Holy Week through the Eyes of Egeria

A summary of Holy Week from the 3rd Century for today

On Egeria's travels... and our own.

(A brief history and overview of Holy Week)


In the period between 381 and 384 AD, a woman named Egeria made a remarkable journey from Spain to the Holy Land in order to participate in the services of Easter. Even more remarkably, she wrote and published her diary, which stands today as the earliest and most complete description the early church's liturgical celebration of Holy Week. Her pilgrimage provided the foundation for the services of that we celebrate today. Unchanged in their significance from the earliest times, these services help us walk with our Lord as he journeys through his last week of life, his death and his resurrection. The following are bits of history combined with Egeria's reflections as recorded by Dr. Marian Hatchett in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book. This Holy Week, I encourage you to come to these services, reflect on their meaning, and to make Jesus' steps your own.


The week begins with the Sunday of the Passion, otherwise known as Palm Sunday. About Palm Sunday, Egeria writes: After the Eucharist, at which the story of our Lord's entry into Jerusalem had been read, the people hurried home to eat. At one o’clock, they met the bishop near the top of the Mount of Olives... at five o'clock they processed down the Mount with branches of palm or olive trees, singing psalms including Psalm 118 with all shouting "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." The procession went to the site of our Lord's tomb, a prayer was held at the site of the cross, and the people were dismissed. Our celebration of Palm Sunday will be the same. We will begin with a triumphal procession with palms and hosannas, and end with the Passion, hearing a dramatic reading of how Jesus died on the cross and was laid in the tomb. It is a journey from highs to lows, from excitement to tragedy, symbolic of hope in the midst of the reality of sin and suffering in our lives and in our world.


Maundy Thursday, Egeria tells us, was celebrated by a reading of the account of the Last Supper and the celebration of the Eucharist. Very soon after Egeria's time, the story of Jesus' washing of the feet of his disciples was also read, and it became tradition for abbots to wash the feet of peasants and of kings during this service. The name "Maundy Thursday" comes from the word "maundatum" or "commandment" from Jesus' words at this time: "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you." Does the idea of foot washing make you nervous? It is a graphic illustration of the true intimacy of this command, as equally profound as "Do this in remembrance of me." From the very beginning, this service also included the stripping of the altar, in preparation for Good Friday. Customarily this service was also followed by a "Watch," in which people maintained a vigil of prayer following Jesus' request in the garden of Gethsemane, "could you not watch with me for one hour?" To those who might choose to stay home this Maundy Thursday evening, his question is powerful indeed.


Egeria's fourth century description of Good Friday is the first we have of a separate service that focused solely on the cross and Christ. "From eight o'clock until noon, she writes, the wood of the true cross were exposed at the sight of the crucifixion. There the faithful came to venerate them. At noon, they moved into the church for a service of psalms, lections, hymns and prayers, that lasted until three." The early Galician rites from this same time period include special solemn collects and hymns which have been incorporated into our own liturgy. In this case "Good" derives its meaning from the middle English usage of "goodly" as “Godly” or "holy." On Good Friday we remember our Lord's passion with holy prayer.


The Jewish Passover commemorated the slaying of the first born, the exodus from Egypt, and the entry to the promised land. Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the old feast in the early church. In every language except English, the same word is used for the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter -- Pascha. Reinterpreted with New Testament themes, this is the service of the Easter Vigil -- a service that retraces the salvation history of human kind, from darkness to light, from sin to live, from death to resurrection in Jesus Christ. A hundred years before Egeria, this service was known as the principal celebration of Easter and the appropriate place of baptism. Candlelit and full of chanting and marvelous symbolism, the Vigil is the most profound service of the Christian year and, except the for Eucharist itself, is the closest we have to the worship of the early church itself. As Christmas Eve is the first service of Christmas, the Vigil is the first service of Easter. And, like Christmas Eve, it is a service not to miss.


I hope you will take time to join St. Luke’s this Holy Week on a journey with Egeria. Her travels along the road of faith changed her life and had a profound impact on the life and worship of others for more than a thousand years. On her pilgrimage, she met Jesus. Through Jesus' story, she discovered her own. Through his death and resurrection, she received her own. This Holy Week and Easter, I pray that on your own pilgrimage, you would do the same.

Posted in: Dean's Message  E-pistle 
Post Date: Sunday, April 09, 2017 1:22 PM