Egeria’s Travels: A Brief History and Overview of Holy Week

Cathedral Church of St. Luke

On Egeria’s travels… and our own.

(A brief history and overview of Holy Week)

In the period between 381 and 384 AD, a woman named Egeria made a remarkable journey from Spain to the Holy Land in order to participate in the services of Easter.  Even more remarkably, she wrote and published her diary, which stands today as the earliest and most complete description the early church’s liturgical celebration of Holy Week. Her pilgrimage provided the foundation for the services of that we celebrate today. Unchanged in their significance from the earliest times, these services help us walk with our Lord as he journeys through his last week of life, his death and his resurrection. The following are bits of history combined with Egeria’s reflections as recorded by Dr. Marian Hatchett in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book. This Holy Week, I encourage you to reflect on these services, to join in their celebration, and to make Jesus’ steps your own. 

The week begins with the Sunday of the Passion, otherwise known as Palm Sunday. About Palm Sunday, Egeria writes: After the Eucharist, at which the story of our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem had been read, the people hurried home to eat. At one o’clock, they met the bishop near the top of the Mount of Olives… at five o’clock they processed down the Mount with branches of palm or olive trees, singing psalms including Psalm 118 with all shouting “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The procession went to the site of our Lord’s tomb, a prayer was held at the site of the cross, and the people were dismissed. Our celebration of Palm Sunday will be the same. We will begin with a triumphal procession with palms and hosannas, and continue with the Passion, hearing a dramatic reading of how Jesus died on the cross and was laid in the tomb. It is a journey from highs to lows, from excitement to tragedy, symbolic of hope in the midst of the reality of sin and suffering in our lives and in our world.

Maundy Thursday, Egeria tells us, was celebrated by a reading of the account of the Last Supper and the celebration of the Eucharist. Very soon after Egeria’s time, the story of Jesus’ washing of the feet of his disciples was also read, and it became tradition for abbots to wash the feet of peasants and of kings during this service. The name “Maundy Thursday” comes from the word “maundatum” or “commandment” from Jesus’ words at this time: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Does the idea of foot washing make you nervous? It is a graphic illustration of the true intimacy of this command, as equally profound as “Do this in remembrance of me.” From the very beginning, this service also included the stripping of the altar, in preparation for Good Friday. Customarily this service was also followed by a “Watch,” in which people maintained a vigil of prayer following Jesus’ request in the garden of Gethsemane, “could you not watch with me for one hour?” To those who might choose to stay home this Maundy Thursday evening, his question is powerful indeed. 

Egeria’s fourth century description of Good Friday is the first we have of a separate service that focused solely on the cross and Christ. “From eight o’clock until noon, she writes, the wood of the true cross were exposed at the sight of the crucifixion. There the faithful came to venerate them. At noon, they moved into the church for a service of psalms, lections, hymns and prayers, which lasted until three.” The early Galician rites from this same time period include special solemn collects and hymns which have been incorporated into our own liturgy. In this case “Good” derives its meaning from the middle English usage of “good” as “holy.” On Good Friday we remember our Lord’s passion with holy prayer.

The Jewish Passover commemorated the slaying of the first born, the exodus from Egypt, and the entry to the promised land. Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the old feast in the early church. In every language except English, the same word is used for the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter — Pascha. Reinterpreted with New Testament themes, this is the service of the Easter Vigil — a service that retraces the salvation history of human kind, from darkness to light, from sin to live, from death to resurrection in Jesus Christ. A hundred years before Egeria, this service was known as the principal celebration of Easter and the appropriate place of baptism. Candlelit and full of chanting and marvelous symbolism, the Vigil is the most profound service of the Christian year and, except the for Eucharist itself, is the closest we have to the worship of the early church itself. As Christmas Eve is the first service of Christmas, the Vigil is the first service of Easter. And, like Christmas Eve, it is a service not to miss. 

I hope you will take time to join St. Luke’s this Holy Week on a journey with Egeria. Her travels along the road of faith changed her life and had a profound impact on the life and worship of others for more than a thousand years. On her pilgrimage, she met Jesus. Through Jesus’ story, she discovered her own. Through his death and resurrection, she received her own. This Holy Week and Easter, I pray that on your own pilgrimage, you would do the same.

DESCRIPTION OF HOLY WEEK SERVICES

PALM SUNDAY 

Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, a time in which he was greeted as a king with the waving of palm branches. Very quickly after arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, condemned before Pilate, and crucified.  The Palm Sunday service enacts these events, beginning the blessing of the palms and a joyful procession and the moving quickly  the reading of the Passion Gospel, done as a play with the congregation playing the part of the crowd who themselves have moved from saying “Hosanna” to “Crucify him”.  This service leads us into Holy Week reflecting on these events and our own complicity and need for forgiveness and hope. 

MAUNDY THURSDAY

The name Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin word “mandatum” coming from the Antiphon based on our Lord’s “commandment” in the Gospel, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another even as I have loved you.”  (John 13:34)

THE STRIPPING OF THE ALTAR

During the singing of Psalm 22, the Altar and Sanctuary will be ceremonially stripped and washed.  Members of the congregation are encouraged to assist in this ceremony by coming forward to receive the various sanctuary appointments, which are then carried to the sacristy.                              

THE WATCH

While the Sanctuary is prepared for Good Friday, the lights will be dimmed.  The congregation may then remain in prayer for The Watch, in which we remember the Agony in the Garden, or they may depart in silence.

The Altar of Repose symbolizes the Garden of Gethsemane, wherein Our Lord asked his followers to watch with him for one hour.  You may wish to keep The Watch in silence after the Stripping of the Altar.  The Cathedral will be open until 10:00 pm tonight and from 8:00am on Good Friday, for those who wish to take advantage of this opportunity for prayer and reflection.   

GOOD FRIDAY

The observance of Good Friday as a separate service dates back to at least the 4th century.  Until that time there was only the Paschal Vigil – a single observance of Christ’s victory and death and rising to life again and of the Christians’ death and rebirth through baptism.  It is a day of fast, abstinence and penance.  Good Friday, together with Holy Saturday, are the only days in the year on which no celebration of the Holy Eucharist takes place.  In this case, “Good” derives its meaning from the Middle English usage of “godly” or “holy.”  On Good Friday we remember Our Lord’s Passion and wait in holy and silent prayer.

The Offering for Good Friday will go to the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief

toward supporting the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East.

EASTER VIGIL

Beginning as early as New Testament times and continuing into the practice of the early church, the Great Vigil of Easter was a very special time for Christians.  The first record of the Great Vigil comes from a service manual used in Rome about AD 215. Besides the Eucharist itself, this Christian adaptation of the Jewish Passover rite is the closest we have to the worship of the early church and that of Jesus himself.

By the eighth century, the liturgy for the Great Vigil had become very elaborate. The service began with the kindling of the new fire, the procession of the Paschal candle and the canting of the Exsulttet. Then up to twelve Old Testament readings followed, interspersed with psalms, canticles and prayers.  The water of the baptismal font was exorcised and blessed; and the people were sprinkled with water as a reminder of their baptism.  The candidates for baptism were then called to make a three-fold renunciation of Satan, followed by a three-fold confession of faith. After immersion, they were anointed and then clothed in white garments to symbolize that in Christ they were a new creation.  At the Eucharist which followed, the newly baptized would make their first communion.  The Great Vigil liturgy was filled with images which showed the connection between baptism and the Eucharist.  This was a celebration not only of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also of the individual Christian’s own death and resurrection in Christ through baptism.

Our service tonight contains much of the rich symbolism of the liturgical practices of the early church. The service begins with the Service of Light, when the new first is kindled and then the light of Christ, symbolized by the Paschal candle, is processed to the front of the cathedral.  The Exsultet, which is chanted next. Recounts the victory of Christ over the forces of darkness, Christ’s deliverance of his people form sin and death, and finally praises God for his loving-kindness in sending a son to redeem His people.  The service of Lessons contains only a few lessons, not eh twelve used in the eighth century church!  First, the Creation story reminds us that God is the creator as well as the restorer of the dignity of human nature. Second, the story of Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea reminds us that, just as Israel was delivered from their bondage in Egypt, so through baptism, all Christians come to be numbered among those saved from the bondage of sin and death.  The service continues with Baptism (or the renewal of Baptismal vows) and concludes with the Eucharist, as was the custom in the early church.  As Jewish custom dictates that the day begins at sundown the night before, this service of Easter Eve is the first service of Easter, much in the way that Christmas Eve is the first service of Christmas.   

HOLY WEEK SERVICES

Palm Sunday 7:30, 10:00 and 5:15, communion to go 11-11:30

Maundy Thursday   noon zoom and 7:00 p.m.

Good Friday noon zoom and 7:00 p.m.

Holy Saturday/Easter Vigil     7:00 p.m.

Easter Day     7:30, 9:00, 11:00, 5:15, Communion to go 12-12:30, Easter Egg Hunt 12:30