Holy Week's Liturgical Evolution Tracing Holy Week's Liturgical Evolution

By McBrien, Fr. Richard | National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 2010 | Go to article overview

Holy Week's Liturgical Evolution Tracing Holy Week's Liturgical Evolution


McBrien, Fr. Richard, National Catholic Reporter


I am indebted to Nathan Mitchell, a colleague at the University of Notre Dame and a liturgical scholar of the first rank, for most of the historical details in this column.

Holy Week, as everyone knows, is observed during the final week of Lent, with its liturgical climax at the Easter Vigil and then on Easter morning itself.

It reenacts the main events of Jesus's last days: his entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Last Supper (Holy Thursday), his arrest and trial, the carrying of the cross, and the Crucifixion itself (Good Friday).

The early Christians, however, were content each year to recall Christ's suffering, death and resurrection in a single, unified liturgical celebration known as Pascha (Greek for the Christian "Passover," or Easter). This yearly paschal observance occurred either on a fixed day of the lunar month, which would have been according to the Jewish tradition, or on the Sunday that followed it.

After much internal struggle over the issue, the ancient Jewish date was eventually set aside, and it was determined that the Christian "Passover" (Easter) would always fall on Sunday, which the Christians traditionally regarded as the Lord's Day and as the church's weekly opportunity to celebrate the triumph of Christ over death in his resurrection.

A key liturgical development had occurred in the fourth century, however. The earlier, unified celebration of the Christian Passover was now split into a series of liturgies that reenacted in greater detail the events of Jesus' final week of earthly life.

The original venue for this development was in the city of Jerusalem, where numerous shrines had already grown up on the very sites where the holy events were believed to have happened.

Detailed descriptions of the Holy Week liturgies conducted in Jerusalem at the time were provided in a travel diary kept by a European woman whose name, Egeria, is known to all liturgical scholars and their graduate students. She had been part of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the year 383.

According to Egeria, the ceremonies for Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday were especially noteworthy.

On Palm Sunday afternoon an elaborate procession began outside Jerusalem at the Mount of Olives, where Jesus was traditionally thought to have ascended into heaven. The bishop reenacted the role of Christ, while children waved palm branches as the procession wound its way through the entire city. …

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