A historical narrative of the week we now observe as Holy Week is found in John 12-20. During Holy Week, Christians of different denominations around the world will unite to reflect on the events which led to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
The observance of Holy Week seems to have been a development of the Christian East, coming out of pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Every day of Holy Week is important, but four specific days merit words of explanation. These are Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, often called Easter. While almost all believers celebrate Easter, believers from different faith backgrounds observe one or more of the other days of Holy Week.
Palm Sunday, the Sunday prior to Easter, commemorates what is commonly called “the triumphal entry of Jesus” into Jerusalem. The Gospels reveal that great crowds “took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel'” (Jn 12:13).
Such praise did not last the entire week. During the week, Jesus cleansed the temple of thieves and robbers, he denounced the Pharisees, he offered many parables, and he predicted persecution for those who would follow him. By Thursday, Judas had arranged to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
According to the Gospels, Thursday night Jesus spent time alone with his disciples in the upper room. They shared somber but memorable moments together around the table before Jesus and a couple of disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. As Jesus spoke with these disciples, Judas arrived, and after Judas marked Jesus with a kiss of betrayal, Jesus was arrested.
According to John’s Gospel, prior to Jesus’ meal with the disciples and the betrayal by Judas, Jesus had ceremonially washed his disciples’ feet and had given to them a mandate, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34).
Because the word “maundy” comes from the word for “mandate,” the day is called Maundy Thursday when we remember Jesus’ mandate to “love one another.” On this day, many Christians observe the Lord’s Supper to commemorate the occasion of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples.
The following day Jesus was interrogated behind closed doors, beaten unmercifully and eventually crucified without a legitimate trial. Yet for all its terror, this day is remembered as Good Friday. Other terms for this day have included Day of Preparation, Day of our Lord’s Passion and Day of Absolution. English Christians who judged the consequences of this day as good began referring to the day as Good Friday. Many Eastern Christians still refer to this day as Great Friday.
After the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea received permission to bury Jesus. Joseph took Jesus’ body, wrapped him in a clean linen cloth and laid him in a new tomb that Joseph had hewn for himself. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary witnessed the burial. Joseph placed a stone at the entrance possibly to keep out predators and curiosity seekers. Prompted by the chief priests and Pharisees, Pilate ordered soldiers to secure the premises.
Early on Sunday morning when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary returned to the tomb, they found that the stone had been removed and the tomb was empty. On Easter Sunday, we celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
In his book, The Gift of Worship, Welton Gaddy underscores the opportunity we have to experience the fullness of this crucial week: “Holy Week services bring into focus dimensions of discipleship that are missed completely by a simple leap from Palm Sunday to Easter. Worship services which take seriously the truths of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday please God because they challenge a greater commitment and a more comprehensive ministry of compassion among the people of God.”
As you approach Holy Week, slow down and meditate on the passion of Jesus. Listen to the voices of the crowd. Hear again the words of Jesus and ponder his days in Jerusalem. Such a journey may expand your knowledge and enrich your faith.
Barry Howard is senior minister of First Baptist Church in Corbin, Ky.