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Holy Week and Easter 101

Sunrise with cross on steeple in foreground

We're approaching the summit of the Church Year. Click open the boxes to find out what makes each liturgy unique and special.


Jesus enters Jerusalem, where the crowds hail him as the blessed one who comes in the Lord's name. This kingly acclaim doesn't last. Jesus is soon betrayed, condemned and crucified.


This Mass is the only one in the Church year that begins with a Gospel reading. It is part of the entrance and follows the blessing of the palms.

The blessed palms we display in our homes are "sacramentals"–sacred signs that help us to cooperate with grace. Later, churches collect and burn the palms to provide the ashes that will be blessed (another sacramental) for Lent.

The color of the liturgical vestments is red, symbolizing the blood of the suffering Jesus. Red is used on Good Friday too.

Augustine's Take

"The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ guarantees our future glory. ... How can we weak human beings doubt that someday we will live with God when God has died for the sake of human beings?" (Sermon 218C, 1)


This period of "three days" recalls Christ's Paschal Mystery—that is, his suffering, death and resurrection.


The Sacred Paschal Triduum marks the end of Lent. 

It begins with the Mass of the Lord's Supper, continues with Good Friday, peaks with the Easter Vigil and ends Easter Sunday evening.

The span on the calendar is three days, but the Church celebrates the Triduum as one continuous liturgy. 

Augustine's Take

"In this form of a servant, the Omnipotent One became weak, in that he suffered under Pontius Pilate. In this form a servant, the Immortal One died, in that he was crucified and was buried. In this form of a servant, the King of Ages rose on the third day." (Sermon 212)


Jesus celebrates the Passover meal with the Apostles. At this "last supper," he washes their feet as as an example of loving service, and he offers his Body and Blood under the species of bread and wine. 


For the first time since Ash Wednesday, the assembly prays the Gloria. Bells are often rung.

The priest washes the feet of representatives "from among all members of the People of God."

The Church commemorates Jesus' institution of the Eucharist and the priestly Order.

Following the Prayer After Communion, the priest reposes the Blessed Sacrament–that is, places consecrated hosts in a special tabernacle for distribution on Good Friday. The altar is then stripped.

Augustine's Take

"That bread which you can see on the altar, sanctified by the Word of God, is the Body of Christ. That cup ... is the Blood of Christ. If you receive them worthily, you become what you receive." (Sermon 227)


Jesus is betrayed, tried, scourged, crucified and buried. As God says through the prophet Isaiah, "Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many." Jesus' sacrifice on the cross saves us, making this day "good."


The first part of this solemn liturgy (not a Mass) includes the Passion and the Prayers of the People. These intercessions lift up the needs of the human family.

The second part is the Veneration of the Cross. The faithful adore Jesus as they "behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world." 

The third part is the Communion service. The faithful receive the consecrated hosts that were reserved the evening before. 

After the priest prays over the people, they genuflect at the Cross and leave in silence.

Augustine's Take

"The Passion of Him by whose blood our sins were wiped out is being read solemnly and is being honored with due respect, so that by this yearly devotion our memory may be more readily refreshed, and our faith more brightly illumined by the great gathering of people." (Sermon 218)


A day of mourning for the entombed Jesus leads to what Augustine calls the "mother" of all vigils. The Easter Vigil is the nighttime celebration of the greatest feast of the year. Jesus, the Paschal Lamb, destroys death and restores life.


Filled with stories, symbols and sacraments, this Mass is long but awe-inspiring. It celebrates our deepest beliefs.

The Vigil begins with the Service of Light. The new Paschal Candle is prepared and lit. The Risen Christ  scatters the darkness.

The nine readings in the Liturgy of the Word recap salvation history from Genesis through the Resurrection.

During the Baptismal Rite, the water is blessed. Candidates for the sacrament are baptized, and all the faithful renew their baptismal promises.

The Mass culminates in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Augustine's Take 

"From so many and such great nations which this very solemn celebration has gathered together everywhere in the name of Christ, the sun has withdrawn but the day has not departed, since a brightly lighted earth has succeeded to a brightly lighted heaven." (Sermon 221)


Christ the Lord is risen! Alleluia! After Evening Prayer, the joyous, 50-day Easter season begins. It includes Jesus' ascension and ends with Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.


The lighted Paschal Candle is placed near the ambo (pulpit) or altar, a sign of Christ our Light.

In place of the Creed, the faithful renew their baptismal promises.

The baptismal fonts are filled and the assembly is sprinkled with the holy water blessed at the Easter Vigil.

Augustine's Take

"Every single day is of God’s making, but this one was stamped with his blood. If the dead who rose from their graves exulted, how much more should this happy day make us vibrant with joy." (Sermon 21)

Do You Know ...

sculpture of station of the cross on church wall depicting Jesus falling as he carries cross
  1. ... how Jesus entered Jerusalem?

  2. ... what "Maundy" Thursday means?

  3. .. whose account of the Passion is proclaimed on Good Friday?

  4. ... what word we say anew at the Easter Vigil?

  5. ... how the date of Easter is determined?
  1. A colt (young donkey). The Gospel writers allude to the Old Testament prophecy by Zechariah:
    "Behold: your king is coming to you, 
    a just savior is he,
    Humble, and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
  2. At the Last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: Love one another. The Latin word for "commandment" is mandatum, which gives us "maundy."
  3. The Gospel according to John. The Passion narratives in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are read on Palm Sunday over a three-year cycle.
  4. Alleluia. We "put away" this acclamation (from Hebrew: "Praise the Lord") during Lent and sing it out with all the more joy beginning with the Easter Vigil.
  5. The moveable feast of Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon (the "Paschal Moon") on or after the first day of spring. The range: March 22–April 25.