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 IN MOST CHURCHES
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.
MAUNDY OR HOLY THURSDAY
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.
PASSION PLAYS, STATIONS OF THE CROSS
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.)
DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
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.