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Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

An Overview of the Holy Week

by Rev. Fr. Alexander J. Kurien, Washington, D.C.

Holy Week is the pinnacle of Great Lent. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. At no other time of the year will religious thought and practice be at such a high peak as during this sacred week, and no other family feast or festival should out rank that of Easter.

There is no more powerful liturgical experience than to enter into these days wholeheartedly and to sense together that furious movement and emotional turmoil as the story unfolds of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the hope the expectation, the excitement that turns so suddenly to confusion, denial and desertion; the intimacy of bread broken and wine shared amongst friends, and the forsakenness just hours later of Christ on the cross; the darkness of death, the bewilderment of the burial; the breaking forth of light and life on Easter morning.

But the Holy Week experience is so much more than just a re-enactment of Jesus' last days, a retelling of a story so familiar. Of course that in itself is powerful. But for me at least, each year's observance is a totally new and different experience, because the world in which we live as individuals, as a community, as a worldwide body is quite different each year. The scars we carry into Holy Week this year and place at the foot of the cross and the new hopes, the longings, the life - all these are changed from how we went into Holy Week last year, and how we will go into it next year. But if we DO understand that Jesus' journey is also our journey and the journey of the world in which we live, the experience of the week can be truly transforming, as death becomes life.

During the weeks of Lent, there is a gradual build-up to Holy Week, but so much high drama occurs in the days leading up to Easter that it is almost impossible to take it all on board. All the big themes are there: betrayal, denial, failure, parting. The washing of feet would be worthy of the greatest attention irrespective of what stage in Jesus' ministry it took place. The fact that he chose his last night on earth to carry out this beautiful gesture elevates it to the greatest significance. Why did Jesus wash his disciples' feet? Jesus had spent three years teaching them how essential love and service were. But they were slow to comprehend his central message. How disheartening it must have been for Jesus to discover just before his death that the disciples were squabbling over which of them was the greatest.

Actions speak louder than words, and on that Holy Thursday night, Jesus decided to teach by action and symbol. When he took up the basin of water and towel to wash his companions' feet, he was taking on the task normally performed by the slave of the household. This explains why Peter was so horrified at the idea of his Master washing his feet.

While this ceremony is enacted in most churches on Holy Thursday, it appears to have little impact. It's probably seen as a nice part of the liturgy but there can be little appreciation of the implications of what Jesus was putting before his first disciples that night - and of what it means for us today.

Holy Thursday is regarded as one of the most important days in the church's calendar, since it was on that day that Christ instituted the Eucharist. That event is described in three of the gospels. The exception is John's Gospel, which instead gives us the story of the washing of the feet.

Given that the Eucharist is so central to our Christian faith, it is surprising that John does not give us a description of its institution. The fact that he chooses instead to include the account of the washing of feet shows how crucial this event was for the author of that gospel.

When Jesus had finished washing the disciples' feet, he said, "You call me Master and Lord, and rightly so; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other's feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you." (St. Jn. 13.13-15) This is a very clear statement by Jesus about the central place of love and service in the life of the Christian, and we need to balance that against all the emphasis we place on "going to Church," or "participating in the Holy Communion."

Jesus' attitude is further illuminated when compared with that of Pilate. The Roman governor knew the man before him was not guilty of any offence that deserved death. He said to the Jewish leaders, "As you can see, the man has done nothing that deserves death." (St. Lk. 25.15) Yet under pressure, he goes against his own assessment and hands Jesus over to be executed.

Having made a dishonest decision, Pilate also takes up a basin of water and towel. He washes his hands, declaring, "I am not responsible for his blood. It is your doing." (St. Matt. 27.24) Jesus and Pilate stand before us as two very contrasting role models. Jesus washes feet as a very challenging call to service; Pilate washes his hands, saying, "I am not responsible." As we are entering into this Holy Week, let us self evaluate our whereabouts becoming a Christ-like being. One question we must ask is -- In my attitude to life and in my interaction with others, which of the two do I most resemble?

Source: ICON

See Also:

Passover Thoughts
An explanation of the history, traditions, and meaning of the Holy Liturgy form the Orthodox perspective.

Good Friday is a prep -witness day
What can we learn from Jesus Christ's experience on Good Friday?

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