At the heart of Holy Week is a paradox that through the suffering and death (the Passion) of Jesus Christ comes the life and joy of the Resurrection. It is worth keeping this in mind as we celebrate the various Holy Week liturgies from Palm Sunday through to Easter Day. One of the prayers we use on Palm Sunday expresses this paradox: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.”
This coming Sunday, “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday,” by its very title highlights that paradox I mentioned earlier. At the heart of the Eucharist this day is the reading of the Passion (this year according to Matthew) which gives the day its traditional name. However, in common parlance the day is simply known as Palm Sunday when we bless palms and carry them in procession recalling Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. However as special as the Palm Liturgy is, it is only the introduction to the solemnity of the reading of the Passion. In a sense it sets the paradoxical tone to the whole week. One minute we are with the crowd shouting our “Hosannas” but then we are confronted by the crowd shouting “Crucify him”. Even on Good Friday, the most solemn of days, as we reflect on the death of Jesus, we also venerate the cross on which Jesus died recognizing it as the sign of our salvation. On that day we often sing the “Vexilla Regis,” “The royal banners forward go” with its famous lines: “O tree of beauty, tree most fair” and “Blest tree, whose chosen branches bore, the wealth that did the world restore.” The image of the “tree of the cross” from which buds of green sprout was a popular one early in Christian history.
Others hymns like “In the cross of Christ I glory,” “Lift high the cross” and “When I survey the wondrous cross” also capture the essential paradox at the heart of Good Friday. I often say to people about Good Friday that it is not a sad day as such (like the day of a funeral) but rather a solemn day when we reflect upon the great mystery that the cross of Jesus becomes for us a saving sign.
It appears that Holy Week as we know it was a product of the Jerusalem church in the Fourth Century and grew out of visits to the sites associated with the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. However, while the post Reformation prayerbooks provided readings for the eucharist on the various days of Holy Week it was not until our own 1979 Prayerbook that provision was made for the liturgies of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil.
Finally, I would encourage you to see Holy Week as a whole: one “stretched out” liturgy which begins on Palm Sunday and through recalling the events of Jesus’ Passion helps us both to rehearse and to enter into the great mystery of our Salvation.
I trust we all experience a sense of new life, hope and joy through our keeping of this Holy Week.