Episode 13 – Holy Week

This Episode walks us through what each of the days of Holy Week mean in the Catholic Church and unpacks a symbolism that can be found within the liturgy.

Palm Sunday

When we read John 12:12-19, we find the crowds were growing in preparation for the feast of the Passover. Many in that crowd knew Jesus was coming to Jerusalem and had begun to believe that He was the Messiah, especially after raising Lazarus from the dead. They brought with them palms and sung ‘hosanna’ which translates to ‘save us’ as He entered. To them, it was a happy encounter. Jesus knew He was heading into Jerusalem to be killed, and hearing people sing ‘save us’ must have stirred His heart, because that is exactly what He was here to do. Just not in the way they imagined. 

  • Palm Sunday is sort of a grand preparation for Holy Week. It summarises the whole work of redemption, proclaiming Jesus’s kingship and then His enthronement on the cross.
  • Passion reading

Holy Thursday

(The last supper –  ‘washing of the feet’)

John 13 – Jesus washes the disciples feet.

‘If I then, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him’.

John 13:14-16

He set the example and standard for serving one another, but also of leadership – that it’s not about the amount of power you wield, but about the love with which we serve. 

For Catholics there are a number of things going on here. Firstly there is a link with priestly ordination. That link goes all the way back to Leviticus and Exodus. Firstly, we notice that the Greek word unless (John 13:7-8) is a device employed by John to indicate that Jesus is talking about a fundamental change in the human being.

Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (3:3)

Unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (3:5)


Jesus’s statement about ‘taking part in him’ hearkens back to Numbers and Deuteronomy which indicate the part of the Levites – the priestly people of the OT. They shared in the portion of the Lord and thus they did not have a share of the promised land. The priestly overtones here abound. Thus Jesus is really talking about a transformation in the apostles. Transformation into what? For that answer we look to the OT.

When we look at the book of Leviticus, we can see there’s a process for priests offering sacrifice for themselves and others. The High Priest undresses himself, washes himself – his whole self, redresses and then offers sacrifice. Jesus is about to do the same thing. He will undress, wash others (instead of Himself – since He doesn’t not need cleansing)  and offer the sacrifice of Himself. IN doing this He gives the apostles a priestly example, not only of service, but also of sacrifice. 

Further, in Exodus, we read: 

Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the door of the tent of meeting, and shall wash them with water. (v. 12) […] And he set the laver between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it for washing, with which Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet; when they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed; as the LORD commanded Moses. (Ex. 40:30-32)

The ordination or consecration of Aaron is done in part by the action of washing. And so it is for the apostles. This act of washing, is essentially the moment of priestly ordination of the apostles. 

Secondly there is an emphasis on sacrifice and service. The master shows them how they are to serve, not by lauding it over people. But by love! Peter 5 makes this clear – we are to serve as Christ serves, not in a self seeking fashion, but in a selfless fashion. 

This moment always brings to mind what happens next. Jesus gives two warnings not long after this:

  • A betrayal -Judas
  • Denial – Peter

Jesus doesn’t make mention to either until after He’s washed their feet. He would have known that those who follow Him will fall over and over, that wouldn’t have been news to Him. Knowing He would have to be killed, also meant at some point one of His friends would likely have to do wrong by Him. Yet, even so, Jesus chooses to wash each of their feet. We can imagine a particular tenderness that Jesus would have shown towards Judas when He washed his feet. How could He not. He came here for this very thing, to free us from sin. How could He not look upon His friend, who had already made a deal with the soldiers, with compassion? We hear in both Luke and John’s Gospel that the disciples didn’t know who Jesus was talking about at. The very fact that He still washed Judas’ feet and none of His other friends picked up on anything about Judas, just shows how merciful His manner was towards Judas. And Simon Peter too, He would deny Him not once but three times, and Simon has been tasked with a great deal of leadership responsibility. He’s placed a lot of trust in Simon, and still He knows His dear friend Simon will deny Him. Still He washes his feet.    

At the Last Supper, Jesus institutes His very self. Judas’s (the traitor) and Jesus’s interaction is incredible. 

Replication of the Garden of Gethsemane

Silent prayer, a few candles, ‘will you not watch with me one hour… the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’ Mat 26:41.

In a sense this is part of what Lent is for, prepare our spirit and our flesh to both be willing to do the will of God. Fasting also helps us become masters of our bodies instead of being controlled by it.  

Good Friday

(Covered statues and empty tabernacles)

We may find Good Friday a hard pill to swallow. Yet even once we become accustomed to it, we may find we become protective of how much we allow this day to penetrate our hearts, because it’s just so heavy. Each year usually has a different emphasis, or something different will hit home. Some years it’s focusing on His great mercy and His love to do that for us. Other years we may find it a challenge to put ourselves there because we know our sin is responsible for His death. Other years our hearts may ache with Mother Mary, who endured it all. Other years again, our hearts may go out to all those who refuse to believe. It can vary each year and for each of us.

Matthew Chapter 27

In Matthew 27, Jesus is offered gall mixed with myrrh. This was an alcoholic pain killer given to victims of crucifixion to attempt at dulling the pain. Matthew gives us the detail that Jesus is offered this drink and He immediately rejects it. In all the pain and agony He is going through – He still has more to give. 

That’s really the lynch pin of Good Friday, is that Jesus pours Himself out as He lets in all the horror, sin, and suffering of the world. He experiences it deeply right down in His soul and out of His love He doesn’t want to dull the pain. He has more to give and He fully intends to give it. 

There is a Marian dimension to all of this as well. Every Good Friday the Passion from St John is read. St John gives us a beautiful marina sculpture to contemplate. He writes of Mary at the foot of the cross, not simply as a passive observer but as one whose heart is pierced by a sword. Her will is completely united to her Son’s at this point. And all of a sudden, the experiences of the infancy journey must have been flooding back to her. The exile, the persecution. When her Son, as a babe, experiences something — she experiences it too. This is why Matthew in his Gospel uses the strange formulaic :The child with his mother. And now the child with his mother is once again feeling the rejection, exile, suffering and death, all in her soul. 

The repentant thief

In John’s Gospel we also hear about the thief who asked Jesus for redemption. This man is known as the thief who stole paradise. In many ways he stands for us. Flawed, but meant for so much more than flaws. 

Good Friday is a day which remind us of our worth. We are not worth silver or gold, nothing so tawdry. We are worth the blood of God made man.

Holy Saturday

Despite the depth of Good Friday, we may find we struggle with Holy Saturday the most. On the one hand, we know what’s just transpired the day before. We’re both sad and grateful for it and we’re trying to stay in the journey of it. But that was so long ago and we know He rose from the dead, we know tomorrow is the Resurrection. So it’s hard and it’s uncomfortable to stay in this middle ground that is Holy Saturday.  It feels a little empty. We try to keep this day as a day for stillness, as much as possible. Which can be extremely difficult with family and friends coming for Easter celebrations, etc. But even just pulling away for a few minutes to bring back an interior stillness is important… we are on a special journey during Holy Week. Holy Saturday continues the journey toward the Resurrection.

Joseph of Arimathea

This man was a secret disciple, a member of council (Sanhedrin), who did not consent to Jesus’ death. He comes out of almost nowhere and asks Pilate for Jesus’ body. This was a risky move, yet we can imagine his fellow members of council would have looked at him kindly. We don’t really know much about this man, but we can admire his courage, prudence, and just willingness to act – diligence to just do the next right thing. He wasn’t paralysed by what the council had consented to. It’s almost as if he’s gone ‘well we did that, and now it’s clear as day that we just killed the Messiah! The very least we can do is prepare His body for burial, and quickly! The Sabbath is almost upon us’. He used his position of influence, his wealth, and his smarts to just do the next right thing at a very tragic, distressing and traumatic time. He thought ahead. He knew the Sabbath was hours away, and our Lord’s body could not remain on the cross like this.

The Exsultet

The Exsultet! It’s so beautiful. O happy fault that won for us so great a redeemer, our birth would have been no gain had we not been redeemed, o necessary sin of adam destroyed completely by the death of christ. This the victory anthem of the resurrection! Jesus is not only died but rose again for us! And we can rise with him.

So let us paint a word picture of what Holy Saturday looks like. There’s a fire outside. Not like a ‘call the fire v\brigade’ fire, but a controlled fire, outside the Church. That fire is blessed and from that fire the celebrant risks his life and limb by lighting the paschal candle from the raging fire. Then a procession into the the Church with the paschal candle begins — the Church is in complete darkness. We sing ‘Christ our Light’ three times and then the candle is placed on its stand. Then the Exsultet is sung. It’s so dramatic! A testament to the Light, Jesus, in the darkness. 

There is a section of a reading on Holy Saturday from an ancient author, which reads:

“Awake o sleeper! Awake O sleeper rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light!”

We are meant to rise with Jesus because in Holy Week we have died with Him! Died to our sins and selfishness. Died to our creature comforts, we have been crucified the world!

Easter Sunday

Easter eggs! Why do we have them? They are a symbol of new life! And that is exactly what is being communicated at Easter. We often hear it said in songs and trite cards, “we are an Easter people!” What does that actually mean? It means we are a people of Baptism! A people of the Resurrection! In baptism we have died with Christ and risen with Him in glory. 

The Tomb

Mary Magdalene goes to visit the tomb early in the morning. Always the women. What is with that??? A woman (his mother) calls on him to perform the first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, a woman (Samaritan woman) he tells very clearly that He is the Messiah, no where else does Jesus make this more clear than to this woman, stirring in her to go and tell others. And again, a woman, in both Mark and John’s Gospel we see that He appeared to Mary Magdalen first and told her to go and tell the disciples. For a religion that is supposedly oppressive of women, these actions from a man Who said ‘love one another as I have loved you’, sound anything but oppressive. It sounds entirely empowering of women, and He entrusts different responsibilities to them. At a time like this, with our culture, this can resonates with some of us. 

But Mary Magdalene at the tomb, unable to identify the Risen Lord until He calls her by name, is just powerful. It’s like we’re so caught up in the darkness of sin, it’s not until the resurrected Lord, having overthrown death, calls us by name. Individually, personally, that we recognise who He is, and it’s through Him that we remember who we are.  

TBG (Truth, Beauty, Goodness)

Padre – Celebrating Palm Sunday in my parish.

Stina – Lenten healing – 40 days to set you free from sin by Ken Kniepman (references to works of Bob Schutz) – Powerful stuff. Can recommend for your next Lenten journey.  

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