Sunday, February 17, 2019

Holy Week, Part 1: Introduction to Septuagesima, Lent, and Holy Week

Today, the Church observes Septuagesima Sunday, the beginning of the part of the liturgical year that centers on Easter. Easter, of course, celebrates Jesus Christ's glorious Resurrection from the dead, making possible our redemption. As the central event of the Christian religion, it logically also occupies a central place in the Church's liturgy. Catholics are bound to observe every Sunday as a celebration of the Lord's Resurrection by assisting in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and abstaining from unnecessary servile work. Moreover, our annual celebration of the Lord's Resurrection at Easter is preceded by an extended period of preparation and followed by a long season of joy and celebration.

The period of preparation for Easter begins with the season of Septuagesima. The word “Septuagesima” means “seventy.” The three Sundays within this season are known as Septuagesima Sunday (February 17 this year), Sexagesima Sunday (February 24), and Quinquagesima Sunday (March 3). The Wednesday following Quinquagesima Sunday (March 6) is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the solemn fast of Lent.

The nomenclature is slightly misleading, because Septuagesima Sunday is not seventy days before Easter, but rather sixty-three days. The season of Lent is known in Latin as “Quadragesima,” or “forty,” since it is forty days excluding Sundays before Easter. The three preceding Sundays are thus known as “Quinquagesima” (“fifty”), “Sexagesima” (“sixty”), and “Septuagesima” (“seventy”). (On a slight side note, Quinquagesima Sunday is actually fifty days before Easter if we include both Quinquagesima Sunday and Easter Sunday.)

In addition, the season of Septuagesima represents the roughly seventy years of the Babylonian exile. In 605 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon sieged Jerusalem. In the following years, the Temple built by King Solomon was destroyed, and the Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon. The Jews returned to Jerusalem in 537 BC. The destruction of Jerusalem foreshadowed the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In addition, the deportation of the Jews and their exile in Babylon represents our separation from Christ that we cause each time we choose to sin. The Prophet Jeremiah describes the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile in chapters 39-43 of the Prophecy of Jeremiah as well as in the Book of Lamentations. Finally, Psalm 136, attributed to Jeremiah, describes the suffering of the Jewish people in Babylon.

Thus, in the season of Septuagesima, Holy Mother Church calls us to penitence, reminds us of the suffering and separation from Christ that our sins cause, and prepares us for a holy observance of Lent. To this end, Septuagesima takes on some of the character of Lent. At First Vespers of Septuagesima Sunday, the hour is ended:

Benedicamus Domino. Alleluia, alleluia.
Deo gratias. Alleluia, alleluia.
Let us bless the Lord. Alleluia, alleluia.
Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia.

Henceforth, the word “alleluia” is not used in the Church's liturgy until the Easter Vigil. The Alleluia Verse at Mass is replaced with a Tract. In place of the “alleluia” beginning each hour of the Divine Office, we sing:

Laus tibi, Domine, Rex aeternae gloriae. Praise be to thee, O Lord, King of eternal glory.

The liturgical color is violet. The Gloria is not sung at Mass, nor is the Te Deum sung at Matins. The second scheme of psalms is used at Lauds. Before 1962, Mass would end with “Benedicamus Domino” rather than “Ite Missa est.” However, not all of the sorrowful aspects of the Lenten liturgy are observed during Septuagesima. The organ is still played (but not other instruments), flowers still adorn the altar, and before 1962, the deacon and subdeacon would still wear dalmatic and tunicle rather than folded chasubles.

The day before Ash Wednesday is called Shrove Tuesday, also known in various places as Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival, or Fasching. It has no special liturgical observance, but it is often celebrated culturally with feasts and parties, because it is our last chance to feast before Lent. One of my personal favorites is eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, a custom originating in England in the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, many Mardi Gras and Carnival celebrations have devolved into grandiose and obscene spectacles of intemperance.


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, before Mass, the priest blesses ashes made by burning the blessed palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday. The priest marks each person on the forehead with blessed ashes while reminding him of God's admonition to Adam in Genesis 3:19.

Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris. Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.

Ashes and sackcloth appear many times in the Old Testament as symbols of sorrow and penance (Esther 4:1-3, Jonah 3:5-6).

The faithful are called upon to observe Lent as a special time of devotion, penance, and self-denial. Traditionally, Catholics were obligated to fast every day of Lent except Sundays and to abstain from meat (except fish) on Ash Wednesday and each Friday. Fasting in this context means only one full meal and two small meals that combined are less than one full meal, with no food between meals. This traditional practice is no longer obligatory, though it may be observed as a matter of personal devotion. Currently, Catholics are obligated to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday only and to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and each Friday. Unlike the rest of the year, it is not permissible to substitute another act of penance for abstinence from meat on Fridays. In addition, many people choose to take on a particular act of devotion or penance during Lent, such as giving up sweets or social media or spending an extra half hour each day reading the Bible. Such a devotion is encouraged, but not obligatory.

Liturgically, the Sundays in Lent are of the first class, and the ferias are of the third class. Lenten ferias take precedence over third class feasts, with a commemoration of the feast. On first and second class feasts, the Mass of the feast is offered with a privileged commemoration of the feria. The Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the first Sunday of Lent are the Lenten Ember Days.

The liturgical color for Lent is violet. The organ is not played except to assist the singers. In place of the Alleluia Verse, there is a Tract. The Gloria and Te Deum are not sung except on feasts. There are no flowers on the altar. Finally, before 1962, the deacon and subdeacon would wear folded chasubles instead of their usual dalmatic and tunicle.

A common public devotion during Lent, especially on Fridays, is the Stations of the Cross, also called the Way of the Cross or Via Crucis. Fourteen stations along the walls of the church depict events in Christ's Passion:

  1. Pilate condemns Jesus to die.
  2. Jesus accepts his Cross.
  3. Jesus falls the first time.
  4. Jesus meets his afflicted Mother.
  5. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the Cross.
  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
  7. Jesus falls the second time.
  8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.
  9. Jesus falls the third time.
  10. Jesus is stripped of his garments.
  11. Jesus is nailed to the Cross.
  12. Jesus dies on the Cross.
  13. Jesus is taken down from the Cross and placed in the arms of his Mother.
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb.

Since it is just a devotion and not a liturgy, there is no fixed form. An observance of the Stations of the Cross usually involves processing from station to station, saying a few prayers, and meditating on each event. The beautiful thirteenth century hymn Stabat Mater (the Sequence for the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary) is often sung while moving between stations.

The fourth Sunday of Lent is known as Laetare Sunday. It is named after the first word of its Introit (Isaiah 66:10-11, Psalm 121:1).

Lætáre, Ierúsalem: et convéntum fácite, omnes qui dilígitis eam: gaudéte cum lætítia, qui in tristítia fuístis: ut exsultétis, et satiémini ab ubéribus consolatiónis vestræ.
Lætátus sum in his, quæ dicta sunt mihi: in domum Dómini íbimus.
Glória Patri, et Fílio, et Spirítui Sancto.
Sicut erat in princípio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculórum. Amen
Lætáre, Ierúsalem: et convéntum fácite, omnes qui dilígitis eam: gaudéte cum lætítia, qui in tristítia fuístis: ut exsultétis, et satiémini ab ubéribus consolatiónis vestræ.
Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together, all you who love her: rejoice with joy, you who have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.
I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together, all you who love her: rejoice with joy, you who have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.

Laetare Sunday has a slightly more joyful character than the rest of Lent. The vestments are rose colored, the organ is played, the altar is adorned with flowers, and the deacon and subdeacon wear dalmatic and tunicle. However, there is still no Gloria or Alleluia Verse.

The fifth Sunday of Lent is known as Passion Sunday, and it begins the liturgical season of Passiontide. Passiontide takes on an even more sorrowful character than Lent. The Gloria Patri is omitted from the Asperges, Introit, and Lavabo. Psalm 42 is omitted from the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. All statues and sacred images in the church are covered.

The Friday following Passion Sunday is the feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which Psalm 42 is said, the Gloria is sung, and the Sequence Stabat Mater is sung.

Holy Week and the liturgical reforms

The following Sunday, the second of Passiontide and the sixth of Lent, is Palm Sunday. This begins Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, observed by very special and ancient ceremonies that recall the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ. This series of articles will focus on the liturgical ceremonies of Holy Week, according to the sacred liturgical tradition of the Catholic Church.

In 1955, at the advice of Father Annibale Bugnini, Pope Pius XII published substantially rewritten liturgies for Holy Week. These were part of the modernizing liturgical reforms that ultimately led to the publication of the Novus Ordo Mass in 1969. Even when Pope Benedict XVI gave freedom for priests to offer the traditional Latin Mass in 2007, priests were required to follow the 1962 Missal, which included the revised Holy Week ceremonies. However, in 2018, several parishes of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter were given permission from Rome to use the traditional Holy Week liturgies on an experimental basis for three years.

There are two caveats to this 2018 permission that differ from the pre-1955 practice. First, before 1955, the liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday were offered in the mornings, in keeping with the practice at the time of only allowing Mass in the morning. In 1955 and in 2018, these liturgies were moved to their more ancient and more logical place in the evening. After all, having the Easter Vigil on Saturday morning does not make much sense. The second difference is that the Good Friday prayer for the Jews composed by Benedict XVI in 2008 must be used. This will be discussed in the article on Good Friday.

Thus, as it stands, most traditional Catholic parishes, except for the several FSSP parishes using the traditional ceremonies, are using the revised 1955 Holy Week ceremonies, which are distinct from both the traditional ceremonies and the Novus Ordo ceremonies. In this series, I will describe the traditional Holy Week ceremonies as they were before the 1955 revisions and are now used in the FSSP parishes that received permission. In the final article, I will describe the 1955 ceremonies.

For the benefit of those participating in the traditional ceremonies, I have constructed booklets containing the Latin and English texts as well as the chants. These booklets will be published along with the relevant articles. If you want, you can print them using the booklet printing setting on a printer that supports double-sided printing. I know Adobe Acrobat Reader supports booklet printing. Like all content on my blog, these booklets are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. You are free to use, distribute, and modify my booklets provided you keep the attribution and license notice on the back page.

Holy Week ceremonies

I will describe each day in detail in its own article, but here is a basic overview of the ceremonies for the week.

Palm Sunday
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, celebrating our Lord's triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The Jews welcomed him into the holy city, throwing their garments and palm branches before him and shouting, “Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:1-11). Mass is preceded by the solemn blessing of palms. This blessing is one of the most elaborate in the Church's liturgy. It is almost like a whole extra Mass. The vestments are violet. There is an Introit, a lesson from Exodus, a Gradual, a Gospel, a Preface, the Sanctus like at Mass, and finally a “Canon” of five prayers to bless the palms. The palms are distributed to the faithful at the Communion rail, and then there is a procession with the palms while singing chants of adoration to Christ. Coming back to the door of the church, we sing the hymn Gloria laus et honor to Christ the King.

After processing back into the church, Mass begins as usual with the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. Mass is mostly as usual except for the Gospel, when the Passion according to St. Matthew is sung. The Passion is sung by three deacons, of whom one sings the part of Christ, the second sings the part of the Chronicler or narrator, and the third sings the part of the Synagogue or all other characters. The last part of the Passion, describing Jesus's burial in the tomb, is sung by the deacon of the Mass to a beautiful and elaborate melody.

Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
Other than the Passions, there is no special liturgical observance for these days. On Monday, the Gospel is the story of Mary of Bethany (traditionally identified with St. Mary Magdalene) anointing the feet of Jesus. The Passion according to St. Mark is sung on Tuesday, and the Passion according to St. Luke on Wednesday. Wednesday of Holy Week is known as “Spy Wednesday,” because it is traditionally the day that Judas Iscariot made the pact with the Jews to betray our Lord.

Holy Thursday
The Thursday in Holy Week is called Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday and is the beginning of the Paschal Triduum. Matins and Lauds of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday form the ceremony of Tenebrae. After each psalm of Tenebrae, a candle is extinguished from a triangular fifteen-branched candlestick, representing the Death of Christ. The readings at Matins are from the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah. After fourteen of the fifteen candles are extinguished, the one remaining candle is hidden, plunging the church into darkness. A noise is made, representing the earthquake at the moment of the Lord's Death, and then the remaining candle is brought back out, representing our hope in the Resurrection.

The Mass of Holy Thursday is known as the Mass of the Lord's Supper. It is a joyful occasion, celebrating the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The vestments are white, and the Gloria is sung. During the singing of the Gloria, the organ is played, and all the bells in the church are rung. Once the hymn is finished, the organ and bells are silent until the Easter Vigil. At the cathedral in each diocese, the bishop consecrates new holy oils during the Mass on Holy Thursday. After Communion, an extra Host is reserved in a Chalice and taken to a side altar, known as the Altar of Repose, where it will be reserved until the next day. Finally, the altar is stripped of its garments. Sometime after Mass, the ceremony of foot washing may be held.

Good Friday
Like Thursday, the Divine Office today begins with Tenebrae. This is the only day of the year on which there is no celebration of the Mass. Instead, a solemn liturgy known as the Mass of the Presanctified is offered in the afternoon after None. The sacred ministers enter in silence, vested in black. The first part of the liturgy consists of readings from Hosea and Exodus followed by the Passion according to St. John. Next, solemn prayer is offered for the Church, the Pope, all clergy and religious, catechumens, the health and safety of all, heretics and schismatics, Jews, and pagans. The crucifix is then unveiled, and all the faithful come forward and adore it, while the choir sings the Improperia or Reproaches. After that is the Mass of the Presanctified itself. The Host reserved on Holy Thursday is brought back to the altar and consumed by the priest with some of the ceremonies of the Mass. No one except the priest receives Communion on Good Friday. Finally, the altar is once again stripped in silence, and Vespers is said.

Holy Saturday
On this day, our Lord laid in the tomb. The Divine Office again begins with Tenebrae. There is no Mass for Holy Saturday until the evening, when the Easter Vigil is celebrated. The Easter Vigil is perhaps the most elaborate and beautiful liturgy of the year. It begins outside the church, where fire is struck from flint and blessed. A triple candlestick is lit and carried into the church. The deacon sings the Exultet or Easter Praises, during which a special candle called the Paschal Candle is blessed and lit. Twelve prophecies from the Old Testament are sung, telling the history of our redemption. Next, the ministers process to the Baptistery, where water is blessed and catechumens are baptized and received into the Church. The ministers then return to the sanctuary and lie prostrate before the altar while all sing the Litany of the Saints. Toward the end of the litany, they go to the sacristy to prepare for Mass.

After the litanies, Mass begins. There is no Introit. During the Gloria, the organ is played, bells are rung, and all statues and images that were veiled during Passiontide are uncovered. The Epistle is followed by a very special Alleluia Verse, the first time the word “alleluia” has been heard in the liturgy since Septuagesima Sunday. There is no Credo nor Offertory Verse. The Agnus Dei is not sung. After Communion, an abbreviated First Vespers of Easter is sung. The altar is incensed during the Magnificat. Finally, for the dismissal, the deacon sings:

Ite Missa est. Alleluia, alleluia.
Deo gratias. Alleluia, alleluia.
Go forth, the Mass is ended. Alleluia, alleluia.
Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia.

Easter Sunday
On the principal feast of the year, Mass is sung as usual. The Sequence Victimae Paschali laudes is sung after the Alleluia Verse. Mass ends with “Ite Missa est. Alleluia, alleluia.”

New terms
  • Septuagesima – The season of preparation for Lent, starting three Sundays before Ash Wednesday, which represents the seventy year Babylon exile.
  • Septuagesima Sunday – The first Sunday of Septuagesima.
  • Sexagesima Sunday – The second Sunday of Septuagesima.
  • Quinquagesima Sunday – The third Sunday of Septuagesima, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
  • Ash Wednesday – The first day of Lent, on the faithful are marked on the forehead with blessed ashes.
  • Lent – The solemn period of fasting and penance in preparation for Easter, lasting forty days excluding Sundays from Ash Wednesday to Easter.
  • fast – To eat only one full meal and two small meals that together do not equal a full meal, and no other food. It is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
  • abstain – To refrain from eating meat except fish. It is obligatory on Fridays of Lent.
  • Stations of the Cross or Way of the Cross or Via CrucisA common Lenten devotion involving meditation on fourteen events surrounding Christ's death.
  • Laetare Sunday – The fourth Sunday of Lent, which has a slightly more joyful nature than the rest of Lent. The vestments are rose.
  • Passion Sunday – The fifth Sunday of Lent, the beginning of Passiontide.
  • Passiontide – The final two weeks of Lent, beginning on Passion Sunday, in which all statues and sacred images are veiled, and the liturgy has an especially somber and sorrowful character.
  • Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary – A feast on the Friday following Passion Sunday commemorating seven sorrowful events in the life of Our Lady.
  • Palm Sunday – The Sunday before Easter and the beginning of Holy Week, celebrating our Lord's triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
  • Passion – The part of each Gospel telling the story of our Lord's Crucifixion. It is sung at Mass during Holy Week by three deacons to a very special tone.
  • Spy Wednesday – The Wednesday of Holy Week, on which Judas made the pact with the Jews to betray our Lord.
  • Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday – The Thursday of Holy Week, celebrating the Last Supper and institution of the Holy Eucharist.
  • Paschal Triduum – The final three days of Holy Week: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
  • Tenebrae – Matins and Lauds during the Paschal Triduum, in which fifteen candles are gradually extinguished to represent our Lord's death.
  • Mass of the Lord's Supper – The Mass of Holy Thursday.
  • Altar of Repose – A side altar at which the extra consecrated Host is reserved after the Mass of the Lord's Supper.
  • Good Friday – Friday of Holy Week, the day our Lord died.
  • Mass of the Presanctified – The solemn liturgy of Good Friday.
  • Holy Saturday – Saturday of Holy Week, when our Lord lay in the tomb.
  • Easter Vigil – The beautiful and elaborate liturgy the evening of Holy Saturday.
  • Paschal Candle – A special large candle blessed and lit during the Easter Vigil.

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