Download the FREE "Your Guide to Holy Week" poster (PDF)

What are you doing for Holy Week?

It's okay if your Holy Week list includes coloring eggs, cleaning and baking for Easter, shopping for new outfits, traveling to a relative's home or going on a spring vacation. There's nothing wrong with secular Easter activities.

But it's important to keep in mind that there is also a profound spiritual basis for the holiday celebration.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and ends at sundown on Easter Sunday.

Our remembrance of the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus makes Holy Week the most sacred time of the year for Catholics.

How will you balance the sacred part of Holy Week with all of the other things you will be doing? All of it is important in your life and in the lives of your family members. But keeping a balance between the spiritual and the secular will require a little planning on your part.

Start by making a list of everything that needs to be done during Holy Week. Then block out time in your busy calendar for attending Holy Week liturgies. Be sure to set aside specific times every day during the week for Lenten devotions, quiet prayer, Scripture reading and meditation.

Your greatest temptation will be scrimping on your spiritual needs because there is so much going on! If you let that happen, your Easter celebration may look perfect on the surface, but will feel spiritually unsatisfying.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do we use the word "Passion" to describe the suffering of Jesus?

The word "Passion" comes from the Latin word for suffering. When referring to the events leading up to the death of Jesus, we capitalize the word Passion to differentiate from the modern meaning of the word with its romantic overtones.

Why do some parishes cover the cross and statues during Holy Week?

Before 1970 it was customary to cover crosses and statues during the last two weeks of Lent. After 1970, the practice was left up to the discretion of each diocese. In 1995, the United States Bishop's Committee on Liturgy gave individual parishes permission to reinstate the practice on their own.

What is Tenebrae?

The word Tenebrae comes from the Latin word meaning "shadows" or "darkness." It was originally the name given to somber parts of the Liturgy of the Hours that are chanted in monasteries on the last three days of Holy Week. The tone of the prayers is filled with sorrow and desolation. At various points during a Tenebrae service, candles are extinguished and there is a cacophony of noise, which evokes feelings of betrayal, abandonment, pain, sadness and darkness associated with the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Parishes sometimes offer Tenebrae services during Holy Week.

Why do we call it "Good Friday?"

In the English language the term "Good Friday" probably evolved from "God's Friday" in the same way that "Good-bye" evolved from "God be with you."

Why do some parishes celebrate the Good Friday liturgy in the afternoon and others in the evening?

Ideally, the liturgy should take place at 3 p.m. However, in order to encourage more people to attend, the liturgy can take place later in the evening, but never after 9 p.m.

What is Pascha?

The word "Pascha," or "Pasch," comes from the Greek word for the Passover. The early Christians used the word to describe the resurrection of Jesus as the Christian Passover. Today, we sometimes refer to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Paschal Mystery, which is derived from the word Pasch. Orthodox Christian s still use the word Pascha when referring to Easter.

Who decides the date of Easter?

In 325, the Council of Nicaea decreed that Easter would be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. It can occur as early as April 22 or as late as April 25.

Good Friday regulations

Only one full meal is permitted Good Friday for Catholics between 18 and 59. Two smaller meals are allowed, but they should not equal a second full meal. Drinking coffee, tea and water between meals is allowed, but eating snacks between meals is not.

All Catholics who have reached the age of 14 must abstain from meat on Good Friday.

Holy Week quiz

How much do you remember about the people and events of Holy Week? Here's a little quiz to test your knowledge.

1. Where did the Agony in the Garden take place?

2. Who betrayed Jesus?

3. Who denied Jesus three times?

4. Who ordered Jesus to be scourged?

5. What criminal was released instead of Jesus?

6. How many Stations of the Cross are there?

7. How many times does Jesus fall on the way to Calvary?

8. Who helped Jesus carry his cross?

9. Who wiped the face of Jesus?

10. What did the sign on the cross say?

11. Who made arrangements for the burial of Jesus?

12. Who was the first to discover that Jesus had risen?

Answers to quiz: 1.) Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives; 2.) Judas; 3.) Peter; 4.) Pontius Pilate; 5.) Barabbas; 6.) 14; 7.) three; 8.) Simon of Cyrene; 9.) Veronica; 10.) King of the Jews; 11.) Joseph of Arimathea; 12). Mary Magdalene.

Holy Week customs

Palm crosses: From medieval times, people have believed that blessed palms formed into the shape of a cross would protect them from danger. The easiest way to make a cross from blessed palms is to cut two pieces of the palm, arrange in the shape of a cross, put a thumbtack in the middle, and attach the cross to a doorway or a bulletin board. Check the Internet for directions on how to braid or weave palms into more decorative crosses.

Housecleaning: In many cultures the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week are designated as days for vigorous housecleaning in preparation for Easter. This custom probably evolved from the Jewish custom of ritual cleaning before Passover.

Coloring eggs: Decorating eggs was a pagan symbol of rebirth at springtime for the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Persians and even the Chinese. Christians adopted the colored egg as a symbol of new life which comes with the Resurrection.

Easter lilies: The tradition of buying Easter lilies during Holy Week for use as decorations in homes and churches came into practice in the 1800s. The white flower is a symbol of purity and new life that heralds the resurrection of Jesus.

Visiting churches: The custom of visiting several churches to say a prayer on Holy Thursday was a tradition that evolved from the practice of making pilgrimages to holy places.

Sweet breads: In many cultures, Holy Week was traditionally a time for baking sweet breads, cakes and pastries that would be served on Easter Sunday.

Blessing of Easter baskets: In many cultures, families bring food that will be eaten on Easter Sunday to church in a basket for a special blessing on Holy Saturday.

New clothes: From the time of the early Christians, the newly baptized wore white garments made from new linen. In medieval times, it became a tradition for people to wear new clothes on Easter Sunday, symbolizing the "new life" that comes with the Resurrection. In some places it was believed that bad luck would come to those who could afford new Easter clothes but refused to buy them.

Holy Water blessings: Some families bring holy water containers to Mass on Easter so they can bring home some Easter water, which is blessed during the Easter Vigil, to bless their homes.

The Seven Last Words of Jesus

Taking time to meditate on the seven last words of Jesus is a traditional devotion during Holy Week. Here are the last words spoken by Jesus with their Scripture citations. You might want to read the passages from your Bible and then ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand what meaning these words have in your life today:

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Lk 23:34)

"Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Lk 23:43)

"Behold, your mother!" (Jn 19:26-27)

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Mt 27:46)

"I thirst!" (Jn 19:28)

"It is finished!" (Jn 19:30)

"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." (Lk 23:46)

12 ways to make Holy Week more meaningful

THINK PRAYER. If you have to work or go to school during Holy Week, think about how you can incorporate prayer breaks into each day.

MAKE AN ADDITIONAL SACRIFICE by fasting and abstaining from meat on Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday in addition to Good Friday.

DON'T WATCH TELEVISION from sundown on Holy Thursday until Easter morning.

GO to confession.

SET ASIDE 10 minutes every day to read Passion accounts in the Gospels.

Make it a point to FORGIVE someone on Good Friday.

PRAY the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.

OFFER UP any pain or difficulties you experience during Holy Week and unite your sufferings with the pain of Christ.

PRAY the Stations of the Cross.

ATTEND all of the Triduum liturgies.

INVITE family members, friends and neighbors -- especially people who have strayed from the church -- to come to church with you.

VOLUNTEER to help decorate your parish on Holy Saturday for Easter.

The Sacred Triduum

The word "Triduum" comes from the Latin word meaning "three days," and encompasses the three most sacred days in the Church year. It begins at sundown on Holy Thursday, reaches a high point at the Easter Vigil, and concludes with evening prayer at sundown on Easter Sunday.

The liturgical celebrations during the Triduum on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday are rich with symbolism and flow from one to another in a seamless way. While it may appear as if these liturgies are separate and distinct, they are actually intended to be one continuous celebration that commemorates the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

For this reason, Catholics are encouraged to observe the entire Triduum by attending all of the liturgies. For more on the liturgies of the Sacred Triduum, see Page 12.

Palm Sunday of  the Lord's Passion

Mt 21:1-11 (procession)

Is 50:4-7

Ps 22:8-9,17-20,23-24

Phil 2:6-11

Mt 26:14-27:66

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion, the Sixth Sunday of Lent, marks the beginning of Holy Week. The Mass on this day commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem when people waved palm branches and shouted "Hosanna."

Before Mass begins, palms are blessed, and there is a procession that symbolizes the beginning of the spiritual journey into the Paschal Mystery that will unfold throughout Holy Week.

During the Mass, the full Gospel account of the passion and death of Jesus is read. The priest usually takes the lines attributed to Jesus. Several lectors take other parts. The people in the pews read the lines attributed to the crowd.

The Mass continues with the celebration of the Eucharist.

People are encouraged to take the blessed palm branches home where they can be fashioned into crosses or placed behind a crucifix.

The blessed palms that are left in the church are burned and used for ashes the following year on Ash Wednesday.

Monday of Holy Week

Is 42:1-7

Ps 27:1-3,13-14

Jn 12:1-11

The Gospel reading this day recalls the woman who anointed Jesus with oil.

Tuesday of Holy Week

Is 49:1-6

Ps 71:1-6,15,17

Jn 13:21-33,36-38

The Gospel offers a hint of the events to come as Jesus predicts the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter.

Wednesday of Holy Week

Is 50:4-9

Ps 69:8-10,21-22,31, 33-34

Mt 26:14-25

This day is traditionally referred to as "Spy Wednesday" because it recalls the decision of Judas to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.

Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper

Ex 12:1-8,11-14

Ps 116:12-13,15-18

1 Cor 11:23-26

Jn 13:1-15

The Mass of the Lord's Supper commemorates the Passover meal that Jesus shared in the Upper Room with the apostles on the night before he died. Before the meal, he washed their feet to impress upon them the call to serve others. The Church recognizes the Last Supper as the institution of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

During the meal, Jesus also instituted the Eucharist by transforming bread and wine into his own Body and Blood.

After the meal, Jesus went to Gethsemane where he suffered the agony in the garden, the betrayal of Judas and the brutality of being arrested.

The Mass of the Last Supper is a dramatic liturgy with the priest washing the feet of 12 parishioners.

After Communion, the altar and sanctuary are stripped and there is a procession with the Blessed Sacrament, which is taken to a separate altar of repose, usually located on a side altar or in a chapel. There is no dismissal or final blessing. It is the last time the Eucharist will be celebrated until the Easter Vigil.

People leave in silence, but continue to keep a vigil with Jesus in their hearts in anticipation of the events that will take place on the next day.

Good Friday

Is 52:13-53:12

Ps 31:2,6,12-13,15-17,25

Heb 4:14-16;5:7-9

Jn 18:1-19:42

The Celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday is a somber service that commemorates the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus. Because it is considered a continuation from the night before, the liturgy begins in silence. The priest enters and lies prostrate at the foot of the altar.

The service begins with the Liturgy of the Word, which includes a reading about the suffering servant in Isaiah, a psalm, a reading from the book of Hebrews, and the account of the passion and death of Jesus from the Gospel of John. During this part of the liturgy there are special prayers for all the people in the world.

The second part of the liturgy is the Veneration of the Cross, an ancient practice that allows each person to touch or kiss the instrument of torture that leads to salvation.

The third part of the liturgy is a Communion service with hosts that were consecrated the night before. Afterward, the tabernacle is left empty and open. The lamp or candle usually situated next to the tabernacle, denoting the presence of Christ, is extinguished.

People leave the church in silence, but continue to keep a vigil with Jesus, who has entered the tomb and will rise on the third day.

Easter Vigil

Gn 1:1-2:2

Gn 22:1-18

Ex 14:15-15:1

Is 54:5-14

Is 55:1-11

Bar 3:9-15,32-4:4

Ez 36:16-28

Rom 6:3-11

Mt 28:1-10

Once again the celebration begins in silence with people waiting in darkness.

The first part of the Vigil is the Light Service, which begins outdoors with the Easter fire and the lighting of the paschal candle. The candle is carried into the dark church as a symbol of the Light of Christ, a powerful reminder that Jesus is light in the darkness.

The individual candles, held by people in the pews, are lit from the paschal candle. By the time the procession reaches the altar, the church is bathed in candlelight.

The Exultet, an ancient song of proclamation that gives thanks and praise to God, is sung.

During the Liturgy of the Word, Scripture readings and psalms help people reflect on all of the wonderful things God has done throughout salvation history.

Then the baptismal water is blessed, the candidates and catechumens receive the sacraments of initiation, and the congregation renews baptismal vows.

During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, people share in the Body and Blood of Christ.

The mystery and ritual of the Easter Vigil touch the deepest part of people's souls with elements of darkness, light, silence, music, fire, water and oil, along with bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of the risen Lord. They are reminded that new life in Christ can never be overcome by darkness or death.

Easter Sunday

Acts 10:34a,37-43

Ps 118:1-2,16-17,22-23

Col 3:1-4 or 1 Cor 5:6-8

Jn 20:1-9 or Mt 28:1-1

For the early Christians, the celebration of Masses on Easter morning developed as a way to accommodate people who were unable to attend the Easter Vigil.

Today, Easter Sunday Masses are joy-filled celebrations of the risen Lord with the singing of the Gloria and alleluias, the renewal of baptismal vows, and a sprinkling with Easter water. After sharing in the Eucharist, people go forth strengthened in faith to serve the Lord and one another.

Easter Sunday marks the beginning of the Easter season, which will last the next 50 days and include the celebration of Jesus' ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

Download the FREE "Your Guide to Holy Week" poster (PDF)

Lorene Hanley Duquin writes from New York.