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The Liturgy of Holy Week

By Bishop Mark A. Pivarunas, CMRI

Holy Week 1995

Dearly beloved in Christ,

We have now reached the final week of the holy season of Lent — Holy Week — so called because we will commemorate the most solemn events in the history of mankind, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And now more than ever, the principle Lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing) is manifested to us in our sacred liturgy. In order to derive the spiritual benefit that we should during this sacred time, let us briefly consider some of the main liturgical ceremonies in which the Mystical Body of Christ, the Catholic church, renders, the supreme worship due to her Divine Savior.

Palm Sunday

Today on Palm Sunday, the liturgy brings us in spirit to Jerusalem, where Jesus Christ triumphantly rides into the Holy City as the people enthusiastically strew branches in His path and jubilantly cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord!” This title, “the Son of David,” was used only in reference to the Messias, and on this day, the whole of Jerusalem acknowledges Our Lord as the Promised One. Before the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the priest, clothed in red stole and cope, blesses branches of palms and distributes them to the entire congregation. After this has been completed, the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew is chanted, which narrates the events of the first Palm Sunday. Having recalled the triumphant procession of Our Lord, the clergy and the faithful go in public procession and sing as did the Israelites of old, “Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord.” In this procession, public recognition is rendered to our Lord Jesus Christ as the true Messias, the Son of God, our Savior and King. When the procession has concluded, the priest changes his vestments to violet and begins the Mass. This abrupt and somber change of the color of vestments forcibly reminds us how quickly the Israelites changed their minds in the course of the week. From the glad “hosannas” of Palm Sunday, they cried out but five days later, on Good Friday, “Away with Him, crucify Him... we have no king but Caesar!” What a tragic spectacle!

During the Palm Sunday Mass, the entire Passion of Our Lord is read without the usual introduction of Dominus vobiscum... Sequentia sancti evangelii.... So sad, so tragic are the events to be narrated that only the title is announced, “The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew. There is no incensation of the Book of Gospels; there are no acolytes with lighted candles; the book is not kissed after the recitation of the Passion. This is to remind us that Our Lord suffered in a most cruel and humiliating manner, as the worst of criminals, and that it was our sins that made Him suffer so much. On this Palm Sunday, let us reflect how closely we resemble the Israelites of old. How often we too cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” when we attend Holy Mass, and then so quickly afterward shout out, “Away with Him, crucify Him!” whenever we commit sin. One of the main spiritual fruits that we should derive from Lent, and especially from Holy Week, is a great horror and hatred of sin.

Holy Thursday

The sacred liturgy for Holy Thursday is twofold in its celebration. In the morning, the bishop will celebrate the Mass of Holy Chrism, in which the three sacred oils used in the administration of the Sacraments are blessed. These three oils are Sacred Chrism (used in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, and in the Consecration of bishops, chalices and churches), Oil of the Catechumens (used in the Sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Order of Priesthood), and Oil of the Infirm (used in Extreme Unction). They are blessed within the Mass in order to manifest their sacredness. Before the conclusion of the Canon, the bishop purifies his fingers which have so recently consecrated the Sacred Host, profoundly adores our Divine Savior on the altar, and descends to the middle of the sanctuary where a table has been prepared for these blessings. Then the archdeacon calls for the Oil of the Infirm to be brought in by the subdeacon for the bishop to bless.

First, the Oil of the Infirm is exorcised, then it is blessed with the following prayer:

“Send down from heaven, O Lord, we implore, Thy Holy Spirit the Consoler, into this rich oil of the olive which, in Thy kindness, Thou hast brought forth from the green tree for the refreshment of mind and body; that, through Thy blessing, it may become a safeguard of mind and body, for everyone who is anointed with this ointment of heavenly healing, to relieve every pain, every weakness, every ailment of mind and body,... May it be Thy perfect Chrism, O Lord, blessed for us by Thee, permeating every fibre of our being. In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Thus, the matter for the Sacrament of Extreme Unction is blessed for its administration for the following year.

When this prayer is concluded, the bishop returns to the altar to continue the Holy Sacrifice up to the ablutions after Holy Communion. At that time, the bishop once again descends from the altar and is seated in the center of the sanctuary, as the archdeacon calls for the Oils of Holy Chrism and for the Oil of Catechumens. From the sacristy, there now comes the solemn procession of the subdeacon and acolytes with incense, cross, and candles; two deacons with the Oil for Sacred Chrism, the balsam, and the Oil of Catechumens. During this procession, they chant a beautiful hymn to our Divine Redeemer, Who sanctifies us through His seven sacraments. In the blessing of the Sacred Chrism, the bishop solemnly chants the following preface:

“It is truly right and just, it is our duty and our salvation to give thanks to Thee at all times and in all places, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty and Eternal God: Who in the beginning, among the other gifts of Thy goodness, didst command the earth to bring forth fruit-bearing trees, and among these, produced the olives to provide us with this rich oil used for the sacred Chrism; for David also, in the spirit of prophecy, foreseeing the Sacraments of Thy grace, sang that our faces would be made glad with oil. And when the sins of the world had been wiped out by the Flood, it was by bringing an olive-branch that a dove announced that peace had returned to earth, thus giving an image of the future gift (of Holy Chrism). And all this has been made clear by visible effects in these latter days when, after the waters of Baptism have washed away all stains of sin, the anointing with this oil makes our faces glad and peaceful. And so also, Thou didst command Moses, Thy servant, after his brother Aaron had washed himself with water, to make him High Priest by pouring on him this ointment. And to this anointing came a far greater honor when Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, required John to baptize Him in the waters of the Jordan; so that, by sending down upon Him the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove and by the witness of the voice that was then heard, Thou mightest show Him to be Thine only son in Whom Thou wast well pleased; and so Thou didst most clearly prove that He it was of Whom David the Prophet had sung, that He would be anointed with the oil of gladness above all His companions. We therefore implore Thee, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty Eternal God, by Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, that in Thy kindness Thou mayest sanctify with Thy blessing this creature, rich in unction, and infuse into it the power of the Holy Spirit, through the co-working grace of Christ, Thy Son, from whose sacred name it receives the name of Chrism, by which Thou hast anointed priests, kings, prophets and martyrs; so that to those who will be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, it may be a Chrism of salvation, causing them to partake of life everlasting and to share in the glory of heaven. Through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, Who is living and reigning with Thee in the unity of the same Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”

Then the bishop mixes the balsam with the Holy Oil, for as the olive oil signifies strengthening, the balsam signifies the sweet odor of the Christian life.

When the entire blessing of the Sacred Chrism has been completed, the bishop proceeds to bless the Oil of Catechumens with the following prayer:

“O God, Giver of all spiritual growth and progress, Who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, dost strengthen in inconstant minds the beginnings of knowledge of the Faith; we implore Thee, O Lord, in Thy kindness to send forth Thy blessing upon this oil, and grant to those who are to come to the cleansing of spiritual rebirth, purification of mind and body by anointing with this Thy creature; so that if any defilement of hostile spirits remains in them, it may depart at the touch of this holy oil, and leave no place for wicked spirits, no opportunity for the powers that have been put to flight, no freedom for lurking evils to hide. For those who are coming to the Faith and are about to be cleansed by the work of Thy Holy Spirit, may this anointing that has been prepared, be useful toward the salvation which they will obtain in the Sacrament of Baptism, by the birth of heavenly regeneration. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who is to come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire. Amen.”

When the Sacred Oils have been blessed, they are carried back to the sacristy by the deacons, subdeacons and acolytes. In the meantime, the bishop again returns to the altar where he continues the Holy Sacrifice. When Holy Mass has been concluded, the bishop (as the Pontifical requires) gives an exhortation to all the priests present as to the sacredness and the proper use of these Sacred Oils. How appropriately the Church determined Holy Thursday to be the one day of the entire day for these blessings — for it was on this day that Christ ordained His Apostles to the Holy Priesthood, and these Sacred Oils are such an important and necessary part of the priesthood in the administration of the Sacraments.

In the evening, there is offered only one Holy Mass, for it was on Holy Thursday evening some 1900 years ago that our Divine Savior instituted the Sacrament of His Love, the Holy Eucharist. At this Mass, the bishop (or the pastor of the parish) celebrates the Mass of the Last Supper, at which all the other priests will receive Holy Communion from his hands. During the Holy Mass, at the singing of the Gloria, the bells are rung throughout its entire recitation to give honor for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Priesthood. At the conclusion of the Gloria, the bells will no longer be rung until the Easter Gloria; this somber note reminds us of the fact that after the Last Supper, our beloved Jesus was “betrayed into the hands of sinners,” as He Himself had predicted. And since His betrayal was made by the treacherous kiss of Judas, the kiss of peace and the kissing of the bishop’s ring before Holy Communion are both omitted, to remind us of the insult offered Our Lord by one of His Own chosen Apostles.

What is also unique to the Holy Thursday liturgy is the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet. In commemoration of the great humility and charity of Our Lord toward His Apostles, the priest, after the sermon, removes his chasuble and maniple, dons a gremial, and washes the feet of twelve men who represent the twelve Apostles. During this Washing of the Feet, the choir chants a series of antiphons taken from Our Lord’s exhortation to His Apostles at the Last Supper to love one another as He had loved them.

As we recall that Our Lord washed the feet of His Apostles, we are reminded that charity is the hallmark by which all men are to recognize His disciples: “By this will all men know that you are My disciples, that you love one another.” In our times, when the world struggles for peace, when there is so much crime and immorality, when charity has grown cold (unfortunately, even among those who call themselves Catholics), the loving exhortation of Our Lord rings in our hearts and minds for us to practice the greatest of virtues — charity.

After Holy Mass is concluded, our Eucharistic King is carried in solemn procession to the Altar of Repose, where He will be adored for the rest of the night. The main altar is then stripped of all adornments in remembrance of our Divine Savior being stripped of His garments and mocked and spit upon by the cruel soldiers. When one assists at the sacred liturgy, he cannot but marvel at the beauty and the richness of the events signified. How important it is for parents to explain these liturgical actions to their children, so that their minds will be filled with these holy impressions.

Good Friday

The Good Friday liturgy has all the tones of mourning and sadness that can be had on this day, when Jesus Christ “for us men, and for our salvation... was crucified, died, and was buried.” There are five particulars of Good Friday: the chanting of the Lessons of the Old Testament (calling to mind the Passover and the deliverance of the Israelites from the slavery of the Egyptians), the reading of the Passion according to St. John, the exposition and adoration of the Cross (“Behold the Wood the Cross on which hung the Salvation of the world!”), the solemn orations (in which we pray for our Holy Mother the Church in general, for all the clergy and faithful, for our public rulers, for the conversion of the Jews, heretics, schismatics and pagans), and the reception of our Divine Redeemer in Holy Communion. After Holy Communion, the candles on the altar are extinguished, the few articles which were used in the liturgy are removed from the altar, and the church is left cold and empty. When we leave the church on Good Friday, with the Blessed Sacrament removed and the altar stripped of all adornment, we experience a profound feeling of emptiness — the same sentiments and feelings which were felt on the first Good Friday by the holy women and the Apostles when Jesus was taken down from the Cross and was buried.

Easter Vigil and Midnight Mass

The Liturgy of Holy Week reaches its climax in the Ceremonies of the Easter Vigil and the Midnight Mass. For these ceremonies signify in a most wonderful manner the inestimable work of Jesus Christ in the Redemption of mankind and the stupendous privilege for us to be children of God through Baptism. The ceremonies begin in the evening (about 10:30) outside the church with the lighting of the Paschal Fire and the blessing and lighting of the Paschal Candle, which has a twofold significance: the first is the presence of God in the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites in the desert; the second is the symbol of Christ, the Light of the World, Whose life and teaching dispel the spiritual darkness in which mankind is living. The deacon of the Mass carries the Paschal Candle in the procession into the church and thrice announces, “Lumen Christi!”, the Light of Christ. This symbolizes how Christ, the Light of the World, first illuminated His Apostles and disciples, and from them, the rest of the world. When the procession has entered the sanctuary, the deacon places the Paschal Candle in its holder and chants one of the most beautiful chants of the entire Liturgy — the Exultet. Let us listen to the thrilling Exultet of our deacon, and learn from him the joys that await us on this wonderful night:

“Let now the heavenly troops of angels rejoice: let the divine mysteries be joyfully celebrated: and let a sacred trumpet proclaim the victory of so great a King. Let the earth also be filled with joy, being illuminated with such resplendent rays: and let it be sensible that the darkness, which overspread the whole earth, is chased away by the splendor of our Eternal King. Let our Mother, the Church, be also glad, finding herself adorned with the rays of so great a light: and let this temple resound with the joyful acclamations of the people. Wherefore, beloved brethren, you who are now present at the admirable brightness of this holy light, I beseech you to invoke with me the mercy of Almighty God. That He Who has been pleased, above my desert, to admit me into the number of His levites, will, by an infusion of His light upon me, enable me to celebrate the praises of this candle. Through our Lord, Jesus Christ, His Son, Who, with Him and the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, forever and ever.”

Then the deacon continues to chant the praises of our Divine Redeemer in the splendor of a glorious preface which recalls the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, and the infinite love of God to send His Only Begotten Son, Who shed His Blood for our Redemption. This preface manifests the beautiful relationship between the sacrifice of the paschal lamb in the Old Testament, whose blood was placed on the door posts of the Israelites on the day of their deliverance from the slavery of the Egyptians, and the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross, by which He shed His Blood for our Redemption.

Then there is the reading of the Lessons, in which we read the account of the creation of the world and of man, the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites, and their journey to the Promised Land. After the completion of the Lessons, the Litany of the Saints is begun, in which we invoke the intercession of all the heavenly court of angels and saints. Halfway through the invocations, this Litany is interrupted for the solemn blessing of the Easter Holy Water and, in particular, the Baptismal Water for the Sacrament of Regeneration.

When the solemn blessing of the Baptismal Water has been completed, there takes place the renewal of our Baptismal Vows. Having renounced Satan, his pomps and works, we profess our firm belief in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth; in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who became incarnate, suffered and died for us; in the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Catholic Church.

After this, the priest sprinkles us with the Easter Holy Water to remind us of our Baptism, by which we became children of God and heirs of heaven.

While the Litany of the Saints is being concluded, the priest prepares for Holy Mass. In the Midnight Mass for Easter there is a great expectation in our hearts, for after the Kyrie Eleison, there is a spectacular intonation of the Gloria, during which the bells ring out and the image of our Risen Savior is uncovered. It is impossible to express the overwhelming sentiments of joy that come to our hearts at this moment. For we experience in the Liturgy, in the most expressive manner possible, the glorious Resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ. The suddenness of the change within the church from the sorrowful appearance of the purple covers over the statues and the empty altar, to the ringing of the bells, the jubilant singing of the Gloria with the organ, the uncovering of the images of our Risen Savior and the saints — all this gives us in our worship the best possible experience of Our Lord’s glorious Resurrection.

It is my sincere hope that all of our faithful will attend these sacred ceremonies, derive abundant fruit from them, and, as St. Paul exhorts us, rise to a new spiritual life in Christ.

In Christo Jesu et Maria Immaculata,
Most Rev. Mark A. Pivarunas, CMRI

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