Holy Week: A biblical chronology and liturgical guide

“St. Athanasius calls Easter ‘the Great Sunday’ and the Eastern Churches call Holy Week ‘the Great Week.’ The mystery of the Resurrection, in which Christ crushed death, permeates with its powerful energy our old time, until all is subjected to him.”

Pope Francis uses incense to venerate an image of the risen Jesus during Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 16, 2017. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The greatest and holiest of weeks is upon us. The principle mysteries of the Catholic Faith are commemorated over the course of these seven days: Jesus Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. As the week unfolds we see in both the gospel accounts and the Church’s sacred liturgy, how the Cross paves the way to Easter victory. “Therefore,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Easter is not simply one feast among others, but the ‘Feast of feasts,’ the ‘Solemnity of solemnities,’ just as the Eucharist is the ‘Sacrament of sacraments’ (the Great Sacrament). St. Athanasius calls Easter ‘the Great Sunday’ and the Eastern Churches call Holy Week ‘the Great Week.’ The mystery of the Resurrection, in which Christ crushed death, permeates with its powerful energy our old time, until all is subjected to him.” (par 1169).

The following is a brief guide to each day of Holy Week, with a description of the biblical events marked by each day, along with some notes on the liturgical celebration(s) of that day, as celebrated in the Roman Rite.

(Note: Only Mark chronicles the Lord’s final week on a day-by-day basis, while the other evangelists kept some, but not all of the indicators of the passage of each individual day, one to the next from Palm to Easter Sunday. On account of this, this chronology follows Mark’s timeline.)

Palm Sunday (see Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-9)

The great memorial to Jesus’ solemn entrance into Jerusalem, where He knew he was going to suffer and die. “He did not fall, a victim to Jewish hatred; He went voluntarily to His death, with royal freedom. His death had been divinely decreed as the purchase price of man’s redemption. This festive entrance was His wedding march as He proceeded to seal with blood His bridegroom’s love for man” (Pius Parsch, The Churchs Year of Grace, vol. II, 291).

Jesus entered Jerusalem upon a donkey, with the crowds waving palms to honor Him proclaiming: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9b). This took place, of course, to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Zechariah: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass” (Matthew 21:5 quoting Zechariah 9:9). When Jesus drew near and saw the city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives He wept over it: “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:42-44).

On this day, we hold palms as a symbol of our loyalty to the Lord Jesus and of our willingness to do Him homage. Throughout the day He is given a welcome fit for a king, in just a few short days this golden crown of earthly acclaim will be exchanged for a crown of thorns.

Monday of Holy Week (see Matthew 21:18-22 and 21:12-7; Mark 11:12-19; Luke 19:45-6; John 12:20-50)

After spending the night in Bethany Jesus sets out for Jerusalem early in the morning. The Gospel tells us He was hungry, and from this we can surmise Jesus was fasting; we all should be fasting during these final days of Lent. On account of His hunger the Lord approaches a fig tree on His way to the city. The tree bears only leaves but no fruit, and Jesus proceeds to curse it. The fig tree represents the spiritual deadness of Israel, who while very religious outwardly with all the sacrifices and ceremonies, was spiritually barren because of sin and the obstinate rejection of the Messiah during the course of His earthly ministry among them. By cursing the fig tree, causing it to whither and die, Jesus was pronouncing His coming judgment. The Old Testament is now passing over to the New Covenant.

Jesus enters the Temple courts and drives out the money changers in righteous anger: “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46).
In these closing days of Lent, we ought to strive to drive out sin from the temple of our souls by fasting and going to confession.

Notes: According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus spends the nights during Holy Week on the Mount of Olives. The episode of the cleansing of the Temple occurs on Palm Sunday in Matthew and Luke’s Gospel. In John’s Gospel, which includes more than one Passover, this episode occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (John 2:13-6). It may be that John places the incident at the start of his Gospel for theological purposes, or that there were two separate incidents—one early in Jesus’ public ministry and another when He came to Jerusalem for the Passover. The passage of time from Monday to Wednesday of Holy Week is not elucidated by John.

Tuesday of Holy Week (see Matthew 21:23-26:5; Mark 11:20-13:37; Luke 19:47-21:38)

After spending the night again in Bethany, Jesus and His disciples return to Jerusalem in the morning. On their way, they saw the same fig tree Jesus cursed the day prior, withered from the roots. Jesus enters the Temple courts and teaches. He is questioned by the priests and scribes and debates them openly; they have already rejected Him in their hearts. “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and love salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Luke 20:46-47).

Jesus leaves the Temple and goes to the Mount of Olives and offers a discourse of teaching to His disciples on the destruction of Jerusalem and His Second Coming.

Spy Wednesday (see Matthew 26:6-16; Mark 14:1-11; Luke 22:1-6; John 12:1-8)

In the morning at Bethany, Jesus is anointed by a woman with pure nard, an expensive perfume. Judas objects to what he deems as wasteful spending of money that would have been better utilized in support of the poor. Judas said this not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief and wanted to keep the money for himself. Jesus rebukes him along with the other disciples who object: “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8).

Spies had already been lurking around the Temple questioning people about Jesus’ whereabouts after He finished his preaching each day earlier in the week. So far, they had gained little information for the priests plotting against the Lord.

The chief priests meet this day in one of the rooms adjoining the Temple, for the purpose of deliberating on the best means of putting Jesus to death. Just at the close of their deliberations, they are told that one of Jesus’ disciples seeks admission. It is Judas, who left the Lord’s company back in Bethany. They admit him, and he says to them: “What will you give me if I deliver Him to you?” (Matthew 26:15). They are delighted at this proposition and offer him thirty pieces of silver; the outrageous deal is made.

To testify to her detestation at this betrayal and to make atonement to the Son of God for the outrage committed against Him, the Church from the earliest ages has consecrated Wednesday to acts of penance. In our own times, the fast of Lent begins on a Wednesday (Prosper Guéranger’s The Liturgical Year, vol. VI, 274-6).

Note: The episode of the anointing at Bethany takes place the day before Palm Sunday in John’s Gospel.

The Easter Triduum

The celebration of the Easter Triduum marks the end of Lent. Although the Easter Triduum is three days chronologically, it is a single liturgical day that unfolds the unity of Christ’s Paschal Mystery. It includes the three most important liturgical celebrations of the year: the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday, the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday at three o’clock in the afternoon, and finally, the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord beginning at the Easter Vigil after sunset on Holy Saturday.

Of note, are the Tenebræ services that often take place these three days. Tenebræ is the name given to the service of Matins and Lauds (Office of Readings and Morning Prayer from the Divine Office) belonging to these last three days of Holy Week. Unique aspects of this liturgy are the chanting of the lamentations of Jeremiah and the use of the fifteen candle hearse. Each of the candles is extinguished during the liturgy except for one which symbolizes Christ.

Holy Thursday (Last Supper: cf. Matthew 26:17-30; Mark: 14:12-25: Luke 22:7-39; John 13-18:1; 1 Corinthians 11:23-9. Agony in the Garden : cf. Matthew 26:30-56; Mark: 14: 26-52; Luke 22:39-54; John 18:1-14.)

On the morning of Holy Thursday (in some dioceses it may be another morning during Holy Week), the bishop and the priests of the diocese gather at the cathedral to celebrate the Chrism Mass. This Mass emphasizes the unity of the priests with their bishop. At this Mass, the bishop consecrates three oils—the oil of catechumens (oleum catechumenorum or oleum sanctum), the oil of the infirm (oleum infirmorum) and sacred chrism (sacrum chrisma)—which will be used in the administration of the sacraments throughout the diocese for the year.

In Cena Domini, “At the Lord’s Supper,” is the name by which this day is known. The title, accordingly, points out the principal event commemorated: the institution of the blessed Eucharist at the Last Supper (Parsch, 318). Immediately after, Jesus consecrates the bread and wine into His body and blood, and He institutes the priesthood by saying: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19b).

On this sacred evening only one Mass may be offered in a given church and the Mass stands as a repetition of the Last Supper. The celebrant imitates Christ’s act of divine humility showing how His commandment of love must be fulfilled by serving others in the washing of the feet. After Mass, the blessed Sacrament is processed to the repository which is symbolic of the Garden of Gethsemane. Just before our Lord’s arrest, can we stay awake and be one hour with Him in prayer unlike His apostles?

Good Friday (see Matthew 26:57-27:66; Mark: 14:53-15:47; Luke: 22:54-23:56; John 18:12-19:42)

Christendom’s great day of mourning. Today, the Church’s liturgy speaks loudly the language of sign and symbol. The altar is stripped bare. Priests lie prostate at the altar steps. The service is not a Mass, but a liturgy commemorating our Lord’s crucifixion and death through readings, solemn prayers for various intentions, the veneration of the Cross, and holy Communion. Today the true paschal Lamb, Jesus the Christ, is slain. It was no accident that Jesus offered Himself in sacrifice at the very time of the Jewish Passover. At twelve noon He is nailed to the Cross and at three o’clock, when paschal lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple, He breathed His last (Parsch, 329-33).

Holy Saturday

A day as sacred as the day of the Lord’s rest; it has been called the “Second Sabbath” after creation. The day is and should be the most calm and quiet day of the entire Church year. Christ rests in the sleep of death within the sealed tomb. His soul descends into “hell” that is, the “limbo of the just,” where the souls of all the holy men who had died before Him had to wait until the Lord’s victory on the Cross reopened heaven to mankind which had been closed by the sin of Adam. Christ liberates the souls of the just and leads them at last, to eternal blessedness.

In the evening, the “mother of all vigils” takes place as St Augustine called it. The Easter Vigil is the greatest and most noble of all masses. On this holy night, the Church keeps watch, celebrating the resurrection of Christ in the sacraments and awaiting His return in glory. It is the turning point of the Triduum, the Passover of the new covenant, which marks Christ’s passage from death to life. Therefore, the Easter Vigil does not correspond to the usual Saturday evening Mass and its character is unique in the cycle of the liturgical year. Especially unique to this Mass is the service of light and the baptism of the catechumens.

Easter Sunday (see Matthew 28:1-15; Mark 16:1-14; Luke 24:1-48; John 20:1-23)

The Christian heart rejoices in Christ’s resurrection at Sunday Mass. “…he has risen, as he said…” (Matthew 28:6b), alleluia! Today, Easter, the incarnate Son of God has finished His redemptive work. He has conquered sin and its ultimate consequence of death. The sins of the world which put Him on the Cross could not bind Him. He is victorious and the merits of His victory are applied to all His followers which He can now claim as His own. Mankind has been redeemed. The Catechism states:

Christ’s Resurrection is the fulfillment of the promises both of the Old Testament and of Jesus himself during his earthly life. The phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures” indicates that Christ’s Resurrection fulfilled these predictions.

Finally, Christ’s Resurrection – and the risen Christ himself is the principle and source of our future resurrection: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. . . For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” The risen Christ lives in the hearts of his faithful while they await that fulfillment . In Christ, Christians “have tasted. . . the powers of the age to come” and their lives are swept up by Christ into the heart of divine life, so that they may “live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (pars 652, 655)

Sources: 

• Parsch, Pius. The Churchs Year of Grace, vol. 2, Septuagesima to Holy Saturday. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1953.
• Guéranger, Prosper. The Liturgical Year. vol. 6, Passiontide and Holy Week. Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publications, 2000.
Catechism of the Catholic Church

Related at CWR: “The Easter Triduum: Entering into the Paschal Mystery” (April 14, 2017) by Carl E. Olson


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About Father Seán Connolly 19 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He attended Saint Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, where he received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology as well as a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts. He currently serves as parochial vicar at the Parish of St. Joseph in Middletown, New York.

2 Comments

  1. There is only one way to salvation. Though Our Lord Jesus’s death and resurrection. Thank you for this day by day guide of this most Holy Week. I will use it daily to reflect of our dear Lord’s great sacrifice for us poor sinners. Leading us to The last supper, crucifixion and to His Glorious resurrection. Death caused by sin, is defeated. He has vanished the darkness. Praise Our Lord for He has saved His people. Thank you and God Bless you Father for all you do.

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