Holy Week, the time between Palm Sunday and Easter, is the most sacred period of the Christian liturgical year. Starting with a Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and leading to Christ’s resurrection from the dead, Holy Week encapsulates the entire Christian message.
On Palm Sunday, Christ is heralded as king and savior but in an unusual way (Mark 14:1–15:47). He rides into Jerusalem in a donkey, not a stallion. He identifies with the poor and the marginalized as they wave palm branches and lay down their coats for him to walk on. Here is a reversal of Eden. Instead of covering themselves because of their sin, they remove their cloaks to allow the Son of God to crush them — thereby enacting what the Orthodox describe as “trampling down death by death.” The reading invites us to remove our cloaks of pride and celebrate as the king quashes them underfoot.
What does this mean practically? Pope Francis observed on Palm Sunday 2021, “In drawing close to those ill-treated by life, we are loving Jesus. For that is where he is: in the least of our brothers and sisters, in the rejected and discarded, in those whom our self-righteous culture condemns.” We worship the king by humbling ourselves in solidarity with all who suffer.
The week proceeds to Holy Monday, and in the Catholic liturgical tradition Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume as a prefiguration of his burial (John 12:1–11). In addition to Christ’s burial, the significance of anointing relates to his role of the king. The word “Christ” means “anointed one,” and as God’s anointed, Jesus reigns as king. But this kingship is a most unusual one because it is concomitant with his death. The kingdom of God is not one of imperialism, bullying, or domineering. Instead, Christ Jesus reigns in and through his death — trampling down death by death.
On Holy Monday, then, we stop to reflect on the Beatitude, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” As Mary paused to grieve over the death of Christ, we should give ourselves time to mourn. It’s easy to move past lamenting, but experiencing sorrow is an integral part of following Christ. We mourn with everyone he associates with — those condemned to die alone on the streets, victims of war, refugees, addicts who overdose, abused children, targets of mass shootings, people living in areas ravaged by corporate greed, and so many others who suffer. Like Mary, we mourn those in distress, and we anoint their feet with the costly perfume of service and structural change.
In the Gospel reading for Holy Tuesday (John 13:21–33, 36–38), Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. Judas shares a meal with Jesus, but Satan has entered his heart. Peter feels self-assured, but he cannot imagine his own fear and weakness. Here is a warning to examine ourselves carefully. It’s easy for Christians to betray Jesus in favor of our own desires and wishes — to sit at the table and share a meal with him while harboring evil in our hearts. Often, that betrayal comes in the form of judging and despising others. Thinking and behaving as if we are holier than others is a betrayal of Jesus. Ignoring those in need amounts to denying him. Holy Tuesday provides a warning against pride, self-assurance, and hypocrisy.
Days 2 and 3 of Holy Week demonstrate the paths we can and do follow. At times, we’ve been Mary anointing our Lord’s feet, but other times we sell him out and deny we know him. We’ve all been Mary, Peter, and Judas — all in the course of a couple days. We find a caution to be aware of this, pray about it, and make humbly make choices.
Holy Wednesday is sometimes called Spy Wednesday because this day recalls the events surrounding Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (Matthew 26:14–25). As the narrative approaches the crucifixion, the disciples move away from Christ. The message warns us that as we draw closer to the crucified Christ that we will be tempted to turn Jesus over for our own version of 30 pieces of silver. Like Judas, sitting at his communion table is no guarantee that we do not have our own agendas. Holy Wednesday teaches us to beware of our hypocrisy.
On Holy Thursday — also known as Maundy Thursday — Jesus and his disciples gather for the Mystical Supper (John 13:1–15). Jesus arises from the table, girds himself with a towel, and washes the disciples’ feet. It’s a stunning scene; God incarnate stoops to cleanse the part of the human body that comes in closest contact with the earth from which humans came.
“If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
This is a baptism that comes with a blessing of service. Liturgically, the bishop (or priest) washes the feet of parishioners during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Pope Francis famously washes the feet of refugees, prisoners, and disabled people. Those whose feet have been washed, whose humanity has been re-created by the Son of God, must gird themselves with a towel and serve others in the lowliest ways possible.
On Good Friday, the Romans arrest, try, and scourge Jesus (John 18:1–19:42). After the torture, they nail him to a cross and watch him die in a public execution. Before breathing his last, Jesus entrusts his mother to the care of the beloved disciple and entrusts the beloved disciple into the care of his mother. More than just a curiosity, Dr. John Behr explains the theological significance of this event as the Church caring for the disciples and all disciples must care for the Church. Standing by the suffering and dying Christ is essential for the collective church and individual believers. The church cannot turn its backs on the one who is found in the poor, suffering, and dying of our world — for that’s who Christ is.
It is finished, so Holy Saturday is a day of waiting. Maybe the most difficult time of Holy Week, we simply stop. Our expectations have been taken from us as we come face to face with the inescapable reality of death. When death brings everything to a standstill, we should we do? There’s nothing we can do but wait. And our waiting finally ends with resurrection during the Easter Vigil.
These seven days of Holy Week remind us of the seven days of creation, but this is a new creation — one that moves from death to life. In just seven days, we move from the exuberance of the Palm Sunday to betrayal and denial to death and finally culminating resurrection. On each day, we are immersed in humility. Taking off our cloaks of pride. Drawing close to Christ by being in the crowd of those ill0treated by life. Anointing the feet of Christ by serving people in need. Recognizing our own proclivity to betray and deny in favor of our own desires. Taking up a towel instead of a sword. Standing at the foot of the cross. Waiting for resurrection. This is the Gospel message, Christian life, and sacred hope.