One of the most important times of the year for Catholics is Holy Week, an eight-day period beginning on Palm Sunday, filled with religious symbolism, ceremony, obligation and renewal leading up to the end of Lent and Easter Sunday. There are some Catholics that know about much of the meaning behind Holy Week, and there are others who may only know the basic story of Jesus Christ's crucifixion on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday.
We've compiled a list of 10 things you should know about Holy Week, with a few nuggets of knowledge even the most faithful Catholics may have missed.
1. The Resurrection of Christ is celebrated on Easter, but is also the reason why every Sunday is considered "The Lord's Day" and many people attend Mass on that particular day. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "It is called the Lord's Day because on it the Lord rose victorious to the Father."
The Lord's Day is also considered both the first day of the Catholic week, and also the eighth day as "Christ after His 'rest' on the great Sabbath inaugurates the 'day that the Lord has made,' the 'day that knows no evening.'"
2. Why is Easter on a different date every year? It's all based on the lunar cycle. It was agreed in AD 325 that all the Catholic Churches would celebrate Easter on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, which is March 21 in the Gregorian calendar. This year, spring's first full moon is set for March 23, and Easter Sunday is four days later. Easter will always fall between March 22 and April 25.
3. You may have noticed seeing a lot of purple around parishes and religious iconography during Lent. The reason is because the color purple represents penance in the Catholic Church, as prior to Christ's crucifixion, He was forced to wear a crown of thorns and a purple cloak as the people mocked Him. Purple is still used during Lent to remind Catholics that many continue to mock God, Jesus and the Church today.
4. Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, which signifies Jesus traveling to Jerusalem. Matthew 21:1-11 tells us that Jesus sent His disciples to the nearby town of Bethphage to seek a donkey to ride through town on. As Jesus rode through, the people of the town laid cloaks and tree branches on the road before Him, signifying Christ as a man worthy of admiration and respect, as He entered Jerusalem. Today we celebrate Palm Sunday with a blessing of palm branches outside the church (or near the main entrance or narthex), followed by a solemn procession before Mass.
5. The Church also renews itself with a service called the Chrism Mass, sometimes scheduled for Holy Thursday but usually held on the Tuesday evening of Holy Week in the Diocese of Buffalo. Chrism is the oil mixture used for liturgical anointing like baptism, confirmation, holy orders and the blessing of an altar or a church. During the Chrism Mass, all of the oils for the coming year are blessed by the ordinary (another term for the bishop of a diocese) and then sent to parishes throughout the diocese. Clergy attending the Mass also renew their vow of loyalty to the bishop.
6. Holy Thursday is historically noted as the day Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with His disciples. Today the Catholic Church honors this moment with a special evening Mass, during which the Church "cleanses" itself, with clergy stripping and washing the altar, while some Catholics may be chosen to have their feet washed by a priest, symbolizing when Jesus did the same to His disciples. While Catholic tradition has prescribed the washing of feet service only for men in the past, Pope Francis made headlines two years ago when he washed the feet of several prisoners, including women and Muslims.
The Mass of the Lord's Supper is also the last time an official Mass is to be celebrated in a church until the Easter Vigil on Saturday.
7. While Catholics are not obligated to do this, there is another Holy Thursday tradition in which the faithful can visit seven churches in succession. As they visit the various churches, some people visit two stations of the cross (so it will be a total of all 14 stations by the end of their journey), or simply pray at the altar. There is no central organized group helping Catholics visit seven churches, but some parishes offer bus rides for their communities.
8. Good Friday remembers the day Christ was crucified, and as a result, it is one of the most unusual days in the Church calendar as it is a period of mourning. It's the only day of the year where the Eucharist is not celebrated at all. The altar is stripped bare so the focus is simply on the cross. While there is no Mass, there is a service called "Mass of the Pre-Sanctified" because the Communion bread was consecrated on Holy Thursday. The Passion is read aloud, and the Stations of the Cross are visited.
9. Easter actually begins a few hours before the clock strikes midnight on Sunday at Saturday's Vigil service, which is traditionally held after sunset. The Vigil begins outside a darkened church, as a fire ignites to light a paschal candle, which is then blessed and led into the parish to symbolize the Light of Christ. The service also includes additional readings and the introduction of new members of the Church through baptism. As the Church proclaims the resurrection of Christ, all of its normal functions (such as Mass, Communion, music and more) resume following the celebration.
10. Let's close on the biggest question of all: What's up with butter lambs? You may get some blank looks if you were to ask for a butter lamb outside of Western New York, but here in Buffalo, it is an essential part of our Easter baskets that we bring to church for blessings. An Easter tradition for Catholics in Poland, it is extremely popular here, as the lamb has come to symbolize the sacrifice of the Lamb of God in the Eucharist as well as the coming of spring. The red ribbon calls us to remember the Blood of Christ, and His victory over death in the resurrection. No wonder we love it so much. For more about butter lamb history, visit this website.
OK, so you've read all this and are curious enough to attend Mass this week, but you don't know when or where to go. Mass Times is a website that allows you to easily search what Catholic services are available in your area, listing Mass times, addresses and a phone number in case you have further questions. We hope to see you this week!
Correction: An earlier version of this article had the wrong date posted for the full moon.