Holy Week and Easter

This year March comes to a great climax with Holy Week and Easter. Only one major saint is commemorated during Lent - "St Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary". His day is 19th March (see p760 ASB). The Annunciation on March 25th is transferred to April 7th so that the day is commemorated without intrusion into Holy Week and Easter.

Palm Sunday

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday. The liturgy of this day is full of drama and in order to enter into it fully we have two gospel readings. Christ's journey to the Cross begins with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem so we hear first the story of Christ riding the donkey through the cheering crowds. But this journey is also the beginning of his journey to the impending cross. The second reading is the Passion, the part of the gospel that tells the story of the betrayal of Christ until his crucifixion. The mood of the service changes dramatically to try and capture the paradox of the day.

The giving of Palm crosses is a valued devotional practice. They remind us of the procession accompanying Christ into Jerusalem and also of the culmination of that journey. Unfortunately the architecture of St Peter's makes congregational processions impossible, but this is the idea that we must hold, that we in our private and corporate worship are accompanying Christ throughout the week.

Our commitment to solidarity with Christ is expressed as we partake of as much of the worship of Holy Week (which has an ancient name of Still Week) as possible. To move straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday would be to miss the point - God's resurrection of his Son is the breaking through of love into the depravity of humanity. Christ, crucified by the people, rises to forgive them (us) and to draw them (us) to himself and declare the victory, the glory and the gift of love.

The liturgical colour changes to red because Palm Sunday points us to the Cross - that cross which was anointed with the Blood of the Lamb. This would therefore also be the colour of Good Friday in churches where the Good Friday liturgy is used, and could be the colour preferred to violet for Monday to Wednesday of Holy Week too.

Maundy Thursday

This day is again a paradox, it marks the beginning of the end. The church's worship from this evening until Easter Morning is an unbroken continuum. An evening Eucharist with special commemoration of the Last Supper is the almost universal custom of churches today. The evening is the Jewish beginning of a new day, and so the evening Maundy Thursday Eucharist begins the day that ends with the laying of Christ in the tomb.

A Byzantine hymn, still sung today, encapsulates the rich two-sidedness of the twenty-four hours.

Receive me today, O Son of God, as a partaker of thy Mystic Feast;
for I will not speak of the Mystery to thine enemies;
I will not kiss thee as did Judas;
but as the thief I will confess thee;
Lord, remember me when thou comest in thy Kingdom.

"Maundy" comes from the Latin Mandatum novum do vobis (a new commandment I give you). That commandment is "that you love one another as I have loved you". This commandment is symbolised in the service by the washing of feet. The foot washing is not trying to recreate the action of Jesus, but helps us to witness the humility of the love Christ has for us all - Judas' feet were washed too.

The service is of course a Eucharist, instituted in the Upper Room, and there is a sudden return to white vestments and the singing of the Gloria. The Eucharist is a prefiguring of the Eucharist of Easter Day as suggested by the Collect and reading from Exodus 12. At the conclusion of the Eucharist the mood changes, just as the mood changes when Christ went from the Passover celebration to the agony of the garden. The altars are stripped as the earthly life of Jesus begins to be stripped away from him. A watch begins as we try to keep a vigil of prayer. A vigil is lonely, but we try to keep watch with all who struggle and not be like the disciples, who slept through Christ's dark hours.

Good Friday

The church does provide liturgy for this day but it has been the practice of some Anglican churches to hold a three-hour devotional service. St Peter's is in a unique position to offer this to the city on this day. We have a rare opportunity to view the events of Good Friday through different eyes and in different ways. This enables us to avoid feeling that we have heard it all before, and struggle to know what we should be doing or feeling on this day. We should all try to come to this service, even if we can only manage the last hour. Although we are Christians living after the resurrection we all have experiences of crucifixion in our lives, and making the journey with Christ encourages us to see that Christ makes that journey again and again with us.

Holy Saturday

This is a day of silence. In those churches where a daily Eucharist is the practice this is the one day of the year when there is usually no celebration. It is an empty day, a tomb day.

Easter Day

The Easter Liturgy consists of four main parts which form a single whole.

  1. The Vigil. In the early church this was kept throughout the night, a time of watching and waiting for the resurrection. It provides an opportunity to hear and meditate on the saving acts of God since creation.
  2. The Service of Light. Sometimes this comes before the Vigil. A fire may be lit - the new fire from which the Paschal Candle is lit, the new light proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, light of the world. The Paschal Candle carries certain markings - the cross (the symbol of life and death), the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet (Alpha and Omega, reminding us that Christ is the beginning and end of all things), the numerals of the current year (a reminder that the Lord of all ages is present here and now), and five "nails" inserted in the shape of the cross (symbolising the wounds of Christ).
  3. Baptism. Easter and baptism have been intimately linked since earliest times in the church. It was at one time the only time that baptisms took place. The new converts could thus make their first communion on Easter Day. We therefore choose Easter Day to renew our baptismal vows. They stand as the completion of our Lenten preparations and as an affirmation of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection.
  4. Holy Communion. This is the climax of the service in which we are sacramentally reunited with the risen Christ in bread and wine. This is not a day any of us should miss sharing in the Eucharist, it is the day which gives us our Saviour and so our faith, life, hope and promise.

The church is again richly decorated, the vestments are white or gold, and the liturgy changes dramatically in mood from the solemnity and penitence of Lent to the joy of resurrection. Alleluias punctuate the service from beginning to end as we sing the praise of him who died and has risen.

Easter Day begins a season. It is not an end but a beginning of our celebrations of the resurrection that go on through the liturgy until Ascension Day in May. In some senses of course, every Sunday is an Easter Day, as in the Eucharist we celebrate again the joy and gift of Christ's resurrection and love for us.

Helen Walker, February 1997

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997