednesday - Normal Mass, the day that Judas went to arrange a time to give up the location of Jesus to the religious leaders. Also, when the Tenebrae (darkness) service is observed. Tenebrae is a service with candles that are extinguished after each reading and is a very powerful service presenting the Gospel in terms of darkness almost overcoming the light.
Maundy Thursday - A disturbance in the rhythm of the themes of Holy Week. The themes so far are of sadness and sorrow for the coming death of our Lord but today is marked out as a day of celebration in the mist of suffering. The institution of the Eucharist being the main theme today. Maundy (mandate/commandment) Thursday is the actual day our Lord gave the new commandment to “love one another: just as I have loved you, you also love one another” and giving us this sacrament to the Church and with it predicting His upcoming death. The Gloria in Excelsis is brought back and the color is white, symbolizing the joy at this greatest of gifts in the Eucharist.
This day marks the beginning of the Sacred Triduum of the Holiest of Holiest days. The ideal way to celebrate Maundy Thursday would be with the Bishop surrounded by his priests in a service called the Chrism mass wherein the Bishop makes new holy oils for the upcoming year. With everyone spreading out of the city units into much larger dioceses, this does not happen as much anymore.
In line with commemorating the actual events of the night, the ceremony of foot washing is also enjoined to this service right before communion. This is a profound symbol of the servanthood that priests are charged with in serving their congregation. Truly a humbling act for both the priest and congregants. The Canon of the Mass which normally never changes for any reason, gets an addition on this one day alone recalling this day is the actual day that this commandment was given to us. The priest also consecrates twice as many hosts on this night in order to have enough communion for the following day. This extra consecrated sacrament is then reserved on the Altar of Repose, set up as a place to keep the body of our Lord overnight. This symbolizes the night in the garden of Gethsemane when the disciples tried and failed to keep watch and pray with our Lord. Normally people would stay through the night through different watches for an hour at a time to stay through the night with our Lord. Finally, the Altar is stripped completely bare save two unlit candles preparing the way for the remembrance of our Lord absence after His death. During this stripping of the Altar, the sanctuary is cast into darkness remembering the long night our Lord experienced before His passion.
This service does not properly end but transfers to the waiting in the garden at the Altar of Repose so the ministers and people leave in silence and darkness.
Good Friday - Out of all special days during Holy Week, this is the most jarring for people. The radical difference from anything else we do together show just how important of a day this is and how old this liturgy is. This day is also a day of fasting for Anglicans. The service, from the previous night, is in darkness and silence picking up where we left off the night before. The minister in another act of humbling himself and remembering of when he first laid in this position (at his ordination) the priest starts the service prostrate (laying face down on the ground). He lays there saying prayers for an uncomfortably long time with everyone else praying in silence and darkness. A large cross has been placed on the Altar where the Eucharistic elements normally had been, showing the sole focus of today's events. The Cross and the work that our Lord accomplished there. We next go into readings without introduction or responses (showing its primitive nature) from Hosea and Hebrews followed by the Passion narrative according to John. The most graphic of the Passions. The Gospel is not moved from the Epistle side again showing the primitive nature of the service.
The solemn collects come next that are prayers that cover just about everything. These prayers are directed to as to be enjoined to the Cross itself giving all our worries and concerns to our crucified Lord. Notably these prayers include prayers for our Bishop and Primate, the Jews (interestingly), people coming to the faith, president and others.
Next is called the veneration of the cross. Veneration means to give respect, honor, or reverence to something. Think about standing and placing your hand over your heart during the National Anthem, this is showing veneration or honor to the flag that represents something greater. You are saying with your body what you mind is thinking.
We are venerating the device our God chose to bring us salvation. The cross starts off veiled as to show that this method of salvation was hidden to all but Christ until after His resurrection. After unveiling the Cross, people remove their shoes as to mimic Moses at the burning bush when he was standing on holy ground and in a series of three complete kneeling. Ending up at the foot of the Cross. This is an embodied way of worshiping our Lord that joins with our intellectual way. Fear not, any action of reverence can substitute for a complete kneeling. Bowing as best you can, giving to God what you can is completely acceptable.
After this act of veneration, the elements from the Altar of Repose are retrieved and brought to the main altar for communion. This is the same bread the priest consecrates the night before. The bread only is reserved and given symbolizing the broken body of our Lord on the Cross. The Blood of our Lord was spilled out on the ground on the Cross and is not given today.
This shortened Communion service only includes the Lord’s Prayer as preparation for communion showing the under developed nature of the service. At this point after everyone has received communion, there will no longer be any consecrated Body or Blood in any Church in the world. This shows the death of our Lord and His going down unto the realm of the dead. With His physical death, the disciple lost access to Him during this time. So do we loss access to Him for this short time. Without further words, the ministers leave the Church in silence without blessing or any order. The liturgy is still not over, there is more to come.
In some places, a devotion that is proper is called the 3 hour devotion takes place after this, wherein the last 7 sayings of our Lord on the Cross are read and a sermon is preached on each one.
Holy Saturday/Black Saturday- Remember that the Church days go from sundown to sundown. Our Lord is in the tomb starting on Friday, day 1. At sundown we are starting the second day, the only full day our Lord was in the tomb. This day is marked by an absence of Liturgy or prayer itself. Feeling the absence of our Lord because of His death should be felt at this point. God is dead in a way that can not be understood by us. The body of our Lord is in the tomb. This period from Thursday night to Saturday night is the only time of the Church year that the Eucharist cannot be celebrated. At some point in the afternoon, the Altar Guild comes to the Church to get it ready for the Easter Vigil. The most monumental service of the Church year. The Church dressed in its best, gold if available but also white. The best of the best. Flowers are also very appropriate at this point and all the statues are unveiled. No more purple anywhere. Everything that has been taken away during Lent is brought back.
Easter Vigil - This service has to be celebrated after the sun has gone down on Saturday, normally at midnight. The service starts with the priest vested in a purple stole and Alb in a completely dark church. After the collect, Epistle, and Gospel reading at the back of the Church, he then blesses the new fire. This should be a large fire that individual candles are lit from allowing people to each have a candle with light. Next is sung the Exsultet which is normally sung by a deacon which is a recalling of the salvation story. This is a long song. This song “sings” a blessing into the Paschal Candle while the priest marks the candle.
After that, the 12 prophecies are read. This is a large long set of readings retelling the salvation story. After this, the blessing of the font of Baptism takes place using the newly blessed Paschal Candle. Also the blessing of Holy Water for the new year. This water is normally reserved for the holy water fonts at the entrance of the Church. This water is also used to sprinkle the people with the water. Finally the Litany is sung.
This is the beginning of the Mass itself, the Priest now having White or Gold says the Kyrie Elesion (Lord have mercy). After this, the Gloria in Excelsis (Glory to God on High) is sang with the lights of the Altar and lights of the building being turned on and the bells of the Church rung wildly. The service continues as usual with Alleluias being added in for effect. This service can easily take 3 hours, if not longer based on how much singing is done. The earliest Christians would time the service to have the Gloria said right as the Sun was coming up.
Easter Day - This begins at day break and is the first service of the day. Think of a sun rise service. Then follows the proper service of the day called the principal service. This service celebrates the Resurrection of our Lord, the greatest victory of the world. Easter Day and Christmas Day are the only times that 3 Masses can be said by a priest. Normally it is only one, with a few exceptions that allow two.