Episco-Fact #41
April 9, 2017

What is Holy Week? When did it start? Who started it? And, was it always the way we do it now?

Holy Week begins with the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday and continues with all the services through the Great Vigil of Easter, which occurs after Sundown on the day before Easter. Therefore, the services on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday (the Saturday before sundown) are all part of Holy Week.

Church historians have been able to locate Holy Week as a reality in Jerusalem during the Episcopate of Cyril of Jerusalem, an ancient Church Father whose writings and developments in liturgy are still with us today. He seems to have followed the Nicene solution to church divisions after the council of Nicaea, and struggled with his Metropolitan, Acacius of Caesarea, supposedly over the principled position of selling Church property to feed the poor and was exiled for two years between 357 and 359 when he was restored by a church council. He also struggled with Emperor Valens, a noted anti-Nicene who followed the Arian party, and was again exiled from Jerusalem, this time for over a decade in 367 C.E. During the succeeding period of relative peace within the Empire, and the firm establishment of Christianity as the religion of the state, Christian Pilgrims began to travel to Jerusalem to see the places of their Lord.

Whether Cyril developed the services on his own, or whether he imported them from other communities, we know that they were in place by in a form broadly like what we now know because of the diary of a Spanish Pilgrim, Egeria, from about 388 C.E. Clearly, Jerusalem has an advantage over St. Francis, or any other non-Jerusalem Church, the sites recorded in the Gospels, whether they are accurately sited where the Churches in Jerusalem are, are truly the ground Jesus walked on. And, the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helen, showered money on buildings to mark those sites.

The liturgies took their current form after much work by the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music trying to embody the important aspects of these moments in the life of Jesus in a way that churches might ground themselves in the story of Jesus' walk to the cross and the astounding reaction to the empty tomb. The Book of Common Prayer, 1928 already acknowledged Passion Sunday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, all dominated by readings from the Passion narrative from all four Gospels, read, every year. There were no clear directions in that Prayer Book on what the liturgies might look like. That outcome was changed in the current Prayer Book which drew on the actions of liturgies from Jerusalem to Salisbury Cathedral to provide a context like that experienced in the classical and medieval church.


The Rev. David Lucey