Holy Week – Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday – is the most intense period of the Church year. In many churches there will be services every day as the story of Jesus reaches its climax, leading from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday through to Jesus in the Temple, the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday then the horror of state sponsored murder on Good Friday; the empty waiting time of Holy Saturday and the transformation of death that came with Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday.
From the beginnings of the Church this was a very special time. The earliest record of the liturgical events of Holy Week – known as the ‘Great Week’ – was written by Egeria, a Spanish nun who visited Jerusalem sometime between 381 and 384AD. She records the worship as taking place on the site and at the time of day that it was believed the actual events occurred.
This booklet tells a little about that early Christian worship, sometimes using Egeria’s own writing. It also explains what we do today to remember and re-immerse ourselves into those momentous days. Our worship incorporates some of the layers of symbol and meaning that have been added to those early services over the centuries and sometimes we have added fresh expressions that help us to explore the meaning of these events in a world much changed since the days when Jesus carried his Cross to the hill of killing.
Holy Week is the pivot on which the Christian faith turns. Without the Cross and the empty tomb, the nativity, the Sermon on the Mount, the healings and teachings of Jesus would have had no lasting significance. As it is, this Great Week changes the whole relationship between God, the Creator and the entire universe.
Read: Matthew 21:1-11 Psalm 118:19-24
From Egeria’s Travels:
“Sunday is the beginning of the Easter Week, or as they call it here ‘The Great Week’. On this Sunday they do everything as usual. Then at one o’clock all the people go up to the Eleona Church on the Mount of Olives. The bishop takes his seat, and they have hymns and antiphons suitable to the place and day, and readings too. When three o’clock comes, they go up and sit down at the Imbomon (the place from which the Lord ascended into heaven). At five o’clock the passage is read from the Gospel about the children who met the Lord with palm branches saying, ‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.’
At this the bishop and all the people rise from their places, and start off on foot down from the summit of the Mount of Olives. All the people go before him with psalms and antiphons, all the time repeating ‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.’ The babies and the ones too young to walk are carried on their parents’ shoulders. Everyone is carrying branches, either palm or olive and they accompany the bishop in the very way the people did when once they went down the hill with the Lord. They go on foot all the way down the Mount to the city, and all through the city.”
What we do today
We begin our service outside Flax Bourton church at 10.00am and, ocassionally accompanied by a donkey, we carry palm leaves twisted into the shape of a cross as we sing joyful songs and process into the building. During the service we hear one of the Gospel accounts of what is called ‘the Passion narrative’, that is the story of the events of this Great Week until the burial of the broken body of Jesus.
MONDAY OF HOLY WEEK
Read: John 12:1-11 Psalm 36:5-11
The practice of the early Church was to remember the events of the Great Week as they happened, at the sites where they originally took place. In the late fourteenth century the Franciscans were given responsibility for these holy places and erected tableaux to aid devotion. During the Crusades, when the holy sites were not accessible to pilgrims, these tableaux were adopted by churches as an alternative means of walking the Way of the Cross. The number and selection of events and images have varied over the centuries from five to thirty-six but settled into a more regular pattern of fourteen or fifteen.
What we do today
Christians from all over Nailsea, Backwell, Long Ashton, Barrow Gurney and Flax Bourton gather together at 7.00pm in St Francis Roman Catholic Church in Nailsea to walk the Way of the Cross together, united in following Jesus and in praying for the world as we remember all those who suffer as Jesus did.
TUESDAY OF HOLY WEEK
Read: John 12:20-36 Psalm 71:1-8
In Egeria’s time there were services throughout each day of Holy Week. On Tuesday, she explains that late at night everyone travels to the church on Mount Eleona.
“When they are inside the church the bishop enters the cave where the Lord used to teach his disciples, and taking the Gospel book, he stands and reads the passage from the Gospel according to Matthew where the Lord says ‘See that no man leads you astray.’ The bishop reads the whole of that discourse (Matthew 24:1-26:2), and, when he finishes it, there is a prayer. Everyone goes home very late indeed.”
What we do today
There are many pieces of music written as meditations on the events of Holy Week. This year we have an opportunity to hear one of them, the popular late Victorian oratorio, ‘The Crucifixion’, written by John Stainer. There will be a performance at All Saints’ Church, Long Ashton, at 8.00pm.
WEDNESDAY OF HOLY WEEK
Read: John 13:21-32 Psalm 70
According to Egeria, the services continue all day as for Monday and Tuesday, but then at night a presbyter “takes the Gospel book, and reads the passage about Judas Iscariot going to the Jews and fixing that they must pay him to betray the Lord. The people groan and lament at this reading in a way that would make you weep to hear them.”
What we do today
We rest on this evening to prepare ourselves for the next part of the week.
Read: John 13:1-17, 31b-35 Psalm 116:9-19
On Maundy Thursday, Egeria records, that there are again services all day. At about 4.00pm an announcement is made: “‘Let us meet tonight at seven o’clock in the church on the Eleona. There is a great effort ahead of us tonight!’ Then the bishop makes the Offering and everyone receives Communion. Then everyone hurries home to have a meal, so that as soon as they have finished it, they can go to the church on Eleona which contains the cave which on this very day the Lord visited with the apostles. They read the passages from the Gospel about what the Lord said to his disciples when he sat in the very cave which is in the church (John 13:16-18:1).” The people then continue praying all night.
What we do today
This is the start of what is known as the Paschal Triduum, worship which begins this night and doesn’t finish until the blessing at the end of the service on Easter morning. We gather in Flax Bourton church at 8.00pm for a service where we hear the Gospel reading about Jesus at the Last Supper washing his disciples feet and giving them the new commandment to love one another. One of our ministers then washes the feet of members of the congregation (who wish to do this), a sign of our taking on board the humility and servanthood of Christ.
We then celebrate Holy Communion together, remembering that first time, with Jesus in the upper room offering his body and blood to his disciples as a sign that he is about to give up his life out of love for us all.
After we have received the bread and wine together the service does not end. Instead the lights go out, all the communion ware and altar linen is stripped from the building and we hear the Gospel reading about Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane with his worn out disciples. Those who want to leave quietly. The rest remain watching and praying until midnight.
The high altar will have been decorated with spring flowers as a reminder of the garden where Jesus went with his disciples to pray. The traditional name for this is ‘an altar of repose’. As we leave the church any consecrated bread and wine is removed from the building, a symbol of the emptiness of the world on Good Friday when Jesus had died.
Read: John 18:1-19:42 Psalm 22:1-11
Egeria’s report for Good Friday is the longest section of her description of the Great Week in Jerusalem. The people, who have been praying all night, move to each of the places mentioned in the Gospels where Jesus prayed and spoke with his disciples before his arrest. Because they are all very tired from praying and fasting through the night they move around Gethsemane carefully looking after each other. By the time they hear the Gospel reading of the Lord’s arrest everyone is groaning and weeping loudly. Next, they walk to the city, arriving as daylight allows them to recognise each other. On this day no one breaks their vigil, everyone gathering at the place of the Cross, where they hear the Gospel reading about Jesus being led before Pilate. “The bishop’s chair is placed on Golgotha behind the Cross, where he now stands and takes his seat. A table is place before him with a cloth on it, the deacons stand round and there is brought to him a gold and silver box containing the holy Wood of the Cross. It is opened, and the Wood of the Cross and the Title are taken out and placed on the table.”
The Wood of the Cross and the Title are parts of the relics of the Crucifixion found by Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, some fifty years earlier. The faithful are encouraged to come forward and kiss the Wood on the table. From noon until 3.00pm there are readings about all the things that Jesus suffered. “It is impressive to see the way all the people are moved by these readings, and how they mourn.”
The readings finish with the verse from John’s Gospel when Jesus says “‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” The people are dismissed, but many stay right through the night reading the passages about Joseph of Arimathea asking Pilate for Jesus’s body and then laying it in a newly cut tomb.
What we do today
In the morning, at 10.00am, in Flax Bourton church there is an opportunity for young children to explore, as gently as possible, the story of Jesus’ journey to the Cross. This is in direct line with the worship of Egeria’s time where every person, young or old, participated equally in the events of the Great Week.
At 2.00pm we gather in the Court Chapel of Barrow Gurney church for a simple service of readings, prayers and meditations centred around a set of responses traditionally known as ‘The Reproaches’. Our focus is the Cross, an image of which stands before us, on the wall behind the Court Chapel altar. In question and answer form the Reproaches articulate our responses to Christ’s sacrifice while meditations help us to contemplate the seriousness of his action as well as ours.
Read: Matthew 27:57-66 Psalm 31:1-5
Egeria talks a great deal less about worship on Holy Saturday and Easter Day. This is partly because she only describes ritual that is different from that of her home church. It also needs to be remembered that the new day started at sunset. So, when Egeria tells us that in Jerusalem they stop keeping Saturday at three because they are preparing for the Paschal vigil in the Great Church, then the day is only ending a few hours earlier than usual.
Holy Saturday was the one day of the year when the Eucharist was not celebrated. Instead the Paschal, or Easter, vigil began at 4.00pm. The tradition at this time was for all baptisms to occur at Easter. The candidates would finish their schooling, listening along with the rest of the congregation to the vigil readings, drawn from across the Bible, that tell the whole story of God’s continuing engagement with creation. Then they would be baptised by the bishop and receive their first Communion. They would remain watching while the rest of the congregation went home. Everyone would then gather together to celebrate the Eucharist again at dawn.
In essence Holy Saturday is an empty time, a bereavement, when we are processing the events of Good Friday while waiting for what is going to happen next.
What we do today
We gather at Barrow Gurney Church at 8.00pm, as dark is falling, taking us back to the early Church and Jewish pattern of the new day beginning after sunset. There are no lights on in church except those to read by. A selection from the set vigil readings, psalms and prayers is read. The congregation then gathers outside around a bonfire. This is the ‘New Fire’, the introductory rite in a ceremony first documented in the sixteenth century, which brings a new large candle – the Paschal or Easter Candle – into church. As we bring this candle through the church we recognise it as a symbol of Christ, the Light of the world, resurrected and coming back into this world. Light spreads through the church flowing from the one candle, hymns are sung and a great joyous noise is made with bells. In remembrance of the early Church’s practice we then gather round the font and renew the vows we made at our baptisms, after which we are sent out with a reminder that the service is only half over and that we are to gather again for our Easter Holy Communion in the morning.
Read: Matthew 28:1-10 Psalm 118:14-24
For Egeria the vigil on Holy Saturday and the Eucharist on Easter Day were all of one piece, with worship continuing right through the night until that first Eucharist at dawn. Later the newly baptised were taken up the Mount of Olives for special instruction and services. These occurred right through Easter Week and there were special services and celebrations for the whole period of Easter time, the fifty days that run from Easter Day to Pentecost. This was the only season when there was no fasting at all.
What we do today
We gather at Barrow Gurney church for 10.00am to celebrate with joy the resurrection of Jesus. The Paschal Candle is lit, ‘alleluias’ are sung, we hear how the disciples discovered that Jesus is risen, we share Holy Communion together and celebrate both the new life that Jesus brings us and also the fresh hope that comes with the Spring.
That Easter hope is our theme for our worship over the next fifty days: ‘alleluias’ continue to be sung and we step out in the Light of Christ with joy in our hearts.