“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem!” With these Gospel words on Quinquagesima Sunday, the Church declares the Season of Lent to be a journey toward Jerusalem, toward the passion of Christ. Holy Week is certainly the climax of that journey, beginning on Palm Sunday when we arrive at Jerusalem with Christ. Together with Resurrection Day, these eight days of Holy Week and Easter take us through the entire scope and sequence of the Gospel of God. “Death does its worst but Christ is victorious.”
In order that we might understand the intent of this holiest of weeks, the Book of Common Prayer offers an extraordinary series of feast days and propers. These propers call us to remember and to celebrate Christ’s suffering on every day of the week. The sequence of Gospel readings found in these propers provides the most complete and perfect representation of the Gospel found anywhere in the Prayer Book.
Beginning Palm Sunday and continuing through Maundy Thursday, the whole church reads together the account of Christ’s Passion from each Gospel in order, beginning with St. Matthew and ending with St. John. But the Collect appointed to be read every day of Holy Week keeps our minds focused on that which lies through and beyond the Passion: “Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection.” This play of Collects and Gospel readings calls us to be patient as Christ suffers, that we may be joyful partakers of Resurrection.
It should come as no surprise that this week of feasts—so full of joy, sorrow, glory, pain, faith, denial, triumph and crucifixion—should build up great and rich traditions that go beyond the pages of the Prayer Book. Many of those traditions are worthy companions of Anglican Prayer Book Catholicism.
Palm Sunday, as the name implies, rightly begins with the Blessing of Palms, complete with a reading of the Triumphal Entry, followed by a procession into the Church with shouts of Hosanna. This glorious procession emphasizes the true character of this Feast Day by its shocking contrast with the Palm Sunday Eucharistic Gospel. Traditionally, after that glorious entry, when the Crucifixion account is read, the deacon and all the people fall to their knees in stunned silence at the announcement of the death of Jesus. Only after a lengthy period of silence and with great effort does the deacon arise and resume the Gospel. As St. Bernard says, “Who ought now to put his hope in the inconstancy of temporal glory, when even in the Author of time and the Creator of the universe he beholds so great a humiliation after so great an exaltation? For in the same city, in the same week, Christ was one day received with a glorious procession and divine honours, and on another subject to insult and torture….”
Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are rightly celebrated as solemn Eucharists, the emphasis being upon the remembrance of the Passion of each Gospel narrative. St. Mark’s Gospel is read over two days, emphasizing Christ’s physical sufferings more than his actual death. We will dwell on his death later, but now we remember that his suffering is propitious. “By thine agony and bloody sweat,…” as the Prayer Book says. And there is no substitute for patience on these days. We are called to be like St. John who, in great love and faith, followed Jesus every step of the way toward the cross.
Maundy Thursday is simply stunning. The Feast is a celebration of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. It begins with a simple ceremony of Foot Washing, following the mandate of Jesus. The celebration ends with the betrayal of Christ into the hands of the enemies, marked by the Stripping of the Altar. In this powerful ceremony everything of beauty and value—including linens, banners, crucifixes, artwork, and candles—is removed from the sanctuary. What cannot be removed is covered over with black material. The altar is washed in preparation for Good Friday. Finally, a large, rough hewn wooden cross is placed at the entrance to the Sanctuary. It is time to offer the sacrifice. The priest and the entire congregation leaves in silence and unease, many stopping to kiss the foot of the cross as they exit.
Good Friday is the most sober celebration in human history. On this day we are called upon to contemplate the grotesque suffering and death of our Savior and to find joy and gratitude. This is, after all, why we call the day Good Friday. Although the Prayer Book provides Eucharistic readings for the day, it is not common to celebrate the Eucharist this day, unless in some parishes, with the reserved Sacrament from Holy Thursday. Instead, most parishes gather for either a series of meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ or the Stations of the Cross, or the very traditional service of the Litany followed by the Ante-Communion, often followed by the Reproaches. Many parishes set up prayer vigils or round the clock reading of the Scriptures which continue until the announcements of Easter morning. But the emphasis of this day and of Holy Saturday is quiet contemplation of the death and burial of Jesus Christ. That quietness is only broken with the joyful sounds which begin to rumble at sundown on Holy Saturday, when Holy Week ends and Easter begins.