Holy Week. It is the last week in Lent and during it we will remember the passion of Christ. The week begins with Palm Sunday when we sing loud Hosanna!. Maundy Thursday is the day we recall the Last Supper in the Upper Room. Our worship will conclude with a brief service of Tenebrae during which we will read the Scripture passages that describe Jesus in Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. On Good Friday we will focus on the crucifixion at Golgotha, the death of the Paschal lamb, and then keep quiet watch until we celebrate the resurrection on Easter morning.
Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Greek, Old English – words from far away and long ago will be heard this week. They are the words that tell the story, the best story, we remember this week. Some would say it would be better to tell the story without having to use words otherwise lost in the dust of time. Faithful Christians will tell the story and never use the word tenebrae or Paschal. Some, and I among them sometimes, prefer Resurrection Day to Easter because then we don’t have to worry so much about eggs, bonnets, and bunnies clouding the meaning of the day. Still, the day is Easter – an ironic name, as we will see. Like all good stories, the best story has its own vocabulary, and the story is better told when the right words are used. Some brief definitions, then, to guide you through the week as we remember and reenact the best story.
- Holy Week Begins on Sunday and ends on Saturday – we begin by remembering the day Jesus entered Jerusalem to the acclamation of the crowd, and end with the despair of his death and burial as a common criminal.
- Lent is a forty day period, oddly not counting Sundays, traditionally used as a time of denial and preparation for the celebration of Easter. Forty days remind us of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, and how he was tempted there. Holy Week is the last week in Lent. The word itself is from an Old English word meaning spring. This year we mostly had snow storms during Lent.
- Palm Sunday is the day when in our worship services we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The waving of palms is mentioned in John’s telling of the story. As Jesus enters the city, the crowd shouts Hosanna – a Hebrew word that means “save us!” Matthew, Mark, and John each mention the shouts of Hosanna!
- The Passion of Christ: The word passion comes from the Greek work for suffering. The passion of Christ is not about his deep devotion to something like someone’s passion for golf or opera. It is about suffering. Christ is not a name, it is a title – the messiah, that is the one promised by God. The Promised One suffered and died that we might live.
- Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of Holy Week that marks the evening when Jesus shared a meal – it would be the last supper he would eat before his death, a Passover meal (the Jewish commemoration of the night the angel of death passed over the people of Israel as they awaited God’s action to lead them from slavery in Egypt). The meal was shared in an upper room – a borrowed or rented room of the kind often used by pilgrims visiting Jerusalem during the Passover. Jesus is sometimes called the Paschal Lamb – Paschal being a Greek derivative of the Hebrew word for the Passover. Our English word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum” or command. That night Jesus gave his disciples a new command, “that they love one another.”
- Following the meal in the Upper Room, Jesus and his disciples go outside the city gates to the foot of a hill called the Mount of Olives and a grove of olive trees called Gethsemane, which in Hebrew would refer to an olive press that must have been close by. In Gethsemane Jesus prays to his Father that he might not have to go to death, but ends by saying, “not my will, but yours be done.” Part of our Maundy Thursday worship is called Tenebrae, which means darkness. It was a dark night in every way.
- Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane, having been betrayed by a man named Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples. Judas had turned traitor in return for thirty silver coins. Jesus is taken to the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, then to Herod, the Jewish king who collaborated with the Roman occupation army, and finally to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the province whose job it was to lookout for Roman interests. Charged as a traitor against Rome for having claimed, so they said, to be “king of the Jews,” Pilate reluctantly orders Jesus to be crucified – execution by hanging on a cross, a particularly gruesome and public way to die. Rome found that it helped to maintain order when the people saw malcontents executed this way.
- The place of execution is a hill outside of Jerusalem called Golgotha – the Greek version of the Aramaic word for “skull.” The shape of the hill is said to be something like that of a skull. Calvary is the Latin word for the place.
- The day of Jesus’ execution is remembered as Good Friday, though there seemed nothing good about it at the time. It is good only in the light of what we celebrate on Easter – the triumph of life over death, the gift of new life in Christ.
- Our English term Easter comes from an Old English word, Eostre. Eostre was a pagan goddess whose month was April. The day we celebrate the victory of the One True God over all things false known by the name of a false god. I can live with the irony.
Like all good stories, the best story has its own vocabulary. It is a vocabulary worth knowing, for each of these old and odd words tells us a little bit more about why the story is the best. As we begin Holy Week, please be with us as we gather for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter morning. And why not read this best story. Here is how Matthew tells it. This Mark’s recounting of the story. Here is Luke’s. Finally fromJohn. Do you see why it is the best story ever told? See you Palm Sunday