Sacred Liturgy - Holy Week

Meaning of Holy Week

HOLY WEEK has been held in great reverence since the very early years of the Church. No other Christian observance has interested the world so much as Holy Week. For the rituals of the Church during these few days of each year, so complex and so laden with meaning, emphatically and prophetically proclaim to the entire world the liberating and redeeming and perpetual truth of the Gospel the Good News that Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again.

As early as the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom referred to Holy Week as The Great Week, "Not that it has more days in it than other weeks, or that its days are made up of more hours than other days; but we call it great, because of the great mysteries which are then celebrated" [Homily 30, on Genesis]. In other Christian cultures we find the week before Easter referred to by several names such as the Painful Week (Hebdomada Poenosa) because of the sufferings of the Christ and of the fatigue and physical sacrifice required of the faithful in observing them.

Although in our time and nation the Church's only required food fast is to restrict meals (fast) and to abstain from meat (abstinence) on Good Friday, we learn from medieval Church documents that Christians observed a strict fast from Monday of Holy Week to the cock-crow of Easter Day. A very strict fast was usually observed from Thursday evening to Easter morning.

History also tells us that early Christian rulers issued decrees forbidding not only festive activities but also work in trade, business, and the courts. Holy Week, it was decreed, was to be spent in contemplation and meditation and the faithful were be free from worldly concerns as much as possible. (Clearly this was before anyone had the idea of "separation of Church and State.")

Confession and the Easter Duty

The discipline of fasting from food is not the only nor even the primary way in which we must prepare our entire selves body and soul to receive the benefits of our Savior's redeeming sacrifice. Physical fasting is not enough.

St. Paul warns us that "you cannot belong to Christ Jesus unless you crucify all your self-indulgent passions and desires" [Galations 5:24]. We are powerless to do this alone. We must have God's help. In order to receive Christ and in order to prepare ourselves for our responsibility for His mission on earth, we must be drawn ever closer to Him in prayer and action. But sin separates us from Him. We must be convinced of our sins, repent, receive forgiveness and be reconciled to God.

Through His Grace we must try to become holy, "perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect." This is why the Church calls all her people, especially at this time of year, to the Sacrament of Penance, to perform their Easter Duty. At least once each year during the Easter season Catholics are required to confess sins, receive absolution and receive Communion in order to remain truly members of the the Church.

This is what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, like the early Fathers of the Church, tried to teach us with the emphasis on personal awareness of how we have offended God and need His forgiveness. As Pope John Paul II said "The awareness of sin, in which the person knows before whom and towards whom he is guilty, is an indispensable pre-condition for obtaining the objective value of forgiveness. This is because He against whom the sin is committed and who is therefore offended is also the Father who has the power to fogive it." And this is what the Church invites us no, implores us to do during Holy Week.
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