This past Sunday, Palm Sunday, marked the beginning of Western Christianity’s Holy Week (Eastern Orthodox Churches will begin celebrating Holy Week on April 17).
On Palm Sunday, Christians celebrate the humble entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey. Matthew relates the story of crowds waving palm branches and laying down a path for him as they shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9, NIV). On this day, many churches distribute palm branches to participants for customary observances such as processionals, blessing the palms, reading the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and singing hymns. Some traditions also have their worshippers take home the palm fronds to place in or near their crucifix until they’re returned to be burned for Ash Wednesday the following year.
On Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, Christian denominations commemorate the Last Supper. Maundy means commandment in Middle English, and it comes from Christ’s commandment given during the Last Supper. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus told his disciples, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another,” (John 13:34). The Last Supper is what influenced the institutions of Christian communion and many liturgies. Many denominations observe this day by having clergy wash the feet of laymen which recalls Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet.
On Good Friday Christians commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. According to tradition, Jesus was brutally whipped, mocked, spit on, and crowned with thorns. He carried his cross to Calvary where he was crucified. Along with the resurrection, Jesus’ death has become a symbol of triumph, hope, and salvation for many. Many Christians spend the holy day fasting, praying, repenting, and meditating on Christ’s suffering. This Good Friday, April 15, the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life will have a Stations of the Cross and Labyrinth installation in Cone Chapel from 9 am-6 pm. All are welcome to engage in any of these reflective and contemplative experiences at their own pace and time throughout the day.
Holy Saturday is a day of waiting for many Christians, as it falls between the time of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. Some Christian traditions teach that on this day Jesus descended into hell in order to free those who went before him, and others recognize this as a day of rest for Jesus. Many traditional churches will cover their main cross in a black drape signifying Jesus’ absence, and some will hold an Easter Vigil on Saturday night which is a long service that marks the transition from the darkness of Holy Saturday to the joy and light of Easter.
Finally, the culmination of Holy Week ends with Easter, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and his redemptive gift for the world. According to every gospel, Mary Magdalene and other women were the first to fall upon the empty tomb and receive the news that Jesus was alive. They go on to preach the good news to his disciples. Most Christians believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection defeated the power of sin and death, offering eternal life to everyone who believes in Jesus. Many Christians celebrate by attending an Easter church service, enjoying festive meals with family and friends, and having Easter egg hunts. Decorating Easter eggs was first recorded in the 13th century, as the church prohibited eating eggs during Holy Week, so many decorated their “Holy Week eggs.” The egg then transformed into a symbol of the resurrection and new life.
The Office of Spiritual and Religious Life wishes all who are observing Holy Week in some capacity, a grace and joy-filled week.
Fairchild, Mary. “What is Good Friday?” Learn Religions. April 4, 2019.
Fairchild, Mary. “What is Palm Sunday?” Learn Religions. August 4, 2020.
Hillerbrand, Hans. “Easter.” Britannica. February 17, 2022.
“Resilience: Multifaith Calendar 2022.” Multifaith Action Society. 2022.
ThoughtCo. “Maundy Thursday: Origin, Usage, and Traditions.” Learn Religions. July 3, 2019.