The Lenten season is full of solemnity, penance and fasting, all in the name of the Lord. The faithful ask for forgiveness and repent. Candy, chocolate, caffeine and alcohol are “given up” during Lent, a popular tradition, but one not obligated by the church. Abstinence and penance are proffered by the church in preparation for Holy Week events.
During Lent no Alleluia, no Glory to God can be heard at Mass in a church, which devoid of the typical joyous symbols reminds parishioners of the season. These 40 days lead up to the most holy of weeks in the church, the celebration of the Eucharist, of the Lord’s death and resurrection, the basis of all Christianity.
Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week and Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, where the people laid branches across the road and chanted “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9). They proclaimed him “Jesus the prophet of Nazareth.”
Today, palms are blessed and given to parishioners as a reminder of this significant event. Many save their palms and keep them behind a crucifix or holy picture. Some braid their palms into crosses, and in an old custom, some save them to burn during the threat of misfortune, like a hurricane. Palms are burned the next year to make ashes for Ash Wednesday.
The first three days of Holy Week are preparation days. People typically will go to confession at this time of year, fulfilling their obligation under Canon Law (989) that states “All the faithful who have reached the age of discretion are bound to confess their grave sins at least once a year.”
In the Middle Ages, receiving the Eucharist became scarce as people, loathing their sins, didn’t feel worthy of accepting the Lord. Due to this occurrence the church mandated that the Eucharist be received once a year on Easter Sunday. Today, that obligation has been extended from the first Sunday in Lent to Trinity Sunday — as stated in the Code of Canon Law (920): “Once admitted to the blessed Eucharist, each of the faithful is obliged to receive holy Communion at least once a year … during Paschal Time.”
On the Tuesday of Holy Week, the Chrism Mass is held. The bishops, clergy, and lay church delegates join together at the Cathedral parish where the oils of catechumens, of chrism, and of the sick are consecrated.
Holy Thursday, the Thursday of the Lord’s Supper, is a celebration of the holy Eucharist. The tabernacle is emptied so that parishioners may receive communion from the bread consecrated at Holy Thursday Mass. The Eucharist is ceremoniously placed in the tabernacle and the 40 hours devotion begins.
Holy Thursday is also Maundy Thursday in which the washing of feet is re-enacted.
On Good Friday, there is no Mass in recognition of Christ’s sacrifice and suffering on the cross. Parish’s may offer a Liturgy of the Word, the stations of the cross, a rosary, readings of the last words of Christ. Also on Good Friday, parishes may hold the veneration of the cross in which parishioners may process to kiss the cross. Typically these events will take place Friday afternoon for a three-hour period, the time in which Jesus was on the cross.
The solemn Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday is filled with symbolism. The Paschal candle is lit from which parishioners pass on the light from one to another so that light fills the church. The flame represents Christ as the “light of the world.” In historic times, parishioners would carry the fire home with them to light their hearth.
At the vigil Mass, catechumens and candidates are welcomed into the church through baptism and confirmation. The tradition of wearing new clothes on Easter is rooted in this baptism. The catechumens of old were given white robes to signify their baptism; parishioners in remembrance of their own baptismal promise began wearing new clothes.
The symbols of springtime and the Easter season are entwined. Easter lilies, lilies that bloom around Eastertime, with their fresh whiteness are a symbol of the resurrection. Lambs are associated with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Rabbits, or the Easter bunny, are a symbol of fertility and a bountiful life, and eggs are also a symbol of the resurrection. The coloring of eggs began with painting them bright colors to signify the newness of spring.
On the Easter Vigil, for the first time in six weeks, Alleluias ring out.
Easter Sunday continues the joyous theme of Saturday in celebrating the Lord’s death and resurrection. This joyous observance will continue during the next 50 days as the Risen Christ is remembered and celebrated. During this time, the Lord’s Ascension takes place. The 50-day period ends with Pentecost when God pours out the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus Christ.
Source: Catholic Customs and traditions: a popular guide by Greg Dues