The Beginning of the End

Today was Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Today he rides into Jerusalem as the people adore him as king, welcoming him with palm branches. By Friday he will be beaten bloody and crucified as a common criminal.

When I went and visited the Community of St. John a month ago (wow, has it already been a month?!) I learned a little bit about Holy Week. So I thought I would share it here.

Holy Week is called so because it is the holiest week of the liturgical year. In the East they call it “The Great Week”. It is during this week that the Passion of Our Lord occurs in which mankind is freed from the bonds of sin and released from everlasting death.

One of the marks of Holy Week is the number of processions that occur during the week. Catholics really like processions and I do think it is kind of sad that most Protestant traditions have lost everything resembling processions. Processions invite us into the mysteries of salvation and can be very “hands on”. Our faith becomes strengthened in the act of getting up, moving, participating in the great mysteries of this week.

The first procession of the week occurred today, the Procession of Palms. We begin the Mass not in the pews but outside of the church. We process into the Church as we “follow Jesus into Jerusalem”. We carry palm branches to remind of us how the Jews welcomed him as a great prophet.

The next procession is the Procession of Oils. This procession occurs at the Chrism Mass. Traditionally the Chrism Mass occurs on the morning of Holy Thursday, but in our diocese the Mass will be on Monday evening. At the Mass, the Bishop of the Particular Church will bless the oils that will be used in the Sacraments, specifically the oil of catechumens, the oil of the sick, and the sacred chrism. These oils are used for Baptism, Anointing of the Sick, and Confirmation/Holy Orders respectively. After the Bishop blesses them, they are processed out of the Church and stored under lock and key.

Later on Holy Thursday, there is a procession after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. After the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament is processed out of the Church to the Altar of Repose. The main tabernacle is left open so that the faithful can see that Christ is not there. I suppose the reason for moving the Blessed Sacrament is to symbolize Christ retreating to pray in the Garden before Judas betrays him and he is handed over.

On Good Friday, there are two processions. The first is the Veneration of the Cross. The faithful in attendance at the Good Friday service process to the front and kneel before and/or kiss the cross, the instrument Jesus Christ used for our salvation. The second procession of the day follows shortly after that as the Blessed Sacrament is processed back into the church from the Altar of Repose so that Communion may be distributed. The reason for this is that it is not a Mass, there is no consecration. No Mass is said on Good Friday anywhere in the entire world.

The last two liturgical processionals of the week are at the Easter Vigil Mass, which occurs no earlier than sundown on Saturday night. The first is the procession of the Paschal candle into the Church. The candle is representative of the risen Christ. It is blessed outside and brought into the church as the faithful follow it in. The second procession at the Mass is when the catechumens who are to receive the Sacrament of Baptism process to the back of the church to the Baptismal font while the faithful pray the Litany of the Saints.

Thus ends the last of the liturgical processions. I would like to quickly note, that there are two other processions not mentioned. The first is the Tenebrae. The tenebrae is the service of darkness. Fifteen candles are lit at the front of the church and are extinguished one-by-one as psalms are read. The top candle remains lit. It is then hidden, processed out of the church. Then everyone makes a bunch of noise in the dark church, usually by banging hymnals on the back of the pews. It is quite scary actually. This goes on until the candle is processed back into the church. The other procession is kind of a tradition in which on Holy Thursday, the faithful visit all of the Altars of Repose at the parishes in their town, offering up prayers and petitions. I believe there is an indulgence attached, but I’d have to look into it.

So there you go, some fresh knowledge about the richness of Holy Week in the Catholic Church. I hope you learned something new and will consider expanding your participation in the greatest week of the year.