Posted by: AJtheIrishLass | June 18, 2007

The Holy Week Survival Guide

a woman hugging a bible

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on

One of the highlights of the liturgical year is Holy Week, the week before Easter. However, if you’re new to the Episcopal Church or just visiting, you may feel kind of lost since the services at Holy Week are somewhat different from the usual ones. This guide will hopefully shed a little light on the meaning of these services and what to expect if you attend one.

Service descriptions are drawn from the liturgies found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which is available online at now. There will probably be some variations in the service due to local customs. This article is intended to give you an idea of what will most likely take place.

Some General Rules of the Road (All Services)

*You’ll receive an order of service telling where the service may be found in the prayerbook and what hymns are used. Many parishes print the whole order of service in the bulletin itself, making it easier for visitors.

*The time before the service is generally used for quiet reflection and prayer.

*If you’re not a Christian, or are a member of another church, you won’t have to sing hymns or say prayers that contradict your beliefs. Making the sign of the cross and other liturgical gestures are optional.

*At the offering, you are not required to make a donation, but are welcome to.

*All baptized Christians are welcome to receive, and many parishes invite all to receive. If you are not receiving, you can also go to the altar rail for a blessing. If you choose to receive a blessing, make an X by crossing your arms over your chest so the priest and lay ministers know you’re not receiving communion. Real wine is used. Those who object to alcohol may receive the bread only (make an X when the wine is offered so that you will not be given any) or may choose to receive a blessing instead.

Palm Sunday (Passion Sunday)

Occurs the Sunday before Easter, and commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. (Mt. 21:1-11, Mk. 11:1-11, Lk. 19:29-40).

Palm branches or other greens are often distributed to the congregation before the service, and blessed at that time.  Parishes will typically have a procession with hymns appropriate to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

After the Old Testament, Psalm and New Testament readings, a special reading (Passion Gospel) from Matthew, Mark or Luke follows. The reading encompasses Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion.  The Passion Gospel is often read aloud by different members of the congregation.

After the Passion Gospel and sermon/homily, the service often continues with the intercessory prayers, offertory, and communion service.  One of the most distinctive things about this service, I think, is how it starts out celebratory and ends more solemnly.

Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday)

Commemorates Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. (Jn. 13:1-15, Lk. 22:14-30).

The service begins as a typical Eucharist service, with a special collect, readings, and psalm being used.

In many churches, a footwashing follows. Sometimes volunters are selected to take part, sometimes members volunteer and anyone who wishes to can have their feet washed by them, others pass basins of water around so everyone has an opportunity to wash or be washed. Hymns or anthems may be sung during the footwashing.

Many parishes now have their communion service for Maundy Thursday in the context of an agape meal. Others might use the Prayer Book communion service.  Following the service, the altar is stripped in many churches.

One custom that’s not always practiced but very meaningful is to have a vigil after the service, in remembrance of Jesus’ admonition to His disciples to watch and pray.

Good Friday

Commemorates Jesus’ death for our salvation (Jn. 19:37).

The Good Friday service is the most solemn of the Holy Week observances. One very memorable thing about this service is that the clergy and lay ministers don’t enter the church in procession, and silent prayer is observed at the beginning of the service.

Following the appointed readings, a Passion Gospel from John is read. Like the Palm Sunday Passion Gospel, this might be read by different people.  Following the sermon, special prayers covering a variety of Church and world needs are offered.

Veneration of the cross often takes place. Special hymns and anthems, and/or kneeling before the cross in prayer are commonly observed as part of this devotion. When communion is received on Good Friday, it is from elements consecrated at the Maundy Thursday service.

The Stations of the Cross are also a part of many parishes’ Good Friday observances.

Holy Saturday

The very last day of Lent, commemorates the Sabbath day before Jesus’ resurrection. (Mt. 27:57-66, Jn. 19:38-42). This is often a very brief service, and no Eucharist is observed on this day. A Holy Saturday service might include readings, a homily, anthem, and benediction.


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