It is still uncertain when Christians first began to make an annual, as opposed to a weekly, memorial of the death and resurrection of Christ. This Pascha – a word derived from the Hebrew for ‘Passover’ – was at first a night-long vigil, followed by the celebration of the Eucharist at cock-crow, and all the great themes of redemption were included within it: incarnation, suffering, death, resurrection, glorification. Over time, the Pascha developed into the articulated structure of Holy Week and Easter. Through participation in the whole sequence of services, we share in Christ’s own journey, from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the empty tomb on Easter morning.
The Palm Sunday procession with palms, which was already observed in Jerusalem in the fourth century, is accompanied by the reading or singing of the Passion Narrative, in which the whole story of the week is anticipated.
Maundy Thursday (from mandatum, ‘commandment’ – from ‘A New Commandment I give to you that you love one another as I have loved you’) contains a rich complex of themes: humble Christian service expressed through Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet, the institution of the Eucharist, the perfection of Christ’s loving obedience through the agony of Gethsemane.
After keeping vigil on Thursday passes into Good Friday with its two characteristic episodes. Firstly, the veneration of the Cross, and secondly the widespread custom that although there is not a celebration of the Eucharist on Good Friday, nevertheless the consecrated bread and wine remaining from the Maundy Thursday Eucharist is given in communion – what is known as ‘Communion of the Pre-sanctified’.
On Good Friday an the church remains stripped of all decoration. It continues bare, locked and empty through the whole of Saturday, which is a day without a liturgy: there can be no adequate way of recalling the being dead of the Son of God, other than silence and desolation. But within the silence there grows a sense of peace and completion, and then rising excitement as the Easter Vigil draws near and the Easter Day Eucharist awaits us.
I invite you to join me in these days of holy remembering: joining us on Sunday evening as we reflect on the Way of the Cross together; travelling on the bus with us on Monday evening to share in the Oils Eucharist with brothers and sisters throughout the diocese; in our quiet services of prayerful preparation on Tuesday and Wednesday; at one of our three services of Eucharist and foot washing on Maundy Thursday – when we are once again offering the Eucharist at various times in order to provide an opportunity that is convenient for everyone; at one of our two services of Veneration and Communion on Good Friday; at the Easter Vigil, when the new fire will be lit on Holy Saturday; and at one of the two celebrations of the Easter Eucharist on Easter Day.
The details of all of these services are available in our Holy Week service guide, an insert in your pew slip today. Please take home a copy, and take spare copies for your neighbours and friends. This solemn season preserves some of the oldest texts still in current use, and rehearses the deepest and most fundamental Christian memories. I invite you to join me on this most holy of annual pilgrimages as we move from palms to oil, from oil to foot washing, from foot washing to veneration, from veneration to the new fire, and from the new fire to the celebration of the resurrection of Our Lord.