A Guide to Holy Week, the Sacred Triduum, and Easter

Observe Holy Week. If you do, your Easter will be all the sweeter.

The Collect for Holy Week
Assist us mercifully with thy help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby thou hast given us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion  |  April 2nd
The Congregation, Acolytes, Choir, and Clergy gather outside, on the parish lawn. The beginning of the Liturgy commemorates the entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem. The Entrance Rite is altered and elaborated to re-enact this and to signal our own entrance into Holy Week. The Collect above is sung to mark the beginning of Holy Week. The story of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem is read, and the palms which we have been given are blessed. After this, Acolytes, Clergy, and Choir, joined by the Congregation, process from the lawn into the Church singing Hosanna, in the highest! A Collect is said. The Choir and Clergy then make a festal procession to the Altar, all of us singing All Glory, Laud, and Honor which recalls Christ’s triumphant reception into the city. The liturgical color for this first part of the Palm Sunday Liturgy is red, a sign of that triumph.

At the Liturgy of the Word, however, there is an abrupt change in the mood of the service. Our Lord was acclaimed as he arrived in Jerusalem, but quickly the powers that be conspired to do away with him. Triumph became betrayal and death. And so it is the story of the Passion which is the Gospel for this Service. It is sung in parts to make us aware of the great drama that is beginning to unfold. A homily is preached, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist takes place at the Altar. During the last hymn the organ is turned off verse by verse until we are singing a capella. The congregation leaves in silence.

Maundy Thursday  |  April 6th, 7:30pm
The Liturgy on this day differs from that of an ordinary Eucharist in two respects: a ceremony, unique to the day, following the sermon, and another at the conclusion of the Liturgy. The Gospel appointed is St John’s account of the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. In this account Jesus gives his followers a new commandment—“Love one another”—and to show what this means he humbles Himself and washes their feet. This Gospel is proclaimed, a sermon is preached, and Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet is re-enacted. Parishioners representing the twelve Apostles come to the Chancel, and the Sacred Ministers appointed wash their feet as the choir sings the words of Jesus’ commandment of love and servanthood. Each is given a coin as a symbolic reversal of the betrayal which is to come. The Liturgy then proceeds as usual until after the Communion. The Stripping of the Altar then takes place: all candles are extinguished and the sanctuary and nave are stripped of all ornamentation. The bare Altar is washed. The Tabernacle is left open and empty. 

Good Friday  |  April 7th, Noon to 3:00pm
We have commemorated our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem and His institution of the Eucharist. On Good Friday the Liturgy focuses our attention upon His death. Appropriately, the ceremonial is stark, direct, and powerful. Its meaning is unmistakable. Meditations on The Seven Words from the Cross are offered. Our preachers this year are my long-time friend Phillip Cary [“Father, forgive them”]; Christie Purifoy [“Today, with me, in paradise,” and “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”]; Marcia Wilkinson [“Mother, behold thy son”]; Dan Garrison Edwards [“I thirst”]; Phillip Ellsworth [“It is finished”], and Chris Hall [“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”].

The ministers enter the Church the short way, in silence. At the foot of the Altar, those who are able prostrate themselves. Upon rising, the Officiant sings in monotone the Collect for the day. The Liturgy of the Word begins. Today it is different from any other occasion in its simplicity. The Old Testament Lesson and the Epistle are read without the usual ceremonial. St John’s account of the Passion and Crucifixion is sung by members of the Choir which are traditionally associated with the day on which Christ suffered for all humanity. The person appointed bids us pray silently for various aspects of the life of the world, and the Officiant “collects” our prayers with the appropriate Collect. 

The service is full of pathos yet not maudlin. Everything about the Liturgy, including the music, whether sung in solo or choir or by the congregation, everything we do here is a response to work being done elsewhere by someone else on a hill far away. It draws to a close with the Lord’s Prayer. A concluding prayer is said, and the Liturgy is ended. The ministers and people depart in silence. 

The Holy Saturday Office  |  April 8th, 9:00am
The emptiness of the Church on Holy Saturday is palpable, the silence deafening. We’ve stripped the Altar, put away all our graven images, veiled the crosses. Even the Tabernacles are empty, their doors left open. The morning’s liturgy only deepens the emptiness and silence. Contained on a single page of our Prayer Book, it defies any sermon or commentary. We begin without introduction, we recite the Psalms without a Gloria, we end without Communion, we depart without reverence. Not many people come, and some of those who do are there for other reasons. But the Early Church Fathers had a different understanding of this day. According to tradition, on Holy Saturday, during the hours between Jesus’ death and his Resurrection, all creation altered. 

The concrete nature of Holy Saturday forbids us from turning this mystery into facile optimism. It confronts us with the bare brutality of a corpse, silence, a pitch-dark tomb, and nothing else. Christians have always lived uneasily with this brutality. Evangelicals move quickly from Good Friday to Easter Morning, reducing the drama to a simple fiduciary transaction between Jesus and God the Father. Liberal Christians collapse the drama into the shallow simile of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis or a riot of spring flowers. But neither tactic works. Both are shallow, trite. Few claims are more obscene than that Jesus’ victory is as simple as the finale of a Broadway musical. Silence proves to be the only serviceable metaphor we possess.

I’ve come to appreciate Holy Saturday more than any other day in the Christian Year. Bereft of symbols, stripped of clerical functions, deprived of all excuses to be busy, I must confront the fact that the depth of redemption’s drama cannot be seen by the human eye except in shadowy images, that it is ultimately played out down in the heart of evil, and that our task as Christians is to wait in hard-won hope.

The Easter Vigil  |  April 8th, 7:30pm
The Liturgy begins with the Church in darkness, expectant, seemingly just as it was when we left on Good Friday. The Resurrection of Christ is the act of God which brings the Church into being, and during this first Liturgy of the Resurrection the Church will ritually and, indeed, literally come into being again. It will be “re-built” liturgically in order to become what it was before the desolation and death of Good Friday. Light will enter the Church and the lamps will be rekindled. Persons may be baptized into the household of God. The Eucharist will be celebrated once again and the Blessed Sacrament—Christ’s risen presence among us—will be returned to the Tabernacle / Sacrament House. In this Liturgy the Church becomes alive again and whole through the power of Christ’s rising, no longer broken, desolate and empty as it was the day before.

The Congregation gathers on the lawn with the Choir, Acolytes, and Clergy. A fire is kindled and blessed, and the Paschal Candle, a symbol of the Resurrection, is lit. A Priest takes the candle and leads us into the Church by stages. In a reversal of the procession of the veiled cross on Good Friday, he stops three times. This night, however, he exclaims “The Light of Christ,” and at each exclamation the light spreads from the Paschal Candle first to the Clergy, then to the Choir, and finally to the Congregation. Having entered, we fill the Church with the light of the Resurrection. The Paschal Candle is put in place. The Exsultet, an ancient hymn extolling the joy of Easter, is sung by a Cantor.

Then follows the Vigil, a period of anticipation which awaits the solemn proclamation of Easter. Several lessons from the Old Testament are read which in the Early Church were understood to be prefigurings or “types” of God’s action in the Resurrection of Jesus. Silence follows each lesson. A Psalm is chanted and the Celebrant prays an appropriate Collect.

After the last of these Collects, the Vigil itself is ended. The Celebrant takes the Paschal Candle from its holder and leads a procession of Clergy and Acolytes to the Font, the congregation joining them for the Renewal of Baptismal Vows. The Celebrant blesses the Baptismal Water during which the Paschal Candle is plunged three times into the font, as if it were charging the water with the power of the Resurrection. We all are sprinkled with water from the font to remind us of our own Baptisms. The procession returns to the Altar.

The Altar candles are lighted. At this point the Celebrant proclaims the news we have all been waiting for, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” and all respond, “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” The Acclamation is sung, Alleluias being sung for the first time since the Last Sunday of Epiphany; the Collect for Easter and the Liturgy of the Word begins. Before the proclamation of the Gospel, the Great Alleluia is sung by a Cantor. This wonderful word, itself a joyful exclamation, has been suppressed during Lent. As if delighting in it, the Cantor and Congregation sing it three times, each time on a higher note.

After the sermon the Liturgy then proceeds as usual. Bread and Wine are brought to the Altar and the Tabernacle, previously open and empty, is now replenished with the risen, sacramental presence of Christ. Easter has once again given birth to the Church. The Deacon dismisses us, “Depart in peace,” and adds, “Alleluia, Alleluia!” We all respond, “Thanks be to God. Alleluia, Alleluia!”   +PCE, Jr