Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entrance of Christ into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-9), when palm branches were placed in His path, before His arrest on Holy Thursday and His Crucifixion on Good Friday. It thus marks the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Lent, and the week in which Christians celebrate the mystery of their salvation through Christ’s Death and His Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
History of Palm Sunday
Beginning in the fourth century in Jerusalem, Palm Sunday was marked by a procession of the faithful carrying palm branches, representing the Jews who celebrated Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem. In the early centuries, the procession began on the Mount of the Ascension and proceeded to the Church of the Holy Cross.
As the practice spread throughout the Christian world by the ninth century, the procession would begin in each church with the blessing of palms, proceed outside the church, and then return to the church for the reading of the Passion according to the Gospel of Matthew. The faithful would continue to hold the palms during the reading of the Passion. In this way, they would recall that many of the same people who greeted Christ with shouts of joy on Palm Sunday would call for His Death on Good Friday-a powerful reminder of our own weakness and the sinfulness that causes us to reject Christ.
In different parts of the Christian world, particularly where palms were historically hard to obtain, branches of other bushes and trees were used, including olive, box elder, spruce, and various willows. Perhaps best known is the Slavic custom of using pussy willows, which are among the earliest of plants to bud out in the spring.
The faithful have traditionally decorated their houses with the palms from Palm Sunday, and, in many countries, a custom developed of weaving the palms into crosses that were placed on home altars or other places of prayer. Since the palms have been blessed, they should not simply be discarded; rather, the faithful return them to their local parish in the weeks before Lent, to be burned and used as the ashes for Ash Wednesday.
Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday)
The Commemoration of the Last Supper
Holy Thursday is the day on which Christ celebrated the Last Supper with His disciples, four days after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Only hours after the Last Supper, Judas would betray Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, setting the stage for Christ’s Crucifixion on Good Friday.
Holy Thursday is more than just the lead-in to Good Friday; it is, in fact, the oldest of the celebrations of Holy Week. And with good reason: Holy Thursday is the day on which Catholics commemorate the institution of three pillars of the Catholic Faith: the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the priesthood, and the Mass. During the Last Supper, Christ blessed the bread and wine with the very words that Catholic and Orthodox priests use today to consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass and the Divine Liturgy. In telling His disciples to “Do this in remembrance of Me,” He instituted the Mass and made them the first priests.
Near the end of the Last Supper, after Judas had departed, Christ said to His disciples, “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” The Latin word for “commandment,” mandatum became the source for another name for Holy Thursday: Maundy Thursday.
On Holy Thursday, the priests of each diocese gather with their bishop to consecrate holy oils, which are used throughout the year for the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick. This ancient practice, which goes back to the fifth century, is known as the Chrism Mass (“chrism” is a mixture of oil and balsam used for the holy oils) and stresses the role of the bishop as a successor to the apostles.
Except in very rare circumstances, there is only one Mass other than the Chrism Mass celebrated on Holy Thursday in each church: the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which is celebrated after sundown. It commemorates the institution of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and it ends with the removal of the Body of Christ from the tabernacle in the main body of the church. The Eucharist is carried in procession to another place where it is kept overnight, to be distributed during the commemoration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday. After the procession, the altar is stripped bare, and all bells in the church are silent until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.
What Is the Easter Triduum?
The final days of Lent
The Easter Triduum (sometimes also referred to as the Paschal Triduum) is the proper name for the liturgical season that concludes Lent and introduces us to the joy of the Easter season. Starting with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday, continuing through the Good Friday service and Holy Saturday, and concluding with vespers (evening prayer) on Easter Sunday, the Easter Triduum marks the most significant events of Holy Week (also known as Passion tide).
The Easter Triduum is often commonly referred to simply as the Triduum (with a capital T). However, a triduum is simply any three-day period of prayer, recalling the three days that Christ spent in the tomb.
Encompassing the final three days of the discipline of Lent, the Easter Triduum has traditionally been observed with even stricter fasting and abstinence, as well as prayer and alms giving. Since 1956, however, the Paschal Triduum has been regarded as its own liturgical season, and thus liturgically Lent ends before the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.
Good Friday, the Friday before Easter Sunday, commemorates the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross. Good Friday is the second of the three days of the Easter Triduum.
From the earliest days of Christianity, no Mass has been celebrated on Good Friday; instead, the Church celebrates a special liturgy in which the account of the Passion according to the Gospel of John is read, a series of intercessory prayers (prayers for special intentions) are offered, and the faithful venerate the Cross by coming forward and kissing it. The Good Friday liturgy concludes with the distribution of Holy Communion. Since there was no Mass, Hosts that were reserved from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday are distributed instead.
The service is particularly solemn; the organ is not played, and all vestments are red or (in the Traditional Latin Mass) black.
Since the date of Good Friday is dependent on the date of Easter, it changes from year to year.
Fasting and Abstinence
Good Friday is a day of strict fasting and abstinence. Catholics over the age of 18 and under the age of 60 are required to fast, which means that they can eat only one complete meal and two smaller ones during the day, with no food in between. Catholics who are over the age of 14 are required to refrain from eating any meat, or any food made with meat, on Good Friday.