All About Holy Week

This guide is intended to take you through the services normally held at St Michael’s from  Passion Sunday to Holy Saturday, when Christ’s journey to death and Resurrection are remembered in liturgy and music, symbol and prayer.

While it is not possible to meet physically this year, the following provides a background to the main services which will be available within the Easter Worship folder.

PALM SUNDAY        Sunday 5th April

Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the people acclaimed him King.  We have a silent procession from the station to the church, silent because we know that this journey will lead to Christ’s Passion, yet not sombre, because that death will be defeated by the Life of the Resurrection.  For that reason, the branches which we carry, and will place at the foot of the Cross, are evergreen; the tradition of the procession dates from the 4thC. 

As both gospel and sermon, a Gospel account of the Passion is read offering us a dramatised “trailer” for the events that will unfold during Holy Week.  The palm crosses we receive will be sprinkled by water blessed by the clergy, an echo of the blessing of our baptism, and after the service any remaining water – like all water blessed in this way – will be poured into the ground.  We are invited to keep these palm crosses and offer them next year, so they can be burnt and the ash used on Ash Wednesday. 

MAUNDY THURSDAY     Thursday 9th April

The name “Maundy” comes from the Latin “Mandatum Novum”, “a new mandate”, which Jesus gives to his disciples – and to us all – to “love one another as I have loved you”.  As we know, on the night before he was crucified, Jesus shared a final meal with his disciples, the Last Supper.  Matthew, Mark and Luke record Jesus’ breaking of the bread, which became the Eucharist, whereas John describes the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus, an act of humility and servant leadership carried out today by the clergy.   Since the 4thC the church has recalled and re-enacted both the breaking of the bread and the foot washing on Maundy Thursday.  The priest’s stole (the cloth band worn around the neck) has, in fact, derived from the towel which Jesus carried, and is a symbol of service and sacrifice.

As the choir sing selected verses from Psalm 22 the altar is stripped bare, to symbolise the stripping of Christ’s garments.  The consecrated bread and wine left over from that “Last Supper” Eucharist is handed to the clergy and carefully wrapped with a “humeral veil”, (from “humerus” i.e. shoulder).  It is then taken in silent procession to “the Altar of Repose”, in a symbolic re-enactment of Christ leaving the upper room after supper to pray in the garden of Gethsemane. As the whole congregation follows and arrives “in the garden of Gethsemane”, the bread and wine are placed under a fine veil on the Altar of Repose, and we sing Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Stay with me, remain here with me” and “Stay here and keep watch with me”.  

The use of incense at this poignant service “lifts our prayer to heaven” and the beautiful Taizé music guides us through the whole Maundy Thursday journey.  After the service, if we wish, we may “stay and keep watch” at the Vigil until 10.30 p.m.

GOOD FRIDAY       Friday 10th April

As we gather in silence, our attention today rests on the figure of the Crucified Christ.  Our service includes, as a prayer pilgrimage, reflections on words and images, with meditations and music, depicting Christ’s journey to the Cross.

There is no Eucharist today.  Rather, Holy Communion is distributed using bread and wine that has already been consecrated. On the day that Jesus died, we are offered the bread and wine of the Last Supper he had with his friends, and it will be brought, in procession, from the Altar of Repose where it was tenderly placed on Maundy Thursday. 

HOLY SATURDAY   Saturday 11th April

The Light of the world has died and the world has gone dark. As people arrive for the service they will stand or sit outside the church around a brazier.  Then the Paschal Candle – the candle signifying the Light of Christ, which is always used at Easter and at Baptisms – is lit from the fire and carried into the church with the people all around.   Everyone will have their own candle and from that one light, all other light is drawn, and the darkness becomes flooded with light. 

After this “Service of Light”, we listen to five readings which recount our story - the story of God’s covenant with his people from earliest times.  For Christians, of course, this story of salvation and freedom is achieved through the risen Christ but the service draws heavily on what Jewish people would recognise from the festival of Passover – when the angel of death “passed over” the people of Israel held captive in Egypt and they could regain their freedom.  Even the term “Pascha” – from which we get “paschal” - is borrowed from the Jewish word for “Passover”.

In the next part of the service we are invited to renew our baptismal vows, remembering that, in the early church, people were baptised only at Easter, and received their first Eucharist then. The font, filled to metaphorically represent Christ as Living Water, will have been placed near the church entrance, the position it has traditionally occupied since earliest times.

This is followed by the first Eucharist of Easter, and the service concludes with the Surrexit Christus (Christ is Risen) – Latin titles in the Holy Week/Easter worship tell us that the text is ancient indeed!

This service is the high point of what is known as the Triduum (“three days”), which, beginning on the evening of Maundy Thursday and ending on Easter Sunday, contains the heart of the Christian faith.  

Finally, Easter doesn’t end after Easter Day (Eucharists at 8 am and 10 am) because there is a full eight days (“octave”) of celebration and Eastertide lasts for 50 days, until Pentecost.

A note about the colours used in the Church:

Purple is used on the altar and in other places throughout Lent to denote penitence and preparation, and from Passion Sunday to Good Friday the processional Cross and the Lady Chapel reredos (altar screen) will be covered in order to remind us of the hidden-ness of Christ’s divinity in these last days. 

For Palm Sunday and the following three days, the “liturgical colours” change to red, the colour of fire and blood, used to commemorate sacrifice but also the Holy Spirit.

For Maundy Thursday everything changes to White, the colour of celebration, before being stripped bare for the final part of that service and for Good Friday. 

On Holy Saturday, White is reinstated and will remain for the 50 days of Eastertide.  For the first time since Lent began, the church is filled with fragrant flowers (mostly lilies, which symbolise the Resurrection).

The Stations of the Cross depict the final hours of Jesus and help us to make a spiritual pilgrimage of prayer, through meditating upon what church tradition holds to be the principal scenes of Christ's sufferings and death.  The 14 stations will be displayed in the church between Passion Sunday and Good Friday.

During the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent much of the music used is in a minor key, which seems to help us focus on the events which are unfolding.