Once upon a time: The Holy Week(s) of Easter

Celebration of Christ’s triumph over death has expanded through the years

Holy Week always has been special. Before there was a Holy Week, Easter began with the Easter vigil. And before many years had passed Easter included seven days beginning on Palm Sunday.

Gradually the week turned into two weeks, then three weeks, and then began with Ash Wednesday. The Church didn’t stop there. For centuries Lent began with “pre-Lent”: violet vestments and names like Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima to begin a real Lent (Quadragesima). It stayed that way until the 20th century, when the calendar was simplified. Today, there is a nice balance…Ash Wednesday is the beginning.

The readings for the Sundays are designed with RCIA in mind. Violet is the color for the first five Sundays (rose still is an option for the fourth Sunday of Lent); red is the “new” color for Palm Sunday and Good Friday; and white is the color worn for the entire vigil (as well as Easter itself). We used to call Easter Monday the time after Easter; now it is called the time of Easter. No longer do we extinguish the Paschal candle on Ascension; we use it for the full 50 days.

Holy Week has been described as the “Great Week.” And so it is.

In the old days (the 1940s), two or three sleepy-eyed servers would join the priest at the rear of the church for the blessing of the new fire and the proclamation of the 12 prophets. This began around 6 a.m. on Holy Saturday morning. People began coming about 7:30 a.m. for the 8 a.m. Mass (it included the Easter “alleluia”). Holy Saturday after Mass was spent decorating the church. Priests heard confessions throughout the afternoon and evening. There was no Easter Vigil celebration.

Easter Masses were celebrated on Easter Sunday morning.

The most unusual of the Holy Week celebrations still is on Good Friday. The Mass of the “pre-sanctified” often was celebrated at noon. This took about an hour and only the priest received Holy Communion. For the next three hours texts from the seven last words of Jesus, or the meditations of the Stations of the Cross, were used. This celebration concluded about 3 p.m.

Many people have died since Easter Vigil was introduced in 1955. For those who remember the pre-Vatican II Holy Week, just recalling the improvements should make us appreciate the new Holy Week liturgy all the more. For those too young to remember, lose yourself in the improved Holy Week of the Catholic Church. It really was worth waiting for.

Here is how the new Holy Week, beginning Thursday evening, follows: Mass begins. The first thing to notice is the ringing of the church bells during the Gloria. The feet of a cross-section of church members are washed after the homily. After Holy Communion, a procession in honor of the Blessed Sacrament occurs. Then the Blessed Sacrament is placed in the repository.

On Friday afternoon or evening, the Passion according to St. John is read during a service that is not a Mass. The cross is venerated; solemn prayers are sung; there is a collection for the Holy Land; and Holy Communion is received.

The Easter Vigil begins Saturday at dusk with a blessing of the fire, then there is a ringing of bells. People then enter the church, there is the singing of the Exultet, and a triple alleluia is sung. At least three readings are used, and Holy Water is blessed. The Mass of Easter is celebrated.

It is simple but elegant. There is no sunrise service. Masses may continue all day long. And Easter continues until Pentecost. Ashes to Easter and beyond! ■


Monsignor Mankel is a vicar general and the historical archivist for the Diocese of Knoxville.


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