Friday, April 6, 2012

Holy Week and Easter Traditions

As I posted the salutation, "Have a blessed Maundy Thursday," on a friend's Facebook page it dawned on me that many people don't know the significance of Maundy Thursday or even what Holy Week is.  As a member of the Episcopal church from childhood through early adulthood, I grew up observing the traditions of Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter. Although the churches most of us attend these days generally recognize and celebrate Easter as perhaps the most significant event of Christianity, we cannot truly comprehend the significance of Easter without an understanding of Lent and the events that took place during Holy Week, the last week of Christ's life.

In more liturgical Christian denominations, such as the Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches, the spiritual journey toward Easter begins with the observance of Lent, a season of penitence, fasting, and spiritual discipline which begins forty days prior to Easter, excluding Sundays.  Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent.  In some churches, an Ash Wednesday service is held during which "the minister will lightly rub the sign of the cross with ashes onto the foreheads of worshipers."  These ashes typically come from the palms used to celebrate the previous Palm Sunday. 
(; Photo Credit:

During the season of Lent, individuals often give up things they enjoy such as favorite foods and beverages or forms of entertainment such as watching TV or surfing the web, often with the intent of diverting the money or time spent on these pleasures to those in need or to spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible study. 

As the season of Lent concludes, the celebration of Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, the day commemorating Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem prior to his crucifixion.  Many churches observe this Sunday by singing special hymns and having their congregations wave palm branches during the worship service to signify the greeting of the crowds as Christ rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Maundy Thursday is the observance of "a variety of events that are clustered on this last day before Jesus was arrested that are commemorated in various ways in services of worship. These include the last meal together, which was probably a Passover meal, the institution of Eucharist or Communion, the betrayal by Judas (because of the exchange with Jesus at the meal), and Jesus praying in Gethsemane while the disciples fell asleep. Most liturgies, however, focus on the meal and communion as a way to commemorate this day."  (Copyright © 2012 CRI/Voice, Institute, Dennis Bratcher)

Good Friday (Holy Friday) is the day the church commemorates "Jesus’ arrest (since by Jewish customs of counting days from sundown to sundown it was already Friday), his trial, crucifixion and suffering, death, and burial."  Services can vary but are generally "aimed at allowing worshippers to experience some sense of the pain, humiliation, and ending in the journey to the cross."  Church traditions include a reading of the Seven Last Words of Christ, the Stations of the Cross, or Tenebrae service.  (Copyright © 2012 CRI/Voice, Institute, Dennis Bratcher)

Holy Saturday is the seventh day of Holy Week, commemorating the day Jesus rested in the tomb.   "Some traditions suspend services and Scripture readings during the day on Saturday, to be resumed at the Easter Vigil after sundown Saturday. It is traditionally a day of quiet meditation as Christians contemplate the darkness of a world without a future and without hope apart from God and his grace." (Copyright © 2012 CRI/Voice, Institute, Dennis Bratcher)

Easter Sunday is a day of celebration for Christians the world over.  The word Easter conjures up images of baskets filled with brightly colored eggs and candy, chocolate bunnies, and crowded churches filled with families attired in their Sunday best. It is a day celebrated with sunrise worship services, Easter egg hunts, and feasting on a traditional ham or dining in overcrowded restaurants. But Easter is about so much more than these things. It is the culmination of a season of penitence, reflection, and remembrance of the life of Christ, who died on the cross for our sins and was resurrected from the dead on the day we know as Easter. 

One of my favorite traditions growing up in the Episcopal church was the Flowering of the Cross on Easter morning.  Prior to the celebration service, we would bring our mite (offering) boxes and flowers from our yards to decorate the hollowed out cross which stood in the front of our sanctuary.  The mite boxes contained money we might have spent on candy or whatever we chose to give up for Lent, and the funds were designated for mission work or to help the needy.  Fresh flowers were inserted in the elastic band framing the cross, creating a beautiful and fragrant symbol of the Resurrection.  The picture below, used with the permission of Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, CO, depict a traditional Flowering of the Cross.

Whatever your traditions are for celebrating Easter, I pray that God will bless you richly with a fresh appreciation of Christ's death on the cross for your sins and the hope of His Resurrection.

Christ has risen. The Lord is risen indeed!

Copyright © 2012 by Dee Dee Wike.  All rights reserved.

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