The Universal Church is preparing to enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery of our Lord as Lent ends and Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday. With that in mind, The Tidings has put together this short guide to help understand the liturgical practices, traditions and spiritual meaning of the days of Holy Week which are part of our Catholic experience.
At the established time Jesus chose to go up to Jerusalem to suffer his passion and death, and to rise from the dead. As the Messiah King who shows forth the coming of the Kingdom, he entered into his city mounted on a donkey. He was acclaimed by the little children whose shout of joyful praise is taken up in the Sanctus of the Eucharistic liturgy: “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna (save us!)” (Matthew 21:9). The liturgy of the Church opensHoly Week by celebrating this entry into Jerusalem.
— Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church
Palm Sunday is the final Sunday of Lent, the beginning of Holy Week, and commemorates the triumphant arrival of Christ in Jerusalem, days before he was crucified.
Palm Sunday is known as such because the faithful will often receive palm fronds which they use to participate in the reenactment of Christ's arrival in Jerusalem. In the Gospels, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a young donkey, and to the lavish praise of the townspeople who threw clothes, or possibly palms or small branches, in front of him as a sign of homage. This was a customary practice for people of great respect.
Palm branches are widely recognized as symbols of peace and victory, hence their preferred use on Palm Sunday.
During Palm Sunday Mass, palms are distributed to parishioners who carry them in a ritual procession into church. The palms are blessed and many people will fashion them into small crosses or other items of personal devotion. These may be returned to the church, or kept for the year.
Because the palms are blessed, they may not be discarded as trash. Instead, they are appropriately gathered at the church and incinerated to create the ashes that will be used in the follow year's Ash Wednesday observance.
The liturgical colors of the Mass on Palm Sunday are red and white, symbolizing the redemption in blood that Christ paid for the world.
The procession of palms which is followed by the account of Jesus entry into Jerusalem from chapter 19 of the Gospel according to Luke.
The Gospel reading for the Palm Sunday Mass is the full account of our Lord’s passion from the Last Supper to the laying of Jesus’ body in the tomb as told in Luke 22:14-23:56. A shorter version may be read from Luke relating the events from Jesus being presented before Pilate up to his death on the cross- Luke 23:1-49.
Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Eucharist as the true body and blood of Jesus Christ and the institution of the sacrament of the priesthood.
During the Last Supper, Jesus offers himself as the Passover sacrifice, the sacrificial lamb, and teaches that every ordained priest is to follow the same sacrifice in the exact same way. Christ also bids farewell to his followers and prophesizes that one of them will betray him and hand him over to the Roman soldiers.
Around the world, bishops and priests come together at their local cathedrals on Holy Thursday morning to celebrate the institution of the priesthood. During the Mass, the bishop blesses the Oil of Chrism that will be used for baptism, confirmation, and anointing of the sick or dying. In large dioceses, like the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Chrism Mass is often celebrated on the Monday of Holy Week. This year, Archbishop José H. Gomez will celebrate the Chrism Mass March 21 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
On Holy Thursday, the archbishop washes the feet of 12 representatives from the community priests to symbolize Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples.
The Holy Thursday Mass is celebrated after sundown, marking the end of Lent and the beginning of the Sacred Triduum. These days are the three holiest days in the Catholic Church.
Holy Thursday stresses the importance Jesus puts on the humility of service, and the need for cleansing with water, a symbol of baptism. Also emphasized are the critical importance of the Eucharist and the sacrifice of Christ’s body, present in Communion.
At the conclusion of the Mass, the faithful are invited to continue adoration of the Blessed Sacrament throughout the night, just as the disciples were invited to stay up with the Lord during His agony in the garden before His betrayal by Judas.
After Holy Thursday, no Mass will be celebrated again in the Church until the Easter Vigil celebrates the resurrection of the Lord.
— Catholic News Agency
“‘It is finished’; and he bowed his head and handed over his spirit.”
On Good Friday, the entire Church fixes her gaze on the cross at Calvary. Each member of the Church tries to understand at what cost Christ has won our redemption. In the solemn ceremonies of Good Friday, in the Veneration of the Cross, in the chanting of the “Reproaches,” in the reading of the Passion, and in receiving pre-consecrated Communion, we unite ourselves to our Savior, and we contemplate our own death to sin in the death of our Lord.
The Church — stripped of its ornaments, the altar bare, and with the door of the empty tabernacle standing open - is as if in mourning. In the fourth century the Apostolic Constitutions described this day as a “day of mourning, not a day of festive joy,” and this day was called the “Pasch (passage) of the Crucifixion.”
The liturgical observance of this day of Christ’s suffering, crucifixion and death evidently has been in existence from the earliest days of the Church. No Mass is celebrated on this day.
Traditionally, the organ is silent from Holy Thursday until the Alleluia at the Easter Vigil, as are all bells or other instruments, the only music during this period being unaccompanied chant.
The omission of the prayer of consecration deepens our sense of loss because Mass throughout the year reminds us of the Lord’s triumph over death, the source of our joy and blessing. The desolate quality of the rites of this day reminds us of Christ’s humiliation and suffering during his Passion.
— Catholic News Agency
The Paschal candle represents Christ, the Light of the World.
The pure beeswax of which the candle is made represents the sinless Christ who was formed in the womb of his mother. The wick signifies his humanity, the flame, his divine nature, both soul and body.
Five grains of incense inserted into the candle in the form of a cross recall the aromatic spices with which his sacred body was prepared for the tomb and of the five wounds in His hands, feet and side.
During the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night the priest or deacon carries the candle in procession into the dark church. A new fire, symbolizing our eternal life in Christ, is kindled which lights the candle. The candle, representing Christ himself, is blessed by the priest who then inscribes in it a cross, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, (Alpha and Omega, “the beginning and the end”) and the current year, as he chants the prayer below; then affixes the five grains of incense.
The Easter candle is lighted each day during Mass throughout the paschal season until Ascension Thursday.
In his plan of salvation, God ordained that his Son should not only “die for our sins” but should also “taste death,” experience the condition of death, the separation of his soul from his body, between the time he expired on the cross and the time he was raised from the dead. The state of the dead Christ is the mystery of the tomb and the descent into hell. It is the mystery of Holy Saturday, when Christ, lying in the tomb, reveals God’s great Sabbath rest after the fulfillment of salvation, which brings peace to the whole universe.
The Easter Vigil takes place on Holy Saturday, the evening before Easter Sunday. This is the night that “shall be as bright as day” as proclaimed by the Exsultet, an ancient church hymn, as we joyfully anticipate Christ’s Resurrection. The Holy Saturday Liturgy begins with the Service of Light, which includes the blessing of the new fire and the Paschal candle which symbolizes Jesus, the Light of the World. The second part consists of the Liturgy of the Word with a series of Scripture readings.
After the Liturgy of the Word, the Catechumens are presented to the parish community, who pray for them with the Litany of the Saints. Next, the priest blesses the water, placing the Easter or Paschal candle into the baptismal water. Those seeking Baptism then renounce sin and profess their faith, after which they are baptized with the priest pronouncing the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
After the Baptism, the newly baptized are dressed in white garments and presented with a candle lighted from the Paschal Candle. They are then Confirmed by the priest or bishop who lays hands on their heads and invokes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He then anoints them with the oil called Sacred Chrism. The Mass continues with the newly baptized participating in the general intercessions and in bringing gifts to the altar. At Communion, the newly baptized receive the Eucharist, Christ's Body and Blood, for the first time.
— Catholic News Agency, Catechism of the Catholic Church, www.usccb.org
“Beginning with the Easter Triduum as its source of light, the new age of the Resurrection fills the whole liturgical year with its brilliance. Gradually, on either side of this source, the year is transfigured by the liturgy. It really is a ‘year of the Lord’s favor.’ The economy of salvation is at work within the framework of time, but since its fulfillment in the Passover of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the culmination of history is anticipated ‘as a foretaste,’ and the kingdom of God enters into our time.
“Therefore, Easter is not simply one feast among others, but the ‘Feast of feasts,’ the ‘Solemnity of solemnities,’ just as the Eucharist is the ‘Sacrament of sacraments’ (the Great Sacrament). St. Athanasius calls Easter ‘the Great Sunday’ and the Eastern Churches call Holy Week ‘the Great Week.’ The mystery of the resurrection, in which Christ crushed death, permeates with its powerful energy our old time, until all is subjected to him.”
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§1168-1169