Teaching Sermon: Holy Week & Easter
While this is an information heavy sermon, I hope it will enhance your experience of journeying through Holy Week.
Palm Sunday 3 / 4
The earliest recorded observance of Palm Sunday comes from the writing of a 4th century female pilgrim named Egeria (Ege·ria). She describes how Christians gathered near the Mount of Olives and would read the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The pilgrims would then form a procession and make their way across the hillside into Jerusalem, all while waving palm or olive branches. They sang psalms, and shouted, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ This practice spread, and by the early 5th century it had reached Spain.
By the 9th century, it was common to sing “All glory laud and honor”, as we did today. By the 12th century, the custom of blessing palms was incorporated. At least one version of the liturgy, included an “exorcism” of the flowers and leaves, before the priest would bless the branches and sprinkle them with holy water. It is worth noting, many churches have historically used local greenery or flowers. While we use palms, some year we may choose to wave pine branches or forsythia.
With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, values shifted, and the blessing of palms and the procession were altogether eliminated. These elements were reincorporated into the liturgy in the 1928 Prayer Book.
For much of the middle ages, the Palm Sunday procession included several stations where pilgrims stopped and prayed. Upon arrival at the church, the focus shifted entirely to the passion narrative. Over the course of the the week, pilgrims would hear all four versions: Matthew on Sunday, Mark on Tuesday, Luke on Wednesday, John on Friday.
Over time, some churches stopped reading the Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday. Yet with the liturgical renewal and ecumenical movements of the 1960s and 70s, a three year lectionary, shared across denominations came into use. 6 This brought back the tradition of reading the Passion Gospel, and the 1979 Prayer Book renamed the day - The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. Some churches, like ours, chose to only read the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, saving the passion narrative for Good Friday. This is to encourage worshipers to be present to one piece of the story at a time, as we make our journey through holy week.
Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday 3
It is customary to have a simple service of Holy Eucharist on these days. While we no longer read all four passion narratives throughout the week, the assigned readings highlight different events from the last week of Jesus’ life. On Holy Monday is the anointing of Jesus at Bethany; on Holy Tuesday, Jesus predicts his death; on Holy Wednesday, Jesus predicts his betrayal from Judas.
In 2019, here at James and Andrew, we began to experiment with offering different liturgies to help prepare us for the Triduum (trid·yoo·uhm). Triduum is a word taken from the Latin root for three days, referring to the three final days of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. Our hope is these new liturgies will invite us to clear our hearts, souls, and minds in order to be fully present to God. To that end we added a Taize service on Holy Monday; a meditative service with readings, silent reflection, and repetitive sung refrains. This type of service has a way of forcing us to embrace non-doing; and the result is often a quieting of our internal noise. With the noise softened, we are often clearer on what burdens and distractions we have been carrying that we need to entrust to God. To that end, on Holy Tuesday, we offer a healing service with readings, prayers, and the option to share your burdens with a pastoral leader and be prayed for.
Finally, on Holy Wednesday, are simple bedtime prayers, better known as Compline. The hope is by this point in the week, we are feeling clearer, lighter, and ready to be fully present to God as a community in these final days of Holy Week. The tradition of walking through Holy Week, especially the Triduum, connects us to Christians across time, cultures, and denominations. Together, we are one body of Christ.
Maundy Thursday 3 / 4
The word ‘maundy’ comes from the Latin word for commandment. The liturgy helps us to recall Jesus’ commandment to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ at the institution of the Last Supper, and the command to ‘love one another as Christ loved us’ in the ceremony of the footwashing. The first docmented celebration of Maundy Thursday comes from the 4th century pilgrim, Egeria (Ege·ria). Pilgrims would gather at important religious sites from the life of Jesus, many of which had churches built on them. They read scripture, prayed, and sang hymns as they moved from the site of the cross; to the tomb; to the cave where Jesus taught during his final week in Jerusalem; to the top of the Mount of Olives; to Gethsemane; and back to the site of the cross. The services lasted well over fifteen hours, ending shortly after daybreak. So, if you think this sermon or our services are too long, know we could always make them longer!
Since the early 4th century, the service was known as ‘The Supper of the Lord’, and has included Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, and John’s account of the footwashing. By the early 7th century, the day became known as Maundy Thursday, and the liturgy began to include a ceremonial footwashing. At that time abbots would wash the feet of the monks in their order, and kings would wash the feet of peasants; a practice that went on for centuries. According to Marion Hatchett, “...it is recorded that in 1560 Queen Elizabeth I ‘kept her maundy’ [ie kept her commandment] in the great hall at Westminister by washing the feet of twenty poor women.” 4
While the tradition of the footwashing has been around for centuries, it did not appear in our prayer book until the 1979 edition. There are different practices around the ceremony of the footwashing. In some places a specific number of people will have their feet washed, or the clergy will wash everyone’s feet. In other places, such as here at James and Andrew, we are all invited to wash feet and have our feet washed. This models a mutual servanthood where we are all served and we are all servants. This sometimes makes people uncomfortable, and I believe it is a good kind of uncomfortable; the kind we experience when we dare to be vulnerable with one another, which deepens our relationship with God and our community.
Our diocese also has the tradition of offering anointing - proclaiming the other half of the great truth we declare on Ash Wednesday. There we proclaim, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to that dust you are returned.’ Now we proclaim, ‘Remember that you are Love, and to that Love you are returned.’
It is worth noting that some churches, like ours, will share communion for the last time until the Great Vigil of Easter, consuming what remains of the reserve sacrament. Other churches will consecrate extra bread and wine so that on Good Friday they can have holy communion from the reserve sacrament. When the reserve is kept for Good Friday, there is often an Altar of Repose, where people will take turns staying awake all night, keeping vigil by the reserve, echoing the disciples at Gethsemane.
Another tradition that dates back to the 7th century, yet still does not appear in our prayer book, is the stripping of the altar followed by the priest washing the altar in preparation for Good Friday. The services ends with the 22 Psalm, and then the ministers and congregation depart in silence, as a reminder of the solemnity of Good Friday.
Good Friday 3 / 4
Scholars disagree on the meaning of the name ‘Good Friday’. Some believe it originates from a word meant for pious or holy living, so the day might be known as ‘Holy Friday’. Others believe ‘Good’ is a corruption of ‘God’, meaning God’s Friday. Still others believe it is ‘good’ as in positive, because of the transformative good that happens through the cross.
The early Church, commemorated both the death and resurrection of Jesus in a single service; yet by the 4th century it had evolved into two separate observances. The pilgrim Egeria (Ege·ria) described Good Friday in great detail. Pilgrims gathered from 8am until noon to venerate the wood of the csross that Jesus was believed to have died on, often referred to as the ‘true cross’. Then at noon, there was a service with psalms, readings, hymns, and prayers which lasted until 3pm; and then John’s passion narrative was read. Following all this was an optional vigil at the tomb that lasted through the night.
As pieces of the ‘true cross’ were acquired by other communities, similar practices of venerating the cross, prayer, and the reading of the passion narrative spread. Eventually the practice spread beyond communities with pieces of the ‘true cross’. While venerating the cross is optional in our current prayer book, here at James and Andrew, we continue to offer the opportunity, primarily because some find the practice very meaningful. We have shifted the language from venerating the cross, to reflecting on the cross, with the option to light a candle as a way of honoring Christ.
By the middle ages, it became customary for the ministers to enter and exit in silence. Silence was also included in the Solemn Collects, where we pray for people everywhere; our sins and redemption; for the church throughout the world; for all nations; creation; and all those who suffer. Around this time, the Reproaches appeared in the liturgy. This hymn like litany was a dialogue between God sorrowing over the sins and destructiveness of humanity, and God’s people asking for mercy. 7. It is worth noting the Reproaches are no longer a part of the Good Friday liturgy.
For much of Christian history, the Reproaches, along with the Solemn Collects, and portions of John’s passion narrative had anti-semitic content, which blamed those practicing Judaism for the death of Christ. 7. The Christian tradition still has a long way to go to reconcile the damage we have caused through our anti-semitic liturgy and preaching over the centuries. Bishop Doug recently approved modifications the wider church is exploring implementing to the Good Friday liturgy, and Molly has written about it in this coming week’s Newsletter. I encourage you to read about these changes there, or in the Good Friday leaflet.
Similarly complicated, is how Christianity has interpreted the meaning of the cross over the centuries. If you are interested in exploring the meaning of the cross, I would encourage you to read the sermons listed in your leaflet, accessible on our website. 8
Holy Saturday 3 / 4
In the early Church, when the commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection were a singular event instead of two, Christians would fast for the two days prior. If you were pregnant or had health complications you could skip Friday, but all were expected to fast on the Saturday before Easter. With time, some communities began to gather for a simple service of the word. Throughout the Church’s history, there has been universal agreement that communion is not to be celebrated on Holy Saturday, as we prepare for Easter. In our current prayer book, there are provisions made for a collect, a few readings, and an anthem from the burial liturgy. The mood is quiet and still, reflecting an old tradition that required silence all day. We do not offer a Holy Saturday service, nor is fasting still required, but folks are encouraged to engage in reflection as a way of preparing for the resurrection.
The Great Vigil of Easter 3 / 4
It is worth noting that in almost every language except English, the word for the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter is one and the same - pascha. For many years this liturgy was referred to as the Christian Passover or Paschal Vigil. That said, we know that Christianity evolved into its own religion, and out of respect for the distinct Jewish tradition of Passover, let’s refer to this liturgy as the Great Vigil of Easter, as our current prayer book does.
This liturgy is one of the most ancient that we have beyond the Holy Eucharist. It is believed that Jesus’ disciples may have practiced a version of this liturgy, and we know it can be documented as early as the 2nd century. This service is considered one of the four most appropriate times in the church year for a baptism to take place. While we do not usually have a baptism scheduled, the baptismal themes remain, as we renew our baptismal covenant.
From the early Church onward, it was customary to keep vigil over night, listening to readings and instructions. At the first cockcrow, the baptismal water would be blessed, and a prayer of thanksgiving said over the chrism oil and an oil the church once used for exorcisms. The baptismal candidates would then renounce Satan and all evil, and then would be anointed with the exorcism oil. As our understanding of mental and physical health has evolved, the need for the exorcism oil fell out of practice, but to this day, we still renounce evil prior to our baptism. The candidates would then be baptized, they would affirm a profession of the faith that would become the Apostles’ Creed, and when they emerged from the water, they were anointed with the chrism oil used at baptism. By the 5th century, it became common for baptismal candidates to make a threefold renunciation of evil, and a threefold confession of faith.Each of these elements continues to be an important part of the baptismal liturgy.
By the 5th century, this the Great Vigil began with a new fire. The paschal candle would be lit and processed into the church. We believe the paschal candle was celtic in origin, brought to us by St. Patrick. The liturgy would continue with the chanting of the Exsultet, an ancient hymn that proclaims God’s love overcoming all else. This was followed by a series of four to twelve readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, each reading followed by psalms, canticles, and prayers. This practice continues to this day, with many of the readings being the same. They include stories of creation, the flood, the exodus, the valley of the dry bones, and so forth.
As pressure grew to baptize infants, the Great Vigil was no longer a pragmatic time for baptisms, and the liturgy began to lose some of its importance. By the time of the Protestant Reformation and the creation of the 1549 Prayer Book, the liturgy was abandoned altogether, and baptismal themes were shifted to Easter Day. The rite was not fully recovered in our prayer book until the current edition. I imagine this means many longtime Episcopalians who grew up with the 1928 Prayer Book, grew up without the Great Vigil. I grew up with the 1979 Prayer Book in a community taught that it was the singular most important liturgy in the Church year.
Easter Sunday 3 / 4
Because every Sunday is a type of little Easter, this liturgy is the most familiar to us. It is a celebration of the resurrection and God’s dream for this world. We keep the paschal candle in front of the church for all fifty days of Easter, as a reminder that the joy of Easter expands through all fifty days of the season, lasting through the Day of Pentecost.
1 Daily Prayer for All Seasons, pgs 81, 101
2 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pg 272
3 Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs & Practices by Scott Gunn and Melody WIlson Shobe, pgs 139-152
4 Commentary on the American Prayer Book by Marion J. Hatchett, pgs 223-250
5 1928 Book of Common Prayer
6 See David Lose’s Palm/Passion Sunday A and The United Methodist Church’s Why Palm/Passion Sunday and Not Just Palm Sunday?
7 See the United Church of Christ’s Good Friday Reproarches - Morley
8. See previous mentioned sermons below:
Palm Sunday Sermons
April 2021 - Rev. Heather Blais - What does God need from us right now?
April 2020 - Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm - Palm Sunday 2020
Maundy Thursday Sermons
April 2022 - Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm - Maundy Thursday
April 2021 - Rev. Heather Blais - Do this in remembrance of me
Good Friday Sermons
April 2022 - Rev. Heather Blais - Good Friday
April 2021 - Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm - Good Friday
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