Did you know…? Holy Week

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday (Easter Saturday is the Saturday after Easter Sunday!)

In different countries it is called different things: in some places, the Great Saturday; or in German the Saturday of Mourning (Karamstag); in Malta, Sibt il Glorja (Saturday of Glory); in Iraq and Iran, Sabt al-Noor (Saturday of Light).

Nothing happens in Church, it is a day of pondering things in our hearts as the Blessed Virgin Mary did. She knew what the other disciples didn’t yet understand, namely that the death of Jesus was not the end of the story.

There are no services in Church (except Confessions) until after sunset when it begins to get dark. Then the Easter Vigil begins, a splendid service of light. The service starts in the dark but with a blazing fire which is blessed. The Easter or Paschal Candle is lit from the fire. The candle represents Christ the light of the world, and the deacon or priest at Mass sings: Lumen Christi (the Light of Christ) three times. Then everyone else lights their own candle from the Paschal candle, showing that they take the light that is in their own hearts from Christ who is the Light of the world.

On the candle is written: Α (alpha) and Ω (omega) which are the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet. This means that Our Lord is the beginning and the end of all things. Then the date is written: 2012. Then five grains of incense are put into the candle in the shape of a Cross. The five grains represent the five wounds of Jesus (His two hands, His two feet, and His heart).

Then the Exultet is sung, a splendid hymn which is at least 1,200 years old. This hymn sings of the time when Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, and of Christ’s resurrection, and of all the glorious ways in which God has given us His Light in this dark world of sin. (It even sings the praises of the bees who made the wax for the candle!)

Good Friday

Some of our old fashioned superstitions come from Good Friday and Maundy Thursday, for example:

  1. The words, “touch wood”, when we wish for good luck, comes from venerating the Cross and asking God not for luck but for His blessing and protection.
  2. The number thirteen is thought to be unlucky because there were thirteen people at the Last Supper and the thirteenth person, Judas, betrayed Our Lord.

Good Friday is ‘good’ for us because Our Lord Jesus Christ died for us on that day so that we could be forgiven our sins and, one day, go to live with Him in heaven.

Good Friday is called different things in different countries: Holy Friday in Latin countries; Great Friday in some places; Friday of Mourning in German (Karfrietag); and Long Friday in Norway (Langfredag).

We genuflect three times as we make our way slowly towards the Cross to venerate it during the Liturgy of the Passion. This genuflecting and walking slowly is called ‘creeping to the Cross’.

Priests and altar servers take off their shoes when they venerate the Cross just as Moses was told to take off his shoes when he got near to the burning bush because he was on holy ground (see Exodus 3:5).

The first ever description of the ceremony of venerating the Cross comes from a lady called Egeria who went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in A.D. 380 and wrote an account of what happened in her diary.

Although we receive Holy Communion at the Liturgy on Good Friday, the ceremony is not actually a Mass. In fact, there is no Mass anywhere in the world on Good Friday, the only day in the year when there is no Mass at all in the Catholic Church.

In some countries, for example in Spain, people still walk in procession on Good Friday wearing a very old fashioned cloak and a tall pointed hood which, to our eyes, looks very peculiar. The hood is a symbol of penitence (sorrow for our sins).

In some eastern European countries the people decorate a sepulchre (tomb or grave) and the priest places the Blessed Sacrament there (the Body of  Christ) from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. These sepulchres are highly decorated with flowers. If you look closely in old Anglican churches (churches which were Catholic before Henry VIII’s Reformation) you can still see what looks like a seat carved out of the stone wall to the side of the sanctuary. These are not seats, in fact, but the old Easter Sepulchres. So we know that English people used to decorate Christ’s tomb in the same way.

In many countries, loaves of bread baked on Good Friday were marked with a Cross. Today, we keep that tradition with our hot Cross buns. The first hot Cross buns in England were made at St Alban’s Abbey in 1361.

Farmers used to think Good Friday was a good day to sow new seeds in their fields because that was the day Our Lord blessed the soil by being buried in the earth.

Carpenters and other crafstmen are always careful not to use hammers and nails on Good Friday because hammers and nails were used to fix Our Lord to the Cross.

Women refused to do any washing on Good Friday because the cloths Our Lord was buried in were stained with His Blood.

Sitit sitiri

On the front of the altar at the Oratory during Passiontide you can see the words sitit sitiri. They are taken from a sermon once given by St Gregory Nazianzen and mean, “He thirsts to be thirsted for”. As He hung upon the Cross Jesus said, “I thirst”. Someone nearby thought He meant that He wanted a drink and put a sponge soaked with vinegar (or, rather, cheap and sour wine) on the end of a hyssop stick and lifted it to Our Lord’s mouth. But Our Lord really meant that He thirsted for people’s souls. In other words, what Jesus most desires is that we should desire Him and that we should long for Him with all our hearts.

Maundy Thursday

The word maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum which means commandment. On the very first Maundy Thursday, at the Last Supper, Our Lord gave His Apostles a new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12).

At the end of the Mass on Maundy Thursday, the priest carries the Blessed Sacrament in procession to the Altar of Repose. The Altar of Repose represents the Garden of Gethsemane where Our Lord went to pray after the Last Supper. Traditionally this altar is highly decorated with candles, and especially with flowers and greenery to represent the garden. Jesus said to His Apostles, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” He was afraid of what would happen to Him the next day (Good Friday) and wanted them to keep Him company but they kept falling asleep. These days, people try to pray at the Altar of Repose for at least an hour if they can.

Spy Wednesday

The Wednesday before Maundy Thursday is sometimes called Spy Wednesday because on this day Judas planned and plotted to betray Our Lord. In return he was given thirty pieces of silver.

Palms and ashes

The leftover palms from last year’s Palm Sunday are burnt to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. The people who cheered and waved palm branches when Our Lord arrived in Jerusalem are the very same people who – just five days later on Good Friday – shouted, “Crucify Him!” We are a bit like those people: one moment we are telling Our Lord how much we love Him, and the next moment we are committing another sin! So, the palms and the ashes represent our fickleness.

Palm Sunday

Christians have held Palm Sunday processions since the fourth century. Usually everyone would start with the blessing of palms in a chapel outside the city and then process to the main Church, just as Our Lord travelled into the city of Jerusalem. In mediaeval times the crucifix carried in the procession was highly decorated with flowers. Today, the crucifix in the procession is decorated with palms.

Palm Sunday is called different things in different countries: Branch Sunday, Domingo de Ramos, Dimanche des Rameaux, Willow Sunday (in places where they couldn’t get palm branches), in Lithuania Verbu Sekmadiensis (Willow-twig Sunday). In some countries they used to bless all the flowers in the grounds of the Church as the procession pased by, so this Sunday was called Flower Sunday: Blumensonntag in Germany, Pasques Fleuris in France, Pascua Florida in Spain, Viragvasarnap in Hungary, Cvetna in Slavic nations, and Zaghkasart in Armenia.

In Spain the whole of Easter week came to be called Pascua Florida so, when Ponce de Leon first sighted land on Easter Sunday (27th March)  in 1513 he named the land after this great feast. And so one of the states in America came to be called Florida.

Once the palms are blessed, peopla take them home and attach them to crucifixes or holy pictures, or fasten them to the wall and keep them for a whole year. (Once the year is over the old palms have to be burnt because you cannot simply throw away things that have been blessed.)


The fifth Sunday in Lent is called Passion Sunday, and the last two weeks of Lent are called Passiontide. This mini season of Passiontide is, in fact, older than Lent and dates back to at least the third century.

The word Passion comes from the Latin word passio which means I suffer.

The evening before Passion Sunday all the statues and even the crucifixes are covered with purple veils as a sign of mourning and sorrow for sins. The Gospel on Passion Sunday used to include the account of the Pharisees picking up stones to stone Jesus after He said that He was the Son of God, and ended with the words, “And Jesus hid Himself”. Just as Jesus hid all the glory that properly belonged to Him as the Son of God when He was born in a stable in Bethlehem and appeared as an ordinary human being, so now, as the Roman soldiers torture and beat Him, He appears on Good Friday as barely human any more. It is as if He has even hidden His humanity. So even the crucifixes are veiled.

During these last two weeks of Lent we concentrate on the sufferings of Our Lord Jesus Christ.