The Ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter
Since Holy Week falls at the end of this month, we present a brief overview in the hope that many of your will be moved to attend as many of the Masses as possible. This is the most important week of the entire year. Don't miss this opportunity to take part in the deepest mysteries of our Catholic Faith.
The two weeks which include Palm Sunday and the Easter Octave contain some of the most impressive, and certainly the most significant, Masses of the entire year. Through the symbolism of the liturgy, and the reality of the Sacraments, the Church is able to unite us with the redemptive act of our Lord Jesus Christ; even though we may be separated from the locale of the crucifixion by 2,000 years and many thousands of miles. The ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter recall the essential history of our salvation.
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday. The modern Mass still contains a vestige of an earlier day, when the Church offered two different Masses; one for the blessing of the Palms, and another to commemorate the Passion. Red vestments are retained for the blessing, which contains most of the elements of a Mass formulary.
We are impressed by the stark contrast between the attitude of the crowd as they wave branches and attempt to name Him king, and the attitude of the same people a few days later as they demand, "Crucify Him!" Perhaps we should be reminded of our own ambivalence -- our frequent wavering between sin and holiness. Matthew's version of the Passion is read on Sunday, Mark's on Tuesday, Luke's on Wednesday, with John's being reserved for Good Friday. These Gospel readings include the narratives of both the Last Supper and the Crucifixion in order to show the unbreakable connection between Holy Mass and the Sacrifice of the Cross. On Thursday we hear only St. Paul's, and St. John's accounts of the Last Supper, which are complemented and completed by St. John's Passion Gospel in the Presanctified Liturgy of Good Friday.
In days gone by, the Church offered three different Masses on Holy Thursday. The first was a reception of those who had been doing public penance since Ash Wednesday, the second was celebrated by the bishop for the blessing of the Holy Oils, and the third was offered in the evening to commemorate the institution of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament. The Chrism Mass is still offered in cathedrals. In some churches the evening Mass contains a ceremony known as the Mandatum, in which the celebrant washes the feet of a dozen men, as our Lord washed the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper.
Two Hosts are consecrated on Holy Thursday, one to be consumed at Mass, and another to be reserved at the altar of repose for the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified on Good Friday. After Mass the main altar is stripped, and all attention is concentrated on the altar of repose, where the Blessed Sacrament is continuously adored until Friday's Liturgy.
"Liturgy" is the appropriate word, for no Mass is celebrated on Good Friday. The Passion Gospel is read, prayers are offered for the various estates of the Church, the Cross is uncovered and venerated, and then, the priest alone receives the Host consecrated the previous day. This Pre-Sanctified Communion demonstrates the link between the Last Supper when our Lord gave the Apostles His Body and Blood which would be broken and poured out for them, and the Crucifixion at Calvary wherein these things took place.
Holy Saturday is the Vigil of Easter. In some churches it is held in the morning. In others (since Pope Pius XII) it is offered around midnight as the first Mass of Easter Sunday. In either case, the Vigil begins in darkness, all the lights of the church having been extinguished after the Good Friday services. A new fire is blessed, from which the Paschal Candle is lit. Four to twelve Old Testament lessons are read. The Baptismal Font and water are blessed. The people are encouraged to take some of the water (set aside before it is anointed with the Holy Oils) with them as Holy Water. The Litany of the Saints follows, (it is interrupted by a renewal of Baptismal Promises in some places), and finally the Mass of the Resurrection. Mass closes with Vespers or Lauds, depending upon the hour of day.
The expression of our Easter joy is prolonged from Sunday until the following Saturday, as Easter and its octave are observed. Indeed, Easter is observed with an "octave of weeks," being celebrated for the fifty days leading up to Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Ghost.