Holy Week


Many Protestants would be surprised at the degree to which the liturgies of Catholic Holy Week are scripture-based.

On Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion, the people gather outside the worship space of the church and hear the reading from Luke (19:28-40) where Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly. Then they follow the cross inside, singing. After they listen to words from Is 50:4-7, the mood abruptly changes as Psalm 22 is sung: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" The second reading is from Philippians chapter two, where Paul proclaims, "Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. . . . ." The Gospel is very long and sobering: it tells Luke's story (Lk 22:14--23:56) of the events leading up to the Crucifixion, ending with Jesus in the tomb.

During the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday, the first reading (Ex 12:1-8, 11-14) tells the story of the first Passover. The Psalm (Ps 116, "How shall I make a return to the LORD for all the good he has done for me?") has as its response a shortened version of 1 Cor 11:23-26: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" Catholics believe the bread and wine offered at mass truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, and on this evening each year they celebrate the institution of the Eucharist. The reading from Paul (1 Cor 11:23-26) also recalls the Last Supper, and the Gospel reading (Jn 13:1-15) tells the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. At this point in the mass (and in no other mass), the priest (with assistants drawn from the congregation) washes the feet of any who care to come forward.

This mass does not end as others do; instead, at the end, the priest carries the Blessed Sacrament to a chapel of reservation and the people may choose to stay and pray. The period from Holy Thursday through the Easter Vigil (The Triduum, or Three Days) is regarded as one extended mass.

The Good Friday service opens with a simple prayer, followed by three long readings, Is 52:13--53:12 (the Suffering Servant), Heb 4:14-16; 5:7-9 (Christ as the great High Priest), and John's story (Jn 18:1--19:42) of the Passion. The response to the Psalm (31) echoes Jesus' words on the Cross: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."

There is no mass on Holy Saturday. Easter Vigil begins after sundown that day with the church in darkness. After lighting candles, the people listen to no fewer than seven passages from the Old Testament, each with a psalm response. At this points the lights come on: He is Risen! The service continues with the singing of the psalm (Ps 118), "Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good," and more readings, including the simple story (Lk 24:1-12) in which the women find the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene recognizes the Risen Lord.

I don't need to say much about Easter Sunday. In the Catholic tradition, it is, in a way, but the first Easter Sunday, as the Easter season continues for seven more Sundays.

In their worship Catholics hear a good deal of scripture. Few can cite chapter and verse, but they know the Bible.