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What Is Holy Week?
Did you know Easter is part of a series of Christian holidays called Holy Week?
The week before Easter Sunday, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, is known by Catholic and Protestant Christians worldwide as Holy Week. This is a time to remember Jesus’ crucifixion and the events immediately leading up to it.
Biblical accounts of the final week of Jesus’ life are found in all four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books offer a relatively full record of the final words and deeds of Jesus’ life.
The Sunday before Easter is known as Palm Sunday. It marks Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem—what is sometimes called “the triumphal entry.” This day earned its name because the crowds that welcomed Jesus into the city covered his path with palm branches.2
Jesus’ supporters viewed him as a promising messianic candidate, one who could restore military and political power to Israel. The people’s use of palm branches—an ancient symbol—reflected their hope that Jesus would restore Israel to prominence, reminiscent of Israel’s greatest king, David. 3
Jesus was one of thousands who entered Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Passover.5 As such, the temple was buzzing with activity, including price gouging for the purchase of sacrificial animals and currency exchange.
Jesus was deeply offended by the greed of these opportunists, who were placing personal gain over the value of a godly ritual. In anger, Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and those who sold sacrificial animals.
Jesus had entered the temple not as a religious pilgrim looking to make a sacrifice—he himself would, in only four days, be the ultimate sacrifice—but as one who had divine authority to purify the house of God. The Jewish leaders interpreted Jesus’ actions as an affront to their religious authority—rightly so.
Tuesday and Wednesday6
Though the chronology between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper on Thursday is somewhat blurred, the Gospels report that Jesus spent much of this time within the temple. There he taught and preached to the crowds that gathered.
Feeling threatened by his influence and teachings, the Jewish chief priests and Pharisees confronted Jesus and “laid plans to trap him in his words.”7 They asked him a series of difficult, tricky questions in the hopes that Jesus would blaspheme, contradict himself, or simply have no answer.
It was at this time that Jesus spoke many of his famous parables, discussed the signs of the end of the age, and revealed the greatest commandment.8
Within the Christian calendar, this day is known as Maundy Thursday.10
On Thursday evening, Jesus ate a final meal—often called the Last Supper or the Lord’s Supper—with his disciples. The meal took on great significance as Jesus communicated to his disciples a divine awareness of his imminent death and knowledge that one of his own disciples, Judas, would be his betrayer.
It is in the Lord’s Supper that Christians find the tradition now known as Holy Communion11: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”12
In this exchange, Jesus worked to explain the significance of his death to his disciples. Just as food is integral as physical nourishment, a relationship with Jesus is essential to spiritual sustenance and growth.
John records that during the meal Jesus also washed the feet of his disciples, an act reserved for the lowest of servants.13 A teacher serving his disciples in such a way was highly unusual and an act of deep humility. Jesus explained, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”14
Following supper, Jesus took three of his disciples with him to a garden to pray. Moving away from them to a more secluded area, Jesus prayed to his Father. The Gospel of John reports that Jesus prayed for himself, for his disciples, and for all believers.15 Matthew, Mark, and Luke show us that though Jesus may have wished there was another way to save humanity, he ultimately yielded to the will of God, committing himself to God’s plan.16
After he prayed, an armed crowd and Judas, the betrayer, appeared.17 Charged with blasphemy and being a revolutionary bent on usurping both Jewish and Roman authority, Jesus was arrested.
After undergoing a series of tribunals and enduring extensive torture and mockery, Jesus was nailed to a cross—crucified—at approximately 9:00 a.m. on Friday morning.
Crucifixion was a deliberately slow and excruciating form of execution in which a condemned person was nailed to a cross and left there until they died. After hanging on the cross for a few hours, the offender would become unable to lift themselves up to breathe. They would eventually perish from slow suffocation.
After six hours of intense suffering, Jesus died at around three in the afternoon.19 His body was taken off the cross and he was buried in the borrowed tomb of a wealthy man named Joseph of Arimathea.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of the crucifixion within Christian tradition. Christians believe that when Jesus—who had lived a sinless life—died, he took on all of humanity’s sin and the full force of God’s wrath toward it.
Within Christian understanding, Jesus’ death allows each of us to pursue a personal relationship with God. We can ask for forgiveness of our sins, receive it, and be spared the punishment for our iniquities. The apostle Paul explains, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”20
Seven hundred years earlier, the prophet Isaiah foretold the event:
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.21
It is no wonder that Christians are deeply moved when they remember Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice—a sacrifice made for each of us.
The following Sunday—known as Easter Sunday—commemorates the event that truly separates Jesus from other martyrs: his resurrection from the dead. The Gospels record that through divine power, Jesus was raised to life and left the tomb, though it was guarded by soldiers and sealed with a large stone.
As with the crucifixion, the resurrection of Jesus is of utmost importance to Christians. Christians believe that by rising from death, Jesus overcame sin and death for all of us. In this act, Jesus demonstrated that sin and death do not have ultimate power and offered eternal life to his followers.
Jesus later appeared to his disciples and other believers over a period of time, demonstrating his divinity to them. Finally, he instructed his disciples in what Christians call the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”23 The Bible tells us that, after all this, Jesus was taken up into heaven.
But the resurrection is not quite the end of the story. According to Christian understanding, Jesus will return to the earth at the end of days. At this time, the earth will be restored and “‘there will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away.”24
Until then, modern believers are not left without Jesus’ presence. Christians believe that God is still actively involved in each person’s life. A few of Jesus’ last words during his final hours on earth remain particularly reassuring and empowering to his followers, even thousands of years later: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”25
- Many churches commemorate Palm Sunday by incorporating palm branches into the service, whether in decoration or in a processional of waving the branches and declaring, “Hosanna in the highest!”
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Matthew 21:1–11, Mark 11:1–10, Luke 19:28–44, John 12:12–15.
- The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Study Bible, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), note for John 12:13.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Matthew 21:12–13, Mark 11:15–17, Luke 19:45–46.
- Ibid., Exodus 12:1–50.
- Ibid., Matthew 21:18–26:14, Mark 11:20–13:36, Luke 20:1–21:25, John 12:20–50.
- Ibid., Matthew 22:15.
- Ibid., Matthew 22:37–40: “Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’”
- Ibid., Matthew 26:20–46, Mark 14:17–42, Luke 22:14–46, John 13:1–17:26.
- The word maundy is derived from the Latin mandatum, which means “command.” The use of maundy refers to Jesus’ words to his disciples on the Thursday of Holy Week: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The Holy Bible, John 13:34.
- Also known as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion is a practice celebrated by Christians worldwide. Though specific denominations may have their own theological particulars regarding Communion, it is considered by all an opportunity to remember Christ’s sacrifice and coming return, as well as the gift of God’s grace.
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 26:26–28.
- Ibid., John 13:1–17.
- Ibid., John 13:15.
- Ibid., John 17:1–26.
- Ibid., Matthew 26:26–46, Mark 14:32–42, Luke 22:39–46.
- Matthew and Luke tell us that Judas agreed to hand over Jesus in exchange for payment. Luke explains that Satan had entered Judas when he betrayed Jesus. Matthew states that after realizing what he had done in handing over Jesus to the authorities, Judas killed himself. But all four Gospels identify Judas as Jesus’ betrayer.
- Ibid., Matthew 26:57–27:66, Mark 14:53–15:39, Luke 22:55–23:49, John 18:13–19:37.
- The Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us that when Jesus died, the curtain of the temple—which separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place—was torn in two. Christians believe this signifies the end of God’s separation from humankind. Jesus’ death made it possible for all believers to enter directly into God’s presence.
- The Holy Bible, 2 Corinthians 5:21.
- Ibid., Isaiah 53:4–6
- Ibid., Matthew 28:1–10, Mark 16:4–18, Luke 24:2–43, John 20:2–23.
- Ibid., Matthew 28:19–20.
- Ibid., Revelation 21:4
- Ibid., Matthew 28:20.
- Photo Credit: Fenderosa / Shutterstock.com.