Sunday many western Christians will gather to commemorate Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem a few days before his death. In many places they will gather outside the church and form a procession, each person bearing a palm branch or a part of one. As you know, this day, usually called Palm Sunday and, less often but also correctly called Passion Sunday, gets its name from the palm branches said to have been strewn on the ground in front of Jesus as he rode his donkey into the city. Once inside, the usual liturgies will be said, but we will also hear a long reading of the Passion of our Lord. How old is this tradition?
Very. About 381, a Gallic woman known as Egeria (or Aetheria and even sometimes, Sylvia) made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She kept an account of her travels in a long letter to a circle of women back home. Fragments of the letter survive and, among other things, tell us something about the customs in Jerusalem at Holy Week. A liturgical year, that is, a year divided into seasons related to events in the New Testament, was developing and would become a universal practice in the Church during her century. She provides a first hand account of what the Jerusalem Church, and by extension, much of Christianity was doing at such festival times. And it is clear, the customs were well established in Jerusalem when she visited. I thought you might be interested in a brief summary of her report about Holy Week.
On Sunday, “...which begins the Paschal week, which they call here the Great Week, when all the customary services have taken place...they proceed...to the greater church, which is called the martyrium [so called because it is where the Lord suffered].” Following some liturgical observances which she doesn’t describe, everyone goes home until the “seventh hour.” After they dine, they reassemble “in the church in Eleona, on the Mount of Olives, where is the cave in which the Lord was wont to teach.”
In the church there on the Mount, “...hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and place are said, and lessons in like manner.” This continues for two hours and at the ninth hour, the worshippers begin to process as they sing hymns, to “the Imbomon, that is, to the place whence the Lord ascended into heaven...Hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and place are said, interspersed with lections and prayers. And as the eleventh hour approaches, the passage from the Gospel is read, where the children, carrying branches and palms, met the Lord...and the bishop immediately rises, and all the people with him, and they all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people going before him with hymns and antiphons, answering one another: Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. And all the children in the neighborhood [even infants on their parents’ shoulders]...all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives [escort the bishop] in the same manner as the Lord was of old.” The procession continues “from the top of the Mount to the city, and thence through the whole city to [the sanctuary of the church] at a late hour. And on arriving, although it is late lucernare (the evening office) takes place, with prayer at the Cross; after which people are dismissed.”
Egeria includes Maundy Thursday, though she only calls it "the fifth weekday." After the usual service, everyone goes to the Mount of Olives for prayers, hymns and lessons, where they spend the night. “At the first cockcrow,” they come down and go to the place where Jesus prayed alone. “And then all, even to the smallest child, go down with the bishop, on foot, with hymns to Gethsemane; where, on account of the great number of people in the crowd, who are wearied owing to the vigils and weak through the daily fasts...come very slowly to Gethsemane.” The passage in which Jesus is taken is read, “...and when this passage has been read there is so great a moaning and groaning of all the people, together with weeping, that their lamentation may be heard perhaps as far as the city.”
As Friday dawns, the whole assembly heads to the Golgatha. Again, they turn to the Gospel and read of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate. “...Afterwards, the bishop addresses the people, comforting them for that they have toiled all night and are about to toil during that same day, (bidding) them not to be weary, but to have hope in God, Who will for that toil give them a greater reward.” The bishop continues to speak to them, sending them home to rest because yet to come is a four hour vigil before “the holy wood of the Cross, each one of us believing that it will be profitable to his salvation [as we] apply ourselves to lections and to prayer until night.” But they do not go straight home. They go to pray at the column where Jesus is thought to have be scourged, and then go home.
When they reassemble at Golgotha, they bring out a small casket in which is kept the wood of the Cross and the titulus that contained the charge against Jesus. The wood is placed on a table, and with deacons carefully watching, “both faithful (i.e., the baptized) and catechumens, come one by one and...” each person who approaches the wood, bow and touch the wood with their foreheads and then with their eyes before kissing it.
At the sixth hour, no matter what the weather, all the people assemble in a courtyard. The bishop’s chair is brought and from the sixth hour until the ninth, lessons are read, including Old Testament readings which seem to predict the suffering and death. Hymns are said and prayers are prayed and “...the emotions shown and the mourning by all the people at every lesson and prayer is wonderful...[as they] lament more than can be conceived, that the Lord had suffered those things for us.” Finally, at the ninth hour, a portion of John’s gospel is read in which Jesus “gave up the ghost.” A prayer and dismissal follow.
As we make our way through Holy Week, let us hope our liturgies will be as important to us as they were to our kin in the 4th century, even though they will be remarkable shorter.