The Holy Week is the last week of Lent preceeding the celebration of the Great Feast of feasts — Easter. It starts from the Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord until the Holy Saturday. Its main focus is the commemoration of the Lord’s Passion including His crucifixion, death, and burial. But where and when did this tradition start?
Historical records clearly show that as early as the third century the Church celebrated this “Great Week” with a feeling of profound sanctity. The earliest allusion to the custom of marking this week as a whole with special observances is to be found in the Apostolic Constitutions (v.18,19), dating from the latter half of the 3rd century and 4th century, in which it reads: “Do you therefore fast on the days of the passover, beginning from the second day of the week until the preparation, and the Sabbath, six days, making use of only bread, and salt, and herbs, and water for your drink; but do you abstain on these days from wine and flesh, for they are days of lamentation and not of feasting… Wherefore we exhort you to fast on those days, as we also fasted till the evening, when He was taken away from us; but on the rest of the days, before the day of the preparation, let every one eat at the ninth hour, or at the evening, or as every one is able…”
In the later years of the third century, St. Dionysius (d. 264 AD), bishop of Alexandria, wrote in his letter to Basilides, bishop of the churches in Pentapolis, the following: “When the Paschal fast is to be broken depends on the precise hour of our Saviour’s resurrection, and this was not certainly to be known from the Four Evangelists; therefore they who have not fasted the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday before Easter, do no great thing if they fast the Friday and Saturday, and so till past three on Easter morning. But they who have fasted the whole six days, are not to be blamed if they break their fast after midnight.” This letter implies that the observance of the Holy Week had already become an established tradition in his time.
The antiquity of this custom can also be further attested to by the pilgrim Egeria, a woman who wrote an account of her journey to the Holy Land (381-384 AD) in a book currently known as the Pilgrimage of Ætheria. In this book, she recorded the liturgical worship being practiced in the church of Jerusalem, including the detailed account of the entire holy week, beginning with the service in the “Lazarium” at Bethania on Saturday, in the course of which was read the narrative of the anointing of Christ’s feet. Addtional detailed record of the Holy Week is as follows:
“Moreover, on the next day that is, the Lord’s Day, which began the week of the Pasch, which they call here the ‘Great Week’, a special reminder was addressed to the people by the archdeacon in these terms: ‘Throughout the whole week, beginning from to-morrow, let us all assemble in the Martyrium, that is the great church, at the ninth hour.’ The commemoration of Christ’s triumphal entry into the city took place the same afternoon. Great crowds, including even children too young to walk, assembled on the Mount of Olives and after suitable hymns, and antiphons, and readings, they returned in procession to Jerusalem, escorting the bishop, and bearing palms and branches of olives before him. Special services in addition to the usual daily Office are also mentioned on each of the following days. On the Thursday the Liturgy was celebrated in the late afternoon, and all Communicated, after which the people went to the Mount of Olives to commemorate with appropriate readings and hymns the agony of Christ in the garden and His arrest, only returning to the city as day began to dawn on the Friday. On the Friday again there were many services, and in particular before midday there took place the veneration of the great relic of the True Cross, as also of the title which had been fastened to it; while for three hours after midday another crowded service was held in commemoration of the Passion of Christ, at which the sobs and lamentations of the people exceeded all description. Exhausted as they must have been, a vigil was again maintained by the younger and stronger of the clergy and by some of the laity. On Saturday, besides the usual offices during the day, there took place the great paschal vigil in the evening, with the baptism of children and catechumens.”
Note that this record is regarded of the highest value for it came from a pilgrim and an eyewitness who had evidently followed the services with close attention. Still the observance of Holy Week as a specially sacred commemoration must be considerably older.
Moreover, in the first of his festal letters, written in 329 AD, St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, also spoke of a severe fast maintained during “those six holy and great days (preceding Easter Sunday) which are the symbol of the creation of the world”. Further he wrote, in (3rd festal letter) 331 AD: “We begin the holy week of the great pasch on the tenth of Pharmuthi in which we should observe more prolonged prayers and fastings and watchings, that we may be enabled to anoint our lintels with the precious blood and so escape the destroyer.”
What else is needed to prove the apostolicity of the Holy Week? The early Christians observed it, why shouldn’t the followers of Christ in the modern times?!
Remember the very words of St. Paul: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
Below is the timeline of the significant biblical events during the Holy Week:
⚫ PALM SUNDAY — the Lord victoriously entered the city of Jerusalem and spent a night in Bethany (cf. Matthew 21:1; Mark 11:1; Luke 19:29; John 12:12)
⚫ HOLY MONDAY — the Lord left Bethany and cursed the fig tree on His way into the city; wept over Jerusalem, and cleansed the temple for the second time in His ministry (cf. Matthew 21:12; Mark 11:22; Luke 19:45).
⚫ HOLY TUESDAY — the Lord left Bethany and found the fig tree withered where He taught on faith; possessed the temple and its precincts; confounded and pronounced woes upon His enemies; and left the city – the Olivet Discourse was done on His way back to Bethany where He spent another night. Judas bargained with Sanhedrin to betray Jesus (cf. Matthew 21:20; Mark 11:20; Luke 20:36; John 12:20).
⚫ HOLY WEDNESDAY — no record in the Gospels, but much activity as Jesus prepared for Last Supper and as Judas and Sanhedrin prepared for the Lord’s arrest. Jesus just remained in Bethany throughout the day, stayed again a night there.
⚫ MAUNDY THURSDAY — St. Peter and St. John was sent to make preparation for Passover meal. After sunset, the Lord ate meal with the twelve; washed disciples’ feet; then Judas departed. To Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus agonized, betrayed by Judas, and arrested by Sanhedrin. To house of High Priest as Sanhedrin is convened; St. Peter denied His Master (cf. Matthew 26:1; Mark 14:1; Luke 22:1).
⚫ GOOD FRIDAY — the trials, scourging of Jesus Christ; the crowning of thorns and carrying of the Cross to calvary; His crufixion, seven last words and death on the Cross; the piercing of His side, and the burial at sundown (cf. Matthew 26:1; Mark 14:53; Luke 22:54; John 18:13).
⚫ BLACK SATURDAY — at the request of the Jewish leadership, Pilate granted a guard and set a seal on the tomb of Jesus (cf. Matthew 27:66).
Remember that the tradition is done not to crucify the Lord and make Him dead every year but to commemorate how God love the world so much for He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (cf. John 3:16).