Adapted from Father Michael Van Sloun on archaspm.org
Holy Week stands at the head of our calendar, the holiest week of the entire liturgical year. Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and continues until Easter Sunday. It celebrates the Paschal Mystery, the passion and death of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and his victorious resurrection, his triumph over sin and death and his glorification by his Father.
Palm-Passion Sunday is a dual feast, Palm Sunday because palm branches are blessed and carried in procession to commemorate the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem, and Passion Sunday because the Passion Narrative is proclaimed. It is the only Sunday when two separate gospels are read. The Passion is the longest Sunday gospel of the year. The Mass has two jarringly different moods, jubilation at the outset, then lamentation. Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem was exuberant as the people joyfully cheered Hosanna to greet him, but moments later all is somber, first with the Suffering Servant who gave his back to those who beat him (Is 50:6), then with Jesus who obediently accepted death on a cross (Phil 2:8), and then with the Passion and his agony, scourging, and crucifixion (Mt 26:14-27:66).
The Easter Triduum. The Triduum is the most solemn moment of the church year. It lasts three days. It begins on Holy Thursday evening with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, continues with the celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, and reaches its culmination with the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday, and it ends with Evening Prayer late Easter Sunday afternoon.
Holy Thursday. The Easter Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The Mass recounts the establishment of the Jewish feast of Passover; and it commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and the footwashing. John’s placement of the footwashing where the other evangelists place the Last Supper conveys his belief that the real presence of Christ is found not only in the Eucharist but in service. Jesus gave us his mandatum or mandate: “You ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example. As I have done, so you should also do” (Jn 13:14,15). Jesus is made present when disciples put aside their prideful aspirations, humble themselves, and serve one another, even to the point of doing a menial task joyfully.
Good Friday. The celebration of the Lord’s Passion is a somber liturgy with three major parts: the proclamation of the Passion, the veneration of the Cross, and the reception of Holy Communion. In addition, there is an extended set of General Intercessions with ten petitions for some of the most important concerns for the Church and the world.
The Easter Vigil. Weeks of fasting and self-denial are directed toward the highest point of the church year, the Easter Vigil, the feast of the resurrection. It ranks first because our entire faith hinges on it. As Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:17). But the pillar of our faith is that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20), and in this firm conviction the Church rejoices with all of the energy it can muster: Alleluia! The Easter Vigil begins with the Service of Light, the lighting of the Easter Candle and the singing of the Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet. Then after an extended Liturgy of the Word, the Vigil continues with the Liturgy of Baptism during which the Litany of Saints is sung, the water of the font is blessed, baptismal promises are made, the candidates are baptized, and for the adults, confirmation is received. The Vigil concludes with the Liturgy of the Eucharist and first Holy Communion for the newly initiated members.