The most holy week of the year for Christians is that week in which we commemorate the events of our Lord’s earthly life from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his glorious Resurrection on the morning of Pascha. The services for this week include unique ceremonies which help call to mind these events. But we are not merely experiencing a re-enactment of historical occurrences. We are experiencing “anamnesis” – a remembrance that makes these events real and present now in our hearts and minds. When we hear the story of Christ’s Passion in the words of the evangelists Matthew and John sung on Palm Sunday and good Friday, we are the crowd of people who cried out for his crucifixion. Christ offers us his Body and Blood at the Last Supper, and we rejoice with the women at the empty tomb when we exclaim “Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!”
There are fleeting references in the writings of St. Justin Martyr (100-165), Tertullian (160-225) and others that give us a glimpse of how the earliest Christians observed these days. But when Christianity became free under the Emperor (St.) Constantine, and after his mother, St. Helena, discovered the Cross of our Lord, a program of building churches and shrines to mark the holy places began. Then, pilgrims from many parts of the Empire came to the Holy Land to worship at these shrines, and some wrote journals describing their experiences. The most famous of these was written by a Spanish nun, Egeria, who spent the years 381-384 in Palestine. Her diary is an invaluable source of information about Holy Week practices in Jerusalem, practices which undoubtedly influenced those in other places.
A new commandment I give unto you: that ye love one another, as I have loved you, saith the Lord. (Antiphon for the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday)
On Maundy Thursday, the foot washing ceremony reflects the action of Christ as he humbled himself to wash the feet of the Apostles on the night of the Last Supper. Although originally an expected act of hospitality in the Middle East, this action took on mystical meaning when our Lord used it to demonstrate the humility and service expected of the Apostles. Soon, the ceremony found its way into the services of the Church. References are made to the practice in 4th century Milan and St. Augustine (400) mentions the practice. St. Benedict’s Rule prescribes foot-washing as an exercise in humility for monks. The ceremony is mentioned in one of the manuscripts of the Georgian Lectionary, a liturgical document for the Church in Jerusalem dating from the 5th-8th centuries and one of the Councils of Toledo (694) issued a condemnation of those clerics who were omitting the rite on Maundy Thursday, implying that it had been in general use in Spain for some time prior to that date. By the Middle Ages, the ceremony was being observed by most Christian churches, in some places by the clergy and monastics only and sometimes by the lay people as well. Sometimes the ceremony occurred in the context of the Divine Liturgy for Maundy Thursday and sometimes as a separate ceremony.
Of the several antiphons which are provided for singing during the foot-washing ceremony, the beautiful hymn, Ubi caritas (“Where charity and love are, there is God”) dates from the 9th century. The sign of humility which the foot-washing ceremony evokes prompted many European monarchs during the Middle Ages to imitate our Lord’s actions. This usually took the form of the king washing the feet of 12 poor men (representing the Apostles) and then giving them a purse of coins and treating them to a banquet. (A form of the “Royal Maundy” is still practiced by the Queen of England each Maundy Thursday, but she only presents the monetary gift and no longer washes feet.)
Behold the wood of the Cross, whereon was hung the world’s salvation. O come, let us worship. (Antiphon for the unveiling of the Cross on Good Friday)
The Good Friday Veneration of the Cross is probably the oldest of the Holy Week ceremonies which were derived directly from the practice in Jerusalem. The pilgrim Egeria tells us of the wood of the True Cross being displayed from 8:00 am until noon on Good Friday so that people could pass by it and venerate the precious instrument of our redemption.
There is evidence of the same kind of veneration of the relic of the True Cross in Rome at the church of Sancte Croce by the year 700. Very soon, most churches in the West were observing a similar ceremony, using a simple wooden cross, with the veneration occurring in the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy before the distribution of Communion.
In the 8th century Ordo Romanus I, the antiphon Ecce lignum crucis (“Behold, the wood of the Cross”) is given to be sung with Psalm 119 during the Veneration. Today, this antiphon is still sung as the cross is being unveiled and brought in procession through the church to the front for veneration.
Liturgical books from Medieval Spain (Liber Ordinum, 5th-7th centuries) and France (Antiphonary of Senlis, c. 880) prescribe the singing of the Improperia with the Trisagion as a refrain during the Veneration of the Cross. The Reproaches are based on Biblical passages from the prophets Micah, Jeremiah and Isaiah, from the book of Esdras, and also reflect a narrative called the Haggadah from Jewish Passover observances, according to James Monti, in his The Week of Salvation (pg. 272). The Trisagion (“Holy God, holy mighty, holy Immortal, have mercy on us.”) is of Greek origin, but entered Western services by the 7th century via the Gallican Liturgy. The Reproaches and the Trisagion are still sung in our Good Friday Liturgy as we remember our Lord’s crucifixion.
The light of Christ! Thanks be to God! (Versicle and response sung as the Paschal candle is carried in procession into the church at the Paschal Vigil)
Holy Week is concluded with the most important service of the liturgical year, the Paschal Vigil. The ceremony which begins this service is also of ancient origin. The historian Eusebius (260-340) tells of the lighting of numerous candles, symbolizing the risen Christ as the light of the world, for the beginning of the Vigil service and of how St. Constantine carried this further by spectacularly lighting up the whole city of Constantinople with candles as the Vigil began. A letter of St. Jerome around the year 378 refers to a special candle being blessed as a “Paschal candle” for use at the Vigil in lighting all the other candles. The “new fire” for the Paschal candle has most often been lit with the use of flint. Common in many countries has been the making of a bonfire for this service, and we continue that custom.
Among the numerous legends about St. Patrick is the delightful story of his defiance of the Irish High King, who had forbidden any but the druids to build a bonfire on a certain night. The king’s advisors had prophetically told him that if he allowed fire to be lit that night, its light would never be extinguished in Ireland. That night was the night of the Paschal Vigil, and St. Patrick built the bonfire to light the candles for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
The most dramatic of all experiences of the lighting of the “new fire” occurs each year at the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, a miracle which has occurred there for many centuries. On the afternoon of Holy Saturday, the Orthodox Patriarch goes into the Sepulchre alone and prays before the stone slab where our Lord’s body lay in death. In the words of former Patriarch Diodorus I: “From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but the color may change and take many different hues…The light does not burn – I have never had my beard burnt in all the sixteen years I have been Patriarch in Jerusalem and have received the Holy Fire…At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature, so that I am able to light my candles from it. When I thus have received the flame on my candles, I go out and give the fire first to the Armenian Patriarch and then to the Coptic. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church.” As this is happening, there are flashes of blue light outside the Sepulchre in the church and the candles of individual people light spontaneously. This miraculous lighting of the new fire happens only at the Orthodox Paschal celebration and there are many reports of its extraordinary effect on Christians and non-Christians through the centuries.
As we again this year repeat these and all the other unique ceremonies of Holy Week, let us remember in our hearts the events which they represent and rejoice in the passion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Christians to the Paschal Victim offer your thankful praises. A Lamb the sheep redeemeth: Christ who only is sinless, reconcileth sinners to the Father. Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous: the Prince of Life, who died, reigns immortal. (Victimae paschali laudes, Paschal sequence, Wipo, d. 1030)
[Sources: The Liturgical Year: Passiontide and Holy Week by Abbot Guéranger; The Week of Salvation by James Monti; and The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas J. Talley.]