Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday: Christians mourn, prepare

THURSDAY, APRIL 2 and FRIDAY, APRIL 3 and SATURDAY, APRIL 4: Holy Week for the world’s 2 billion Christians began several days ago with Palm Sunday, but the week’s events culminate with the start of Maundy Thursday. For three days, Christians will perform centuries-old rituals and review the final events in the life of Jesus. From foot washing to the Stations of the Cross, Christians lament the tragic events of Jesus’ final days. With prayer and fasting, the faithful prepare for the most joyous holiday of the year: Easter, the Resurrection of Christ.

News on Pope Francis and Holy Week: Following on his two-year anniversary as pope, Francis remains phenomenally popular in the Catholic Church. The most recent Pew Forum poll ranked his approval rating among American Catholics at 90 percent, and this Holy Week, Pope Francis will not disappoint: He will begin the Easter Triduum by traveling to a prison in Rome to wash the feet of 12 inmates.

On Palm Sunday, Pope Francis declared to the thousands present at St. Peter’s Square that Holy Week is about humility—and that the humility of Jesus is what makes Holy Week so holy. (Read the story at Catholic News Agency.) Further, Pope Francis encouraged crowds to mimic this attitude of humility throughout the week, as “Only this way will this week be holy for us, too!” Pope Francis also gave examples of modern Christians who give selflessly and refuse to deny Jesus.

This week, Pope Francis will conduct a Chrism Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on Holy Thursday; visit a Roman prison for foot-washing Thursday evening; head a service for the Passion of Our Lord at St. Peter’s Basilica on Good Friday, and lead thousands in the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum; conduct the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday; and celebrate the Mass of Our Lord’s Resurrection on Easter.

Note: For Eastern Orthodox Christians following the Julian calendar, Palm Sunday 2015 will take place on Friday, April 5, and Holy Week will commence that week. Pascha (Easter) will fall on Sunday, April 12.


The Easter Triduum is initiated with Maundy Thursday, the fifth day of Holy Week. Alternatively known as Holy Thursday or Covenant Thursday, this day commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus with the Apostles. As Jewish days begin at sunset, most Maundy Thursday services take place in the evening. Some scholars believe that the name “Maundy Thursday” derived from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase stated by Jesus to describe the purpose for his washing their feet. (“A new commandment I give to unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you.”) In some churches, to this day, clergy ceremonially wash the feet of 12 persons as part of Maundy Thursday services. (Wikipedia has details.) Following the Maundy Thursday service, the altar is “stripped” in solemn fashion in preparation for Good Friday.

Did you know? On Holy Thursday, the Catholic Chrism Mass is celebrated in each diocese, during which holy oils are blessed. The blessed oils are used on Holy Saturday, at the Easter Vigil and for baptisms and confirmations.

Today, even outside of the church building, global traditions for Maundy Thursday are varied and colorful. In the United Kingdom, the Monarch offers Maundy money to worthy elders; in Malta, seven churches are visited on this single day; in Bulgaria, Easter eggs are colored and homes are prepared for the upcoming holy days. Holy Thursday is a public holiday in many Christian countries, including Costa Rica, Denmark, Iceland, Mexico, the Philippines, Spain and Venezuela. (Fish Eaters has information on popular customs and more.) At the conclusion of Maundy Thursday services, the attitude in the Church becomes somber, dark and mournful. Church bells fall silent until Easter.


While in the Garden of Gesthemane on Thursday night, Christian tradition says that Jesus was located by the Romans—led by Judas Iscariot—and arrested. This led to interrogation, torture and eventually to Jesus’ death by the horrific Roman method of crucifixion.

Did you know? Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday of 1865.

In the Catholic Church, Good Friday is a fast day of the deepest solemnity. The altar is bare, vestments are red or black and the cross is venerated. (Readings for the day are available from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

The Way of the Cross takes place at the Colosseum in Rome and in many other places around the world. In many parishes, the Stations of the Cross recount Jesus’ journey to the site of the crucifixion. In countries such as Malta, Italy, the Philippines and Spain, processions carry statues of the Passion of Christ. In Britain, Australia and Canada, hot cross buns are traditionally consumed on Good Friday.


Holy Saturday, or Black Saturday, ushers in with the darkness of Good Friday, commemorating the day that Jesus’ body lay in the tomb. The altar remains bare, or is draped in a simple black cloth. In Catholic parishes, the administration of sacraments is limited. Holy Saturday is a time of suspense, quiet and solemnity, as Christians continue to mourn the death of Jesus Christ. (Wikipedia has details.) In Catholic tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows is given the title Our Lady of Solitude, for her grief at the earthly absence of her son, Jesus.

At approximately 6 p.m. on Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil begins. A service that begins in darkness is illuminated, in Christian tradition, with the Light of Christ—the Paschal candle. After prayers, chants and biblical readings, “Gloria” is sung for the first time since Maundy Thursday. The church is flooded with light, statues covered during Passiontide are unveiled and the joy of the Resurrection begins. (For families with children too young to attend a late Saturday Mass, Women for Faith and Family suggests at-home activities.) The Paschal candle, the largest and most exquisite candle in the church, is lit each day throughout the Paschal season.

Palm Sunday and Holy Week: Christians repent during final days of Lent

SUNDAY, APRIL 13: Western and Eastern Palm Sunday—In Western Christian tradition, Lent continues into Holy Week and Palm Sunday marks the ironic celebration of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem days before his crucifixion; but in Eastern tradition, Great Lent is over and Holy Week begins with the Great Feast of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.

THURSDAY, APRIL 17: Western and Eastern Holy Thursday (in some traditions “Maundy Thursday”)—Both East and West recall Jesus’s Last Supper, but use different terms to describe elements of this day. For Western Christians, for example, talk about this day ushering in the Triduum, or “three days” of Easter.

FRIDAY, APRIL 18: Western Good Friday; Eastern Great and Holy Friday.
Both traditions mourn Jesus’s death on the cross, but with distinctive rituals. Eastern Christians will see the removal of an iconic representation of Jesus’s body from a cross in the church; Western Christians typically follow the Stations of the Cross (artistic representations of Jesus’s final days on earth) on Good Friday.

SATURDAY, APRIL 19: Western Holy Saturday; Eastern Great and Holy Saturday. In Eastern and Western traditions, Holy Saturday is a period of waiting for Easter (or Pascha in Eastern churches). While some Western Christians celebrate Easter with a Mass on “Saturday night;” ancient Eastern liturgies focus much more extensively on the Saturday night vigil, followed by a huge celebration of Pascha after midnight that same night. Across the United States, millions of Americans will mark Easter on the morning Sunday April 20; but many Eastern Christians will be at home that morning after a long night of liturgies.


Palm Sunday and Easter both draw big crowds in churches coast to coast and, for most Americans, Palm Sunday is marked with palm fronds distributed to recall the crowds that waved branches on the day Jesus entered Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

All four Gospels detail Jesus’ entry into the holy city. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem, people swarmed his path and laid their garments and palm branches on the roadway. (Wikipedia has many more details.)

During the Catholic Mass on this holiday, palms—or the branches of available trees, given the church’s location and climate—are blessed, and a procession of congregation members takes place.

After leaving church, the faithful bring their blessed palm fronds home and, as is custom, hang them near crucifixes or holy pictures. In Italy and Mexico, pride is taken in the art of braiding and shaping palm fronds into stunning figures and shapes. (Fold palms into the shape of a cross with help from this YouTube video. Advanced weavers can check out this video, as well.) In most regions of the world, these carefully saved palm branches will remain intact until the following year’s Ash Wednesday—at which time Christian tradition holds that old palm branches should be burned to make ashes.

For the three days of Holy Week preceding the Holy Triduum, houses are cleaned to make time for the proper observation of the quickly approaching Passion and Resurrection.


According to Christian tradition, the Last Supper that Jesus held on this night before his death was the establishment of the Eucharist—the foundation of the Christian sacrament shared by more than 2 billion Christians around the world. Even though specific liturgical customs do vary between the branches of this worldwide faith, the basic sacred tradition stems from the Gospel verses describing Jesus’s last meal with his followers. The New Testament also describes Jesus washing the feet of his followers on this night, so foot washing also widely practiced on Maundy or Holy Thursday.

What does Maundy mean? Wikipedia has an extensive article about the use of this term, which varies widely country by country. Some denominations prefer the term for this Thursday; some never use it—and others use the terms Maundy and Holy interchangeably. Confusing? Yes, it certainly is. But you’ll have a great bit of trivia to share with friends and family if you know what “Maundy” means. According to Wikipedia’s summary:

Most scholars agree that the English word Maundy is derived through Middle English and Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you”), the statement by Jesus in the Gospel of John 13:34 by which Jesus explained to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet.

As Jesus and his disciples left their upper room, they traveled out of the Old City of Jerusalem and to the Garden of Gethsemane. Before sunrise, Jesus would be betrayed and the events of Good Friday would begin.

Each Maundy Thursday in the Catholic church, a daytime Chrism Mass takes place and a new stock of holy oil is blessed. Following the evening liturgy, the holy water is removed from all stoups—and all hangings and vestments are changed to black (or another Lenten color). Bells will remain silent until Saturday evening’s Easter Vigil.


The day laden with darkness and lamentation has arrived, as Christians recall the somber events of Good Friday—Jesus’s death on a Roman cross. Between two criminals sentenced to death by Roman authorities, Jesus hung on a crucifix for six excruciating hours. During the last three hours, Gospels account that darkness fell over the land; at approximately 3 p.m., Jesus gave up his spirit and died. Such dramatic natural events occurred that the centurion on guard at the site of the crucifixion announced, “Truly this was God’s Son!”

In the Catholic Church, Good Friday is a strict fast day: only one full meal or two small meals is permitted, and the faithful abstain from meat and joyful activities. Many gather at church to pray the Stations of the Cross, painfully recalling each step on Jesus’ path to the crucifixion site. Some devotees attend a prayer service known as the Three Hours’ Agony, and it’s not uncommon for Passion plays and processions to reenact the day’s events. (Wikipedia has details.) In Rome, the Pope or Vatican representatives will lead meditations on the Stations of the Cross while a crucifix is carried to the Colosseum. Good Friday is a public or government holiday in many countries of the world, and the stock market is closed.

By tradition dating to 1361 CE, currant-filled, glazed hot cross buns are eaten for breakfast on Good Friday morning. The glaze forms a cross on the bun, signifying the day’s focus. (You can find a wonderful hot cross bun recipe in Lynne Meredith Golodner’s book The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.)


Terms and traditions for this Saturday vary widely across Christianity. For millions of American Protestants, this Saturday is simply a good occasion to clean the house and prepare treats for Easter dinner. Very little is said about this day in the vast majority of mainline Protestant and evangelical churches. However, Holy Saturday liturgies are ancient traditions in the Catholic church, Orthodox churches and others around the world.

In the Gospel stories, Holy Saturday recalls Jesus’s body laying in a tomb. Wikipedia’s account of Holy Saturday points out that this occasion is known by many names, including: Holy Saturday, the Great Sabbath, Black Saturday, Easter Eve, Joyous Saturday and the Saturday of Light.

In Eastern tradition, one of the most beautiful and unusual of icons is used in Saturday liturgies, called the Epitaphios. This icon is made of fabric and represents a kind of burial shroud, showing Jesus’s body being prepared for burial. On “Great and Holy Saturday,” the Epitaphios is carried in a procession around the church.

American holiday travelers always watch headlines about possible congestion or delays, as the Easter holiday approaches. But travel challenges may be even greater in the Philippines, where the population is more than 80 percent Roman Catholic. Headlines in Filipino newspapers began reporting, weeks early, on efforts to make the holiday migration to hometowns move smoothly. One of the big efforts in Manila this year involves inspecting the safety and cleanliness of the bus fleets that soon will be packed with holiday travelers.