Traditions and History of The Holy Week of Easter
Let us start with the stage that lies at the gateway. It's the Ash Wednesday where the journey begins. The Ash opens the gate to the Lent, the Even the Holy week itself follows a journey of penance through Lent.
Lent is a forty day period of penance meant for sharing the sorrows and sufferings of Christ by the self-denying Christians. Originally Lent was meant for a period of complete fasting to commemorate the forty-day fast of Jesus. Jesus spent these days in the desert after his baptism and till the beginning of his public ministry. In the early church, this fasting period was meant for a preparation to receive the sacrament to be given to those who would be baptized on the Easter eve.
In course of time, the emphasis of the season turned from preparing for baptism to more penitential aspects. Even persons guilty of notorious sins spent the time performing public penances. Only at the end of the Lent were they publicly accepted back in an elaborate ceremony. The penitents were presented to the bishop singly. And then in a group they protested themselves while seven penitential psalms were sung.
The last Sunday of the Lent is known as the Palm Sunday. This is when Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem where he was greeted warmly by the crowd. In the words of St Matthew:
Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" And this is where the basis of the Palm Sunday procession lies.
The first reference to the Palm Sunday procession, is found in the travel journal of Etheria, the nun from the northwest Spain. She made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem toward the end of the fourth century. She referred the day to be the beginning of the Paschal Week.
In the Western Church the procession is reportedly adopted first in Spain, possibly in the fifth century. And it had not been before the twelfth century when the procession was held in Rome. In the United States, the Messiah Lutheran church in Philadelphia revived an old Palm Sunday custom. There an ass is led down the center aisle accompanied by the pastor and two costumed members of the congregation. Meanwhile the entire church body sings, "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name." In Episcopal churches, parishioners are given palm leaves at the end of the service.Presently the day is meant for a nice get together of all churches: Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Lutheran.
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The Holy Monday & Tuesday:
Monday of the Holy Week is not a major feast. The cleansing of the temple in the Holy City of Jerusalem is thought to have taken place on this Monday. This was when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers, saying to them: " It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; But you make it a den of robbers". [Matthew: 21:13]
The Tuesday of the Holy Week is the day when the famous incident between Jesus and Pharisees is thought to have taken place. This was when the churchmen tried to trap Jesus into making a blasphemous, or, anti-god remark.
This day is important also on another count. Jesus discoursed to his disciples on the Mount of Olives about the destruction of Jerusalem and the signs of the last day.
On the Wednesday the tempo of the Holy Week increases. This is the day widely known as "Spy Wednesday". For it is the day when Judas Iscariot, a disciple turned betrayer agreed to show the chief priests where they could easily capture Jesus.
The Thursday of the Holy Week is associated with the Last Supper. The day is known as Maundy Thursday, or, Holy Thursday. It is the day before crucifixion. On this day Jesus had his supper, his last course, with his disciples. In the words of St Matthew:
...Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it , and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying," Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."
The Friday of the week is the Good Friday. This is the day on which Jesus was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, at the top of the Calvary hill. And the Christian belief says that Jesus sacrificed himself for the men's sins, to be died crucified.
This day is marked by solemn observations in memory of Jesus' crucifixion.For, Christians believe that by dying Jesus accomplished a reconciliation between God and man. And accordingly the crucified image of Jesus or, the Cross itself, came to be regarded as the main symbol of faith for the Christians.
Roman Catholics observe the day usually through fast and abstinence to commemorate the pains and sufferings Jesus underwent on the cross. It is since the 4th century that Good Friday came to be observed as a separate occasion. Before this, an annual celebration was held as Christian Passover, or, Pascha, to mark both Christ's death on Cross and the Resurrection.
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The day following Good Friday is the Holy Saturday. This is usually called Easter Eve in Anglican churches, and is held as a traditional time for baptism services.
Presently, this day is primarily a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, as well as Anglican observance. Roman Catholic churches observe this with the blessing and lighting of a tall Paschal candle. The candle is placed on the altar on the Holy Saturday. While blessing, five grains of incense are fixed in it, representing the five wounds of Jesus and the burial spices with which his body was anointed. The candle is lit and remains on the Gospel side of the altar until Ascension Day. This day comes at the end of forty days which mark the period through which Christ showed up himself of and on following the crucifixion. On Ascension Day Christ is believed to have ascended to the heaven.
Easter Sunday is the day of the feast. This day, the third since crucifixion, the Christ is believed to have shown up himself. And not just that, Jesus also joined his disciples on a meal! Easter comes at the end of the six days of the Holy Week which came to be associated with the life of Jesus before the Resurrection. This is when Christ is believed to show himself up after his death through crucifixion. He had risen up from his tomb that was guarded by the sentries. And met his disciples to get them prepared to carry out his works in his absence.
For more, read the story of Resurrection.
History of Easter | Easter icons | Easter roots in America | the Resurrection