Holy Week ‘at the very heart of who we are as Christians’

The liturgies of Holy Week are an unfolding of the “wonderful dramatic enactment” of God’s love, says Archbishop Ron Cutler, diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Photo: Thoom/Shutterstock
Published March 22, 2018

As the final week of Lent approaches, Christians around the world are preparing to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on Easter. Beginning Sunday, March 25, Holy Week marks the final days of Jesus’ life, from his entry into Jerusalem to the Last Supper, his trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

Holy Week is “at the very heart of who we are as Christians,” says bishop of the diocese of Huron Linda Nicholls. The week leads to the death and resurrection of Jesus, “and that’s what puts everything else in perspective.” Everything that Jesus was, and taught is contained in this journey from Palm Sunday to Easter, she says.

Most Anglican churches hold services during the Great Triduum, the three-day period encompassing the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus: Maundy Thursday (named after Jesus’ “mandate” to his disciples), Good Friday (which marks Jesus’ death on the cross) and Easter Sunday.

Some churches also celebrate the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. This service is traditionally one of baptism and confirmation. It begins in darkness and ends in light, as a fire is lit to symbolize the new life of Christ.

In the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the Easter Vigil is held annually at the Cathedral Church of All Saints in Halifax.  “It’s my most favourite liturgy of the whole year,” says Archbishop Ron Cutler, diocesan bishop and metropolitan (senior bishop) of the Ecclesiastical Province of Canada.

The liturgies of Holy Week are an unfolding of “the wonderful dramatic enactment” of God’s love, says Cutler. “So much of what shapes our life every week as members of faith communities, we can trace back to that last week of Jesus’ life. The institution of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, the sense that leadership is really founded on service.”

As the gospels tell it, two events took place on Maundy Thursday: the Lord’s Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet. It’s interesting to note, says Cutler, that one of these events became a weekly ritual for the church, while the other is rarely physically enacted.

“The last couple times the primates have gathered, they have washed one another’s feet at some point in their gathering…How would our gathering times be different, or how would we be shaped differently as people of faith, if a public act of service like that was at the heart of what we do each week?”

Maundy Thursday services sometimes end with the stripping of the altar’s linens and ornaments as a sign of mourning and a representation of Christ’s humiliation by Roman soldiers. It also represents “the stripping down of our lives,” says Nicholls, as the suffering of the world, sinfulness and betrayal culminate in Good Friday.

“All of the pain of the world [is] summarized in the betrayal and trial and crucifixion itself,” she adds.

In the diocese of Ontario, Good Friday will be commemorated with a walk at which a cross will be carried from St. Paul’s Anglican Church to St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Kingston, Ont. Diocese of Ontario Bishop Michael Oulton and Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, will participate in the “Walk of the Cross,” which will end with the Good Friday liturgy at St. George’s.

Remembering the pain of Jesus’ crucifixion is an important part of Holy Week, Nicholls says. She points to recent tragedies around the world, including the school shootings in the United States, bombing in Syria, human trafficking and the opioid crisis.

Darkness is all around us, “but we can say, ‘How do we face that darkness?’” she says.  “We face it knowing that, ultimately, there’s something stronger.”

Christ’s actions in the Easter story are those of a servant leader, one “called by God to walk fully into the pain of the world without responding with violence,” she says.  His example shows us “what we’re called to do and be in Christ, and sets us up for the next year of trying to live that.”

The stories of Holy Week “show the difference between what is valuable in God’s kingdom and what we think is important in this life, beginning with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey,” says Cutler. However, he adds, “There’s a danger in going to church [only] on Palm Sunday and… on Easter Day. You miss some real key moments of the story.”

Nicholls recalls that when she served in parishes, she used to urge her parishioners to come to church throughout Holy Week. Walking through the services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, “prepares the heart to actually know the joy of Easter,” she says.

“At some point in my upbringing, I was taught that the very first words from your mouth on Easter morning were to be, ‘The Lord is risen!’ And the person who hears it is supposed to respond, ‘The Lord is risen indeed, hallelujah!’ ” says Nicholls. “So, there’s a sense of, okay, darkness doesn’t win. Love wins.”


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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