Holy Week, a central point of remembrance during the Christian calendar, focuses upon the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is no surprise. Had Jesus not risen from the dead, our faith would be useless, and we would still be guilty of our sins (1 Cor. 15:17).
Holy Week helps us reflect upon the last week of Jesus’ life. There are a number of ways that Christians celebrate Holy Week, but there is a common commitment to expressing deep gratitude for Christ’s death and celebration of his resurrection! In this piece, I want to explore some of the significant events that took place from Palm Sunday to the Resurrection and suggest some ways in which your devotional life can become richer as you grow in your relationship with God.
Turning to Matthew’s Gospel, we read of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. As Jesus made his way into the city, the crowds cried, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” As N.T. Wright notes, this passage has “royal implications”. Jesus was entering into Jerusalem as king, but few understood what kind of king he was. In fact, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a humble animal for a humble king (a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9).
In some traditions, Palm Sunday is celebrated by waving or anointing palm branches (or branches that are available) and much is made of the kingly reign of Jesus. During the first Holy Week, most people were unaware of the nature of Jesus’ kingship; today we look back and celebrate, fully aware that, as Abraham Kuyper famously stated, every square inch is his. Eastern tradition notes that the donkey Jesus rode in on was a sign of peace, whereas the horse, traditionally associated with a king, was a sign of war.
As Jesus made his way to the temple, he came upon a fig tree that had no fruit, to which he said, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” In Matthew’s gospel, we read that “the fig tree withered at once.” Once Jesus arrived at the temple he saw the money changers and observed how this sacred place was being abused. Thus, he cleansed the temple and said, “It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer’, but you make it a den of robbers.”
For Holy Monday, focus upon the withered fig tree. This serves to remind us that those who do not bear fruits of repentance will face judgment. Being a follower of Jesus means that we surrender our lives to him. Repenting from sin means that the direction of our lives change; we reorient and reorder our lives around King Jesus and his kingdom. “Bearing fruit” means that our faith and actions match up. Holy Monday marks a turn in the emotion of Holy Week as the “mood” becomes more reflective.
Tuesday was a full day for Jesus and his disciples. Scripture indicates that as Jesus and his disciples make their way back to the temple, they see the withered fig tree and Jesus teaches his disciples a lesson about fruitfulness. Upon arriving at the temple, Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders enter into heated and controversial discussion about Jesus’ authority and where it came from. Finally, Jesus and the disciples made their way to the Mount of Olives and Matthew records Jesus’ teaching there.
One way to appreciate Holy Tuesday is look to the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30). This parable reminds us to remain steadfast and faithful, for Jesus promised he would return to reward or to judge. While our salvation is experienced by the grace of God through our faith and trust in Jesus (Eph. 2:8-9), we have been redeemed to be faithful and active in serving the world around us (Eph. 2:10).
The tragedy of Holy Wednesday is tied to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. While Jesus continued to teach in the temple, Judas met with the religious leaders who were planning to kill Jesus. It is at this point, Luke writes, that “Satan entered into Judas” (Luke 22:3 NLT). As crowds continued to gather around Jesus to listen to his teachings, the Sanhedrin plotted how to kill Jesus in order to end the momentum of his public ministry.
The Church contrasts Judas’ betrayal with how Mary anointed Jesus in John 12:2-8. While Judas betrayed Jesus and essentially “sold his soul” due to his love of money, Mary knelt before Jesus to wash and anoint his feet with expensive perfume. On Ash Wednesday, Christians consider how to extravagantly worship Jesus. We must also humbly recall that Judas was once a disciple and that the love of money can be truly destructive (1 Tim. 6:10). Many denominations use ashes to represent repentence and symbolize turning from sin to turn towards Christ (Daniel 9:3).
As preparation for the Passover began, Jesus gathered his disciples together to celebrate a meal and give one of his last teachings to his disciples in what is called the upper room discourse (John 13:1–17:26). The Last Supper is where Jesus initiated the sacrament that has come to be known as Communion or the Eucharist. Jesus used bread and wine to point to a greater truth to come (his death) and took time to demonstrate what sacrificial service looked like by washing the feet of his disciples. After a long evening of fellowship and teaching, Jesus spent time in the garden of Gethsemane praying to his father, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39 NIV).
Maundy refers to “foot washing” and comes from the Latin mandatum. Traditionally, Maundy Thursday is celebrated as Christians gather together, fellowship with the breaking of bread, and wash each other’s feet. This is deeply humbling as well as a powerful opportunity to experience God’s presence as the bread and cup are received in the presence of the Christian community. Whether one identifies as Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, the celebration of communion and the washing of feet is a compelling approach to reflecting on Maundy Thursday.
Shortly after midnight, Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested in Gethsemane. Jesus’ “trial,” if we can call it that, was actually before two governing bodies. He first stood trial, in the middle of the night, before the Jewish leaders Annas and Caiaphas and then, after sunrise, before all of the primary Jewish leaders, called the Sanhedrin (cf. John 18:13-24 and Matt. 26:57-27:2). After the Sanhedrin found Jesus guilty, he was brought on “trial” before the Romans.
So early in the morning, Jesus stood before both Herod and Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect (governor). One of the Roman customs was to grant the Jewish people the release of one prisoner whom they would choose. On this occasion, rather than choose a man whom had healed people, raised the dead, and fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures, the crowds chose a rebel and murderer named Barabbas (Mark 15:7).
Jesus, on the other hand, was flogged, given a crown of thorns, and condemned to die by crucifixion. His holy life was exchanged for the life of a known criminal. How peculiar that the crowds who had cried “Hosanna” five days earlier now cried, “Crucify him!”
While Jesus carried the cross upon which he would soon hang, the crowds were divided, some expressing great sorrow for him, others celebrating his sentence. Along the way, Jesus became unable to carry his own cross and an onlooker was forced to carry it for him. Finally, after a long journey, Jesus was nailed to his cross, raised up before the crowds, and crucified.
Because Good Friday is the day where Christians reflect on the death of Jesus, God’s Son, the day is a solemn occasion. After all, this is the day upon which human beings killed the son of God. Christian traditions approach the day for reflection in a variety of ways: fasting, “stripping the altar” (removing all decorative cloths from the altar), singing psalms and laments. Others will not celebrate Holy Communion until Easter Vigil (early morning before Easter sunrise). In some Christian traditions, believers will follow the events of Jesus’ journey by viewing artistic images of up to fourteen scenes called the Stations of the Cross (In fact, recently churches have gone from simply displaying images that portray events that occurred on Good Friday to putting together multi-sensory experiences where you can walk through and hear, smell, view, and pray around these “stations”). The most important tradition is shared by all Christians: Good Friday is an invitation to meditate upon the tremendous sacrifice that Jesus made for his people.
Known as the “Great Sabbath,” Holy Saturday is considered a day of silence that points to how Christ “rested” physically in the tomb. Churches that have services on Holy Saturday often keep their worship gatherings simple and bare, encouraging participants to rest in anticipation for Easter.
On Holy Saturday, taking a moment to pray and reflect on Jesus’ death is a practical way to remember God’s work. How does Jesus’ death affect you? What does his death mean for you, both personally and for the church? How might you respond to Jesus’ death? What areas of your life do you feel most affected by Jesus’ sacrificial death?
Early Sunday morning, as women went to the tomb Jesus had been buried in, something incredible happened! Instead of finding Jesus body, the tomb was empty! All that Jesus had spoken and promised concerning his death and his resurrection had happened! As the women were perplexed and trying to figure out what had happened, two men (angels!) appeared to them and said, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24:5-6). The crucified Son of God was no longer in the grave but had been powerfully raised from the dead! This is the most significant event in all of recorded history!
Instead of saying “Hello” to one another, on Easter Sunday, many Christians greet each other with the Easter Acclamation. This custom starts with one person saying, “Christ is risen!” and the other person responding, “He is risen indeed!” So important is the Resurrection that Peter, in his introductory prayer of blessing, stated that God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). Death could not hold Jesus, the Lamb of God. Rather, that grave was opened and Jesus came back and was seen first by the women at the tomb, the disciples, and by over 500 others (1 Cor. 15:4-6).
The Resurrection separates Jesus from all other religious leaders because all the others are still in their graves. And followers of Jesus participate in the power of the resurrection through the Holy Spirit. As Paul writes, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). The same Spirit, the Holy Spirit, that raised Jesus from the dead, will give life to you.
Jesus victoriously conquered death, which fuels Christian worship and empowers their celebration of both God’s great mercy and powerful acts of salvation. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!