Passion (Palm) Sunday through Holy Saturday.
Passion Sunday, formerly called Palm Sunday, marks the start of Holy Week by recalling Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the last week of his life (see Matthew 21:1-11). A procession and other ceremonies commemorating the event were held in Jerusalem from the fourth century and were adopted by Rome by the ninth century. At that time, the blessing of palms for the occasion was introduced. Later, in the Middle Ages, a wooden statue of Christ sitting on a donkey, the whole image on wheels, was drawn in the center of the procession. These statues, known as Palmesel or “Palm Donkey,” may still be seen in a number of museums in European cities. Full liturgical observance includes the blessing of palms and a procession before the principal Mass of the day. The Passion — by Matthew, Mark, or Luke, depending on the year — is read during the Mass of this Sunday.
Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, commemorates the institution of the sacraments of Eucharist and holy orders, and features a foot-washing rite that commemorates Christ’s washing of the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper. The Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the evening marks the beginning of the Easter Triduum. The term “Maundy” is derived from the Latin mandatum, the first words for the rite of foot-washing: “My commandment is: love one another as I have loved you.”
From the Latin for “three days,” the Triduum continues until Vespers (evening prayer) on Easter Sunday. The period recalls Christ’s institution of the sacraments of Eucharist and holy orders, his Passion and death, and his triumphant Resurrection from the dead.
Following the Mass on Holy Thursday, there is a procession of the Blessed Sacrament to a place of repose for adoration by the faithful. Usually at an earlier Mass of Chrism, bishops bless oils (of catechumens, of the sick, and sacred chrism) for use during the year.
Good Friday commemorates the Passion and death of Christ. The liturgy includes the reading of the Passion according to John, special prayers for the Church, civil rulers, and people of all ranks, the veneration of the cross, and a Communion service. The celebration takes place in the afternoon, usually at three o’clock, the hour that Christ is believed to have died on the cross. The Communion service, held in lieu of the sacrifice of the Mass, is known as the “Mass of the Presanctified.”
On Holy Saturday, the Sacrifice of the Mass is not celebrated and Holy Communion may be given only as Viaticum. Since at least the fourth century, Christianity has marked Holy Week. After the time of the persecutions, Christian emperors of both the East and West issued various decrees forbidding amusements and games and directed that these days were to be spent free from worldly occupations and entirely devoted to religious exercises. Pardons were granted to those in prison, and many charges in court were dropped in honor of Christ’s Passion.
In the Middle Ages, all secular business was prohibited, and the time was spent in recollection and prayer. Often, kings and rulers secluded themselves in monasteries. During some eras, no servile work was allowed during the Triduum, and the faithful were to be present at all liturgies. In 1642, Pope Urban VIII, because of the changing conditions of social life, rescinded this obligation.
In most countries, real palms are unattainable for Passion Sunday, so a variety of other branches are used. Centuries ago, not only branches but flowers were blessed, and in some countries the day is called “Flower Sunday.” (The term Pascua Florida, which in Spain originally meant just Palm Sunday, was later applied to the entire festive season of Easter Week or Octave. The state of Florida received its name when Ponce de León first sighted the land on Easter Sunday of 1513 and named it in honor of the great feast.)
In central Europe, large clusters of plants interwoven with ribbons and flowers arefastened to a top of a wooden stick and are called palm bouquets. The main plant used, however, is the pussy willow bearing its catkin blossoms. In Latin countries and in the United States, palm leaves are often shaped into little crosses or other symbolic designs. The faithful reverently keep these in their homes during the year. This custom was originated by a suggestion in the ceremonial book for bishops that “little crosses of palm be attached to the boughs wherever true palms are not available in sufficient quantity.”
In the early Christian centuries, the bishop celebrated three Masses on Holy Thursday. The first, the Mass of the Penitents, was for the reconciliation of public sinners. The second, the Mass of Chrism, featured the blessing of holy oils and consecration of sacred chrism. The third commemorated the Last Supper of Christ and the institution of the Eucharist.
Today, after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the altar is stripped, and all decorations except those at the repository shrine are removed in symbolic representation of the body of Christ, which was stripped of its garments.
Good Friday has been celebrated from the earliest centuries as a day of mourning, fasting, and prayer. After the solemn ceremonies of Good Friday are concluded, the altar is stripped again, the tabernacle is left open, no lights are left burning in the sanctuary, and only the crucifix takes the place of honor in front of the empty tabernacle. On this day the cross is venerated by genuflection rather than a bow.
Traditionally, Holy Saturday has been a time of preparing at home for the Easter celebration.
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This excerpt is from Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices by Ann Ball. Universal devotions and worldwide practices are examined and explained, in addition to ethnic and regional customs and traditions. (Hispanic, Filipino, Vietnamese, Russian, Irish, Italian, and more!) 720 pages, hardback, $39.95 plus S&H. Order here