Did you know the early church did not originally practice holy week? Holy Week was not a thing in the early first couple centuries. Rather, what we think of as Holy Week (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday) was smashed together in one full celebration on a singular day. This day was typically what we would call Easter Sunday, but was celebrated during the Passover, or Pascha. On the Pascha, Christians would gather to celebrate our “Paschal Lamb (Jesus)” who had been crucified but raised from the dead. A full day of walking through the last days of Jesus’ life would commence on Easter Sunday. However, at some point in the 4th Century, the one day celebration was broken apart into a full week’s worth of celebrations and services as we know it now today.
As Church Historian James White notes, “The reason for this dissolution apparently first occurred in Jerusalem...a need was felt to hold a separate commemoration for each event at the holy place where it had occurred in order to serve the throngs of pilgrims who were arriving from all over the world.” In other words, as people flocked to Jerusalem to remember the miraculous last days of Jesus' life and resurrection, the Church altered its traditions to help people worship God. They expanded the one day celebration to allow more people to participate. We know this from historical records which have been discovered. In fact, a Spanish woman living in 383 AD named Egeria, had taken notes on the events and those notes survive to this day! The week, as she notes, wasn’t originally called “Holy Week,” but “The Great Week.” While originally developed out of necessity for the vast amounts of people flocking to the city, it became an opportunity for pilgrims to savor the last days of Jesus’ life. It allowed them to walk alongside Jesus, experience through sight, sound, and location, what Jesus had experienced. It changed the pace of Easter and caused the Church to slow down, remember, take in, and celebrate God’s grace.
As I hear the history of the early Church I’m inspired to slow down during “The Great Week” that is approaching. This coming Sunday we will kick off this Great Week with Palm Sunday. I would encourage us all to slow down as the early church did, almost by accident, in order to savor what Jesus has done for us. During this coming week, consider Jesus’ last days. Each day take time to consider what Jesus may have been doing between his entry into Jerusalem and his death on the cross. Consider what the disciples were doing. What was Judas doing? What was Peter thinking? What was it like to recline with Jesus as he lifted the cup and said, “This is my blood poured out for you and for many?” Don’t allow this season to pass by in a day. Rather, let it settle in over the course of the week and dive deeply into its significance.
Rev. Nathan Kilbourne