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Holy Week offers liturgies, traditions that remind us of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection

The most holy and solemn week of the liturgical year is marked with liturgies, traditions that help us enter into Christ’s passion, death and resurrection

Holy Week is a reminder of God’s infinite mercy for us, in which we grow closer to Him in love. The Triduum — the three days marking the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus — is rich in beauty and meaning. This Triduum also is celebrated every Sunday, in a smaller way, as we walk through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus in the eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass.

This is Year B in the Church’s cycle of readings, which have a particular focus on the body of Christ. Examples include Jesus speaking to the disciples of the temple of his body (John 2:21) and in which He refers to being “lifted up” from the earth (12:20-33).

In Holy Week, Catholics reflect on reverence of the body — and Jesus’ in particular. We display and venerate crucifixes and cover the images of the bodies of saints and the body of Christ.

John’s Gospel is a journey over the course of three years, yet eight chapters (13-21) include the recounting of the events of Holy Week. “All of a sudden, the attention arrests and focuses on these pivotal days,” said Father Charles Samson, assistant professor of biblical theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. “There’s an attention to how critical and important is every detail of these days.”

Palm Sunday

March 28

Photo Credits: Illustration by Abigail Witte
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. Parishes typically have a procession to commemorate Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, before His eventual arrest on Holy Thursday and crucifixion and death on Good Friday. Each of the four canonical Gospels notes that His entry into Jerusalem occurred a week before His resurrection.

Palm branches distributed at church are symbols of the palm fronds that were placed in Jesus’ path as He rode into Jerusalem. The crowd shouted at Him, “Hosanna,” which in Hebrew translates to “(O Lord) grant salvation.”

Palms should be saved until next year and given back to your church to be burned and made into ashes for Ash Wednesday.

The events of Palm Sunday take place around the time of the Jewish Passover, which communicated to the Hebrew people their liberation from slavery in Egypt, Father Samson noted. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the mood was tense. The Hebrew people were living under the oppression of the Romans, who dominated the Holy Land.

“It made the Hebrews and Romans shudder when (the crowd) shouted ‘Hosanna to the King of David,’” Father Samson said. “But for the early Christian people, they weren’t expecting Jesus to be a political liberator. The freedom of oppression they wanted was freedom from the oppression of their sins.”

Palm Sunday readings:

Procession with Palms: Mark 11:1-10 OR John 12:12-16

Reading I: Isaiah 50: 4-7

Responsorial Psalm: 22: 8-9, 17-20, 23-24

Reading II: Philippians 2: 6-11

Gospel: Mark 14:1-15:47 OR Mark 15:1-39

Holy Thursday

April 1

Photo Credits: Illustration by Abigail Witte
Lent ends on Holy Thursday, when we enter into the Triduum, the three days in which we relive Christ’s Paschal Mystery — His suffering, death and resurrection. Though chronologically three days, they’re liturgically one day unfolding the unity of Christ’s Paschal Mystery.

These days should be set apart for prayer and reflection, and perhaps going to confession or sharing family traditions.

On Holy Thursday, the priests of the archdiocese will gather at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis to celebrate the Chrism Mass, which recognizes the unity of priests with their bishop. During this Mass, Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski will bless the three oils that are used for the administration of the sacraments throughout the year: the oil of catechumens (oleum catechumenorum or oleum sanctorum), the oil of the infirm (oleum infirmorum) and holy chrism (sacrum chrisma). The sacred oils will be distributed to archdiocesan parishes, where they’ll be received with a simple rite just before the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The Chrism Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Thursday, April 1, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. The Mass will be livestreamed at cathedralstl.org.

At the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, nearly everything is removed from the altar and sanctuary, including any linens, candles and statues, to demonstrate the bareness of the cross. The tabernacle is emptied and the door is left open as a reflection of the emptiness of the world without Christ. The altar represents Christ, therefore stripping the altar reminds us of when Jesus was stripped of His garments. Psalm 21 (“Deus, Deus meus”) is often recited, which includes a description of the Roman soldiers dividing His garments among them.

The altar of repose reserves the Eucharist that was consecrated during Holy Thursday at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The altar is separate from the main altar of a church. The reserved Eucharist is used for the liturgy on Good Friday. Mass is not celebrated between the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Holy Thursday reveals an identity and a title given to Christ — the Lamb of God. “The Last Supper took place in the same hours of the sacrifice of the Passover lamb in the Jewish temple nearby,” said Father Samson. St. Justin Martyr wrote that lambs sacrificed by the Jewish people were skewered in the shape of a cross. “When you see that Jesus was offering the Last Supper at the same moment, we see that this is a sacrificial meal, not just a communal meal,” he said. “The timing presents Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

Readings for the Chrism Mass:

Reading I: Isaiah 61:1-3a, 6a, 8b-9

Responsorial Psalm: 89: 21-22, 25, 27

Reading II: Revelations 1:5-8

Gospel: Luke 4:16-21 

Readings for the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper: 

Reading I: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14

Responsorial Psalm: 116: 12-13, 15-16bc, 17-18

Reading II: 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26

Gospel: John 13: 1-15

The Chrism Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Thursday, April 1, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. The Mass will be livestreamed at cathedralstl.org.

Good Friday

April 4

Photo Credits: Illustration by Abigail Witte
Good Friday provides inspiration for reflections on themes of faith, suffering, loss, compassion and unconditional love. Jesus’ prayer of loving surrender on the cross transformed His suffering and death into an act of love and worship. By His wounds, we’re healed.

The central celebration is the Lord’s Passion. Holy Mass is not celebrated on Good Friday and so the hosts consecrated on Holy Thursday are distributed to the faithful during the Good Friday service. Church bells are silent. Altars are left bare. We fast. The solemn, muted atmosphere is preserved until the Easter Vigil.

Good Friday is a time to focus on seeking God’s help in finding forgiveness and the power to forgive. Jesus addresses His Father with a prayer on Good Friday: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Pope Francis said that Jesus prays for those who were cruel to Him, for His killers. The Gospel points out that this prayer occurs at the moment of the crucifixion. “It was probably the moment of sharpest pain, when nails were being driven into His wrists and feet. Here, at the peak of suffering, comes the pinnacle of love: forgiveness, which is the gift to the Nth power that breaks the cycle of evil,” Pope Francis said 2019.

Father Samson said, “What we see is even though it is a very dark time, there’s also a lot of hope in it. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is entirely in control. He handed over His spirit. The cross is a sign of hope because the suffering is already redeemed. On Good Friday we remember Christ’s giving act of corporal self-denial. We are encouraged to make acts ourselves — abstaining from meat, and eating less — and denying a bodily desire for the greater act of self denial.”

Readings for Good Friday: 

Reading I: Isaiah 52:13-53:12 OR Genesis 1:1, 26-31a

Responsorial Psalm: 31:2, 6, 12-13, 15-16, 17, 25 OR Pslams 33:4-5, 6-7, 12-13, 20 and 22

Reading II: Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 OR Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18

Gospel: John 18:1-19:42

Holy Saturday

April 3

Photo Credits: Illustration by Abigail Witte
On the third day, Holy Saturday, Jesus descended into realm of the dead on Holy Saturday to save righteous souls, including Hebrew patriarchs such as Moses and Abraham, who died before His crucifixion. “Jesus’ death opened the gates of heaven,” Father Samson said. “He went to retrieve them and usher them into their heavenly reward.”

Christians are called to live Holy Saturday as a day of silence. Holy Saturday remembers the day which Jesus spent in the grave resting. The Easter Vigil, held at the end of the day, brings the joyful songs of the Easter Vigil — the Exultet and the Great Alleluia — to proclaim Christ’s victory over sin and death.

The Easter Vigil marks the culmination of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, a process of conversion and study in the Catholic faith for catechumens, those who have never been baptized, and for candidates, who were baptized in another Christian denomination and want to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. The paschal candle is blessed at the Easter Vigil and serves as a symbol of Christ, light of the world.

This is an allusion to Adam in the Garden of Eden, in which God created humanity and in which humanity fell away from him in sinful disobedience, leading to our death. “Jesus, the New Adam, represents humanity recreated faithfully in obedience to God and so destined for eternal life with Him in heaven,” Father Samson said.

The Triduum concludes in this Light of Christ, with victory over sin and death. The Easter Vigil invites us to receive Jesus’ life-giving love and to stay with Him now and forever.

Readings for Holy Saturday:

Reading I: Genesis 1:1-2:2

Responsorial Psalm: 104:1-2, 5-6, 10, 12, 13-14, 24, 35

Reading II: Genesis 22:1-18

Responsorial Psalm: 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11

Reading III: Exodus 14:15-15:1

Responsorial Psalm: Exodus 15:1-6, 17-18

Reading IV: Isaiah 54:5-14

Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 30:2-6, 11-13

^Reading V: Isaiah 55:1-11

Responsorial Psalm: Isaiah 12:2-6

Reading VI: Baruch 3:9-15, 34 — 4:4

Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 19: 8-11

Reading VII: Ezekial 36:16-17a, 18-28

Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 42:3, 5; 43:3, 4 OR Isaiah 12:2-3, 4bcd, 5-6 OR Psalms 51:12-15, 18-19

Epistle: Romans 6:3-11

Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 118: 1-2, 16-17, 22-23

Gospel: Mark 16:1-7

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