Holy Week: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
It has been known by many names through the centuries. It has been called the Great Week, the Week of Forgiveness and the Week of the Holy Passion. We know it simply as Holy Week.
We know from early writers that Holy Week originally incorporated the last Sunday in Lent, but this part of the calendar shifted as the commemoration of Palm Sunday became normative. As a result, Holy Week proper begins on Monday. Most of the structure and ceremonies of Holy Week appear to have their origins in fourth century Jerusalem. As the persecution of the Church abated, pilgrims gained access to the city and left accounts of what rapidly became traditional rites associated with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil. These rites were, in a very real sense, enactments of the Passion of Christ which took place in the very places associated with his death and resurrection. In a very short time, these practices and rites spread beyond Jerusalem to almost every part of the Christian world.
Throughout the centuries, it is as though Christians have felt the need to mark Holy Week with signs and symbols that point to not only the solemnity of our remembrance of the Passion, but also to the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Take for example the service known as Tenebrae which some of you know or have experienced. Originally, it was not a single service, but referred to the services of Matins and Lauds sung on the preceding evening of the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of Holy Week. It had its start in monastic communities. The name refers to “darkness” and alludes to the ancient extinguishing of lights, one by one, in the course of the service. In its original form, fifteen lighted candles were arranged on a special stand. Fourteen of the candles (seven on each side) represent the eleven apostles, the Virgin Mary and the two women who were with her at the Cross. A single candle at the top or center of the stand represents Christ. Originally, the Office psalms were sung and at the end of each psalm a candle was extinguished indicating the flight and/or mourning of the apostles and the women. One by one the candle flames die until only one remains burning. The single burning candle is reverently taken from the stand and placed behind the altar to symbolize Christ in his tomb… but it is not extinguished as death has no dominion over him, even in the grave.
Now, Christians around the world, and in varied traditions, have altered or adapted the service of Tenebrae to suit their own circumstances. Similarly, the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday or the three hour watch service on Good Friday culminating in the stripping of the altars have been adapted and used to help us in our observation of Holy Week.
This year, however, many of us will not be in church for this Holy Week.
Instead, we will be remembering a year of isolation, fear and, in all too many cases, mourning for those we have lost to the pandemic. I went a year without seeing my mother, except through a window. I have friends who have lost their jobs and others who have closed down their place of business. Some friends have been hospitalized… and some have died. I’m afraid that if I attended a Tenebrae service this week, the extinguishing of the candles one by one might be more than I could handle emotionally.
Yet, I believe that this is precisely where Holy Week meets us in our lives. Just as in that first Holy Week when the apostles and the women knew fear, confusion, displacement, isolation and mourning, there is still one light that has not been extinguished.
The hope of Easter and Resurrection remains.