What is Holy Week?

by Brian Colmery
Ask Christians in the West about Christian holidays, and they typically come up with two: Christmas and Easter. Now these are rather big ones. The birth of Christ and the resurrection of Christ are extraordinarily important, and worth massive celebration. But there is a tradition, going back thousands of years, that sees those holidays as part of something larger, something like the two tallest mountains in a whole range. That tradition revolves around the "Church calendar," a way of marking time not by a school schedule or even by the change of the seasons, but by the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

Marking Time

The Church calendar introduces all sorts of seasons we aren't familiar with. There is Advent, as we prepare for the birth of Christ. There are the twelve days of Christmas (a Christmas season that starts on December 25). Epiphany remembers the spread of Christ's glory. Lent focuses us on our sin and need in anticipation of Christ's death for our sins. And Easter explodes with hope and life as Christ is raised from the dead, ascends into heaven, and sends the Holy Spirit (each of which gets their own days in the calendar). Of course, the Bible doesn't have a calendar in the appendix that we are supposed to follow. But if you mark time this way, you begin to relate your life to Jesus’ life, instead of when the semester begins or when spring break is. The whole year becomes a kind of holiday, each season with its own high points of reflection and celebration.

This brings us to Holy Week, the last week of Lent. The gospel accounts carefully mark time as Jesus approaches his death. He enters Jerusalem for the passover on Palm Sunday. He eats his last meal with his disciples after washing their feet on Maundy Thursday. He is betrayed, condemned, and crucified on Good Friday. He descends to the dead on Holy Saturday. And he rises again, defeating Satan, sin, and death on Easter Sunday.

A Week of Remembrance

Christians traditionally have set aside this week, praying and worshiping day by day in line with what Christ and his disciples did. We enter into Holy Week on Palm Sunday, but it begins in earnest on Maundy Thursday. We hold an evening service reflecting on the last gathering of Jesus with his disciples in preparation for his death. We see him wash their feet in anticipation of how he would wash away their sins by his sacrifice. We hear his commandment that they love one another (Maundy is from the Latin maundatum, meaning commandment). We join with them as Jesus breaks bread and pours wine to proclaim his coming death. We sing, and we pray. We leave knowing what the next day and night will bring.

Good Friday we gather again to sing, and pray, and hear the story of Jesus’ betrayal, and his unjust trial, and his brutal death in our place. Lent comes to a climax as we see what our sins meant for Jesus—someone so pure, someone so holy and loving, the only one of us who didn't deserve to face judgment. It is a dark night that connects our lives to his in that moment when he took our place for our forgiveness and restoration. We leave in silence. We know that Easter is coming, but Easter is only bright because of the darkness we sit in now.

Holy Saturday there is no service. We put ourselves in the place of the disciples, letting Christ’s death settle into our souls. It's a day of reflection, of somber processing. We reckon with the fact that Christ was dead, truly and—as far as they expected—finally. We imagine a world in which the hope of Christ really did perish, even while we remember the love and holiness of his life.

Longing for Sunday

You can imagine what observing Holy Week this way does to Easter Sunday. When I was younger, most Easters involved me waking up, remembering (a) that it was Sunday and then (b) that it was Easter, and going to a church service where almost everyone else had done the same. We'd sing songs that were a bit more upbeat, hear a sermon about the resurrection, and call it a day. Easter was a normal Sunday with some extra shine.

But after walking with Jesus through the last week of his earthly life, you don't need to remember that it's Easter. You long for Easter. Sunrise services begin to make sense to you. You want to be with people who long for it too, who cannot wait to sing and praise and shout "He is risen!" and proclaim back "He is risen indeed!" You probably tear up, if you are that kind of person, because Easter says that the impossible is possible, he's not gone, he's come back to us, he's come back for us, and nothing will be the same. And your emotions and thoughts and prayers all run together as we see him say Mary's name and show her that it's really him, and as we hear him forgive Peter for his denial, and as we see him let Thomas touch his scars and wounds, healed but present to witness that he really is alive. We want to hear his word preached, our Jesus who is the first, and the last, and the living one (Rev. 1:17-18). We want to keep marking time this way for what comes next: his ascension to heaven, sending the Spirit, commissioning us to be his witnesses because he will be with us always, even to the end of the age (Matt 28:20).

This is why we observe Holy Week, matching up our week in 2022 A.D. with his week in 33 A.D. We hope you'll join us.
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