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What Is Holy Week?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 17, 2024
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Holy Week is a Christian celebration that occurs in the days immediately prior to Easter Sunday. It is the final week of Lent, as observed by many Christian denominations in different ways. Both Lent and Holy Week are intended to commemorate the final days in the life of Jesus Christ. Holy Week includes several days that are significant to the Christian tradition, including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Easter itself is not considered part of the week’s events but rather the start of a new year of Christian celebrations.

The events of Jesus' final days, as recorded in the first four books of the New Testament, form the basis for Holy Week. These dates, as well as those of Lent, were established by the Roman Catholic Church in a series of ecumenical councils. The rest of the Christian world generally follows its lead, with some exceptions. Lent is supposed to correspond to the days Jesus spent wandering in the wilderness. Reverent Christians might fast to commemorate this period; non-Christians might be more familiar with the celebration that immediately precedes this fasting, called Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras.

The date of Easter is calculated using a complicated system, and it generally falls in late March or April. The Sunday immediately before Easter is Palm Sunday. According to Christian tradition and the Bible, this is the day that Jesus and his disciples entered the city of Jerusalem. Tradition holds that Jesus rode a donkey, demonstrating his humility and peaceful intentions, and his devotees welcomed him by waving palm fronds. Many churches pay tribute to this event by distributing palm fronds during Palm Sunday services.

Jesus' week in Jerusalem was highly significant, as various authorities conspired to end his ministry. The Thursday of Holy Week is celebrated as Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday. The word “maundy” is a term referring to Jesus' final commandment to his disciples, which was to love others regardless of differences. This occurred during the meal known as the Last Supper, an event recreated by various Christian denominations as a sacrament, sometimes called the Eucharist. Special celebrations for this day include the distribution of commemorative coins to Church of England parishioners by the reigning English monarch.

Good Friday is a memorial to the arrest, torture, crucifixion and death of Jesus. Many churches adopt a mourning tradition, removing adornment from altars, displaying dark colors and extinguishing candles and other lights. According to tradition, Jesus' body was entombed for three days before emerging at the Resurrection. This is the occasion celebrated as Easter Sunday. Christians celebrate this day as the beginning of a new era and a significant event in a religion that, for better or worse, has transformed the entire world.

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Discussion Comments

By Scrbblchick — On Mar 13, 2014

Holy Week is a solemn time in the Christian year. Good Friday services are often tenebrae services, which usually means lights are extinguished as the Crucifixion story is read from the Bible. When the lights are all out, the congregation departs in silence.

A solemn Good Friday service prepares me for the celebration of Easter. It's a reminder that a price had to be paid.

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