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Thoughts to Live by| Understanding Holy Week

Updated: May 17, 2022

by Cardinal Orlando Beltran Quevedo, O.M.I, Archbishop-Emeritus of Cotabato


1. Holy Week is the most sacred week in the Church year. It begins with Palm Sunday (April 10) and concludes on Easter Sunday (April 17). The Apostolical Constitutions, dating from the latter half of the 3rd century and 4th century, has the earliest allusion to the celebration of Holy Week. The document prescribes abstinence for all the days of the week and absolute fasting for Friday and Saturday.

2. Good Friday was the first of the Holy Triduum to become prominent. In the early Church, the Holy Saturday Vigil on the eve of the Resurrection was associated with an expectation that the second coming of Christ would occur on Easter Day. Eventually, this second advent became an extended meaning of the Lord's Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.

Palm Sunday marks the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, described in all the four Gospels. This triumphal entry is the beginning of his journey to the Cross.

3. On any of the three days before Holy Thursday, many parishes celebrate Common Penitential Rites and the Stations of the Cross. Many dioceses as well celebrate the Chrism Mass on any of these days.

The Significance of Holy Week --

4. As the Lenten season of sacrifice and self-denial is about to end, our focus turns to the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus - his Paschal Mystery. This mystery "stands at the center of the Christian faith because God's saving plan was accomplished once and for all by the redemptive death of Jesus himself"

(Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 571).

5. The term, Paschal Mystery, was first used in a homily by Melito of Sardis between 160 and 170 AD, Vatican II (1963-65) repeatedly used the term to designate our redemption accomplished by Christ and celebrated in the liturgy. There are two aspects in the Paschal mystery: "by his death, Christ liberates us from sin; by his Resurrection, he opens for us the way to new life." We are justified. We are reinstated in God's grace. We become adopted children of God, sharing in the life of God's only Son. (see CCC, no. 654).

6. The Paschal Mystery of Jesus is unique. It can never be repeated. Through this mystery, Jesus accomplished the definitive redemption of humankind (see CCC, no. 613). He has redeemed all creation, defeated Satan and all evil, brought forth the Church from his pierced side, and opened the kingdom of God for us to enter. The Paschal sacrifice of his own Body and Blood is the sacrifice of the New Covenant that restores our communion with God. The power of Christ's divinity is demonstrated by his humiliated humanity.

7. The word "paschal" comes from a Hebrew word, meaning "the passing over." It especially refers to the wonders of the Exodus and the Passover. It celebrates the passing over of the people of God from slavery in Egypt to freedom and new life in the Promise Land. In the New Testament, it is the passing over of Jesus from life on earth to a new and glorified life with the Father. We celebrate this mystery in our Eucharistic celebration, the sacramental memorial of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

8. The final three days of Holy Week, the Holy Triduum, immerse us deeply into the Paschal Mystery of Jesus. We suffer with Christ so that we might rise with him. The Paschal Mystery is the culmination of our identity as Christ's disciples and followers, who are called to take up his Cross unto death. It also grants us the grace of our own Passover, as we pass over from death to new life, from sin to grace, from the bondage of evil to the freedom of God's children. Such is the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, the Paschal Mystery, the very source of our salvation.

9. Prayer

Almighty God, your beloved Son suffered the most excruciating humiliation and pain when he was crucified. Grant, we pray, that we may walk in the way of the cross and may find the cross as the way of life, peace, and love. This we pray through Christ your Son, our Lord. Amen.

PART II - The Litrugy of the Holy Week

Palm Sunday:

1. Palm Sunday is the 6th Sunday of Lent and is also called Passion Sunday. It celebrates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Waving tree branches, the people acclaim him as King, shouting, "Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" (Mt. 21:8-9).

2. Our Liturgy begins with the blessing of palms outside the church. Lk. 19:

28-40 is read. "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest." (Of the 4 Gospels, only Luke does not have the people acclaiming Jesus with tree branches). The acclamation is the basis of our "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts," after the Mass Preface. We keep our blessed palms at home as a sign of our faith.

3. The 2nd Reading is the powerful christological hymn of the self-emptying of Christ. "Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.... He humbled himself becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6-9). Because of his total self-emptying and humble obedience, God exalted him and gave him "the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2:6-11).

The Servant Poems of Isaiah:

4. Most notable are the 1st Readings of Palm Sunday, of the following three days, and of Good Friday. They are the so-called Suffering Servant Poems: Is. 42:1-9 (Monday, vv. 1-7); 49:1-13 (Tues, vv. 1-6); 50:4-11 (Palm Sunday, vv. 4-7; Wed, vv. 4-9); 52:13-53:12 (Good Friday).

5. They describe the role, suffering, and exaltation of the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah. He is God's meek and gentle Servant, a royal figure, the high priest atoning for our sins, and delivering us from sin. Initially, the Servant referred to Israel. But again and again, Israel failed to do Yahweh's bidding.

6. In contrast, the whole of Is. 53 is a poignant and prophetic picture of Jesus. Jesus was despised and rejected (Lk. 13:34; Jn. 1-10-11). He was silent before his accusers (Mt. 27:12; 1 Pt. 2:23). He was stricken by God (Mt. 27:46), and pierced for our transgressions (Jn. 19:34;

1 Pt. 2:24). Though sinless, on him God laid our sin (2 Cor. 5:21). By his suffering, he received the punishment we deserved and became for us the ultimate and perfect sacrifice (Heb. 10:10). Crucified between 2 thieves, he was yet buried in a rich man's tomb (Mt. 27:38, 57-60).

7. Talking to Jews who would see the allusion to Isaiah, Peter calls Jesus, "the Servant of God" (Acts 3:13). Philip, the deacon, used Is. 53 to direct the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ (Acts 8:32-33). In the Liturgy of Holy Week, the Church clearly understands the Suffering Servant as Jesus.

PART III - The Paschal Triduum, Liturgical Flow:

1. How are the 4 days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday considered as three days or the Pachal Triduum? The biblical day of the Jews was from sunset to sunset and not from midnight to midnight.

2. Thus, the first day of the Paschal Triduum is from sunset of Holy Thursday to sunset of Good Friday. Everything happens on this first day: the Last Supper, the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, the Priesthood, betrayal and arrest, judgment, scourging, crowning with thorns, mockery, carrying of the cross, crucifixion, and burial. On the second day, from sunset of Good Friday to sunset of Holy Saturday, nothing happens. It is a day of grief, of quiet expectant waiting by Mary, as well as of great fear by the Apostles. And on the third day, beginning with sunset of Holy Saturday, Jesus rises from the dead during the night, appearing to the women at early dawn, and later to the other disciples.

3. The Lenten season ends as the Mass of the Last Supper begins. The liturgy begins with great joy. The Altar is decorated. The Gloria is sung to the ringing of bells. Then the somber atmosphere returns. The bells become silent. At Holy Mass, the celebrant washes the feet of some people. Jesus instructed us that we, too, should serve others. I once washed the feet of a Muslim, a Protestant, an old lady beggar.

4. We commemorate the Institution of the Holy Eucharist and the Priesthood. At the end of the Mass, we transfer the Blessed Sacrament to a Repository. Our ORDO reminds us that there should be no Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The period before midnight is dedicated to prayer or vigil with Jesus agonizing in Gethsemane. The altar is stripped bare. The Passion has begun.

5. The sadness of Good Friday, Friday of the Passion, is expressed in the liturgy. No sacrament is celebrated. The priest prostrates before the altar in silence. The Passion of the Lord is read. The sacred Cross is venerated. There is no Mass but Holy Communion is given. And in Philippine parishes, the Santo Entierro is carried in procession. A day of grief and sorrow.

6. Then comes the Holy Saturday Vigil and the somber atmsphere disappears. Easter Sunday has arrived. It is the Feast of all Feasts! The darkness of the night is illuminated by a new fire. The Paschal Candle is blessed and lighted. It symbolizes Christ, the light of the world. Lighted candles are carried in procession into the church.

7. Then Easter is proclaimed in song through the beautiful ancient hymn, the Exsultet. The Gloria is sung. The themes of Creation, Life, Exodus, Passover, Covenant, Kingdom of God, and Salvation weave through the Readings as a transition from the old promises to their fulfilment in the New Life of Christ. Christ is risen, and we have risen with him. We share his new life. Such is the meaning of our Baptism. Thus, we renew our baptismal promises. Invariably, in my experience, the renewal triggers an outburts of great joy as the people exchange the kiss of peace with one another. Christ is, indeed, risen! Alleluiah!

8. The highlight of Easter Sunday seems to be, for many people, the Encuentro or Salubong. Though the tradition is non-biblical, we believe that the Risen Lord first appeared to the woman he loved most, his Blessed Mother. It was she who bore him, loved him, and remained with him all the way to the Cross. To her, the dying Jesus entrusted a new son, a new family of faith, the Church, the nations of the earth, to love and care for.

9. Prayer -- Lord Jesus Christ, you suffered death to redeem us from sin. You rose from the dead to give us new life. Grant, we pray, that we may endure our daily pains and share the joy of the Resurrection. Amen.

"We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection until you come again!"

Happy Easter to one and all! Prayers, God bless!

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