What is Holy Week? Its Origin and Celebrations

Holy Week is a week of celebration, suffering, and mourning and Jesus’ ultimate triumph over sin and death.

Besides Christmas, Holy Week is an important event in the Christian calendar. And regardless of Western or Eastern Christianity, its significance is felt in our lives and spiritual journeys. Each day preceding Jesus’ resurrection allows our hearts and souls to prepare for Easter Sunday. All the days of Holy Week are as crucial as Resurrection Sunday, and here are all the reasons why.

What is Holy Week?

Holy Week is one of the most significant eight days in the Christian calendar. The last week of Lent is the forty-day season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Many Christian churches commemorate Holy Week as it’s the last week of Jesus’ life. The week begins with Palm Sunday and leads us to the Last Supper, Jesus’ crucifixion, and His resurrection on Easter Sunday. 

Holy Week

Holy Week in Western Christianity

Holy Week in Western Christianity starts in the last week of Lent before Easter. It comprises Palm Sunday, Tenebrae, and the three days of Jesus’ final journey (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Easter Vigil). Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’ triumphant return to Jerusalem. In line with what’s written in Scripture, people entering the church on Palm Sunday receive palm fronds.

Tenebrae means darkness or shadows in Latin, and it perfectly describes the night and morning services of the three days of Holy Week. Nowadays, it’s only one service on Wednesday night. During this night, lights and candles are gradually extinguished to represent the apparent victory of evil. Then a loud noise is heard, symbolizing the earthquake at Jesus’ resurrection. After this, lights are restored, and everyone leaves in silence.

Maundy Thursday recalls Jesus’ Last Supper with His twelve disciples, where He washes their feet. During this day, Judas betrayed Jesus and was arrested by Roman soldiers. Many churches celebrate this day with a simple meal and ceremonial foot washing. Jesus’ crucifixion is on Good Friday and is the climax of Holy Week. Churches hold special services and prayer vigils on Good Friday. 

The Great Easter Vigil is considered an essential worship service for Western Christian churches. It is held between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Day. Finally, the most important day of Holy Week is Easter. It’s the day Jesus resurrects, thus victoriously conquering sin, death, and evil. 

Holy Week in Eastern Christianity (Orthodox Churches)

In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the last day of Lent is on the Friday before Palm Sunday. Holy Week officially starts on Lazarus Saturday and is also considered the transition into Holy Week. Jesus raises Lazarus from death on Lazarus Saturday, just before He goes to Jerusalem. People can have wine and oil to commemorate Lazarus Saturday.

Palm Sunday is celebrated with fish, wine, and oil and is considered the Great Feasts of the Lord. But in observance of the festival, light degrees of fasting are still observed. 

When is Holy Week?

Holy Week is an annual Christian celebration commemorating the events leading to Jesus’s resurrection. It starts on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday. 

For all Christian traditions, Holy Week is a moveable observance. In Eastern Rite Churches, Holy Week starts after 40 days of Lent while in Western Rite Churches, Holy Week falls on the last week of Lent or Sixth Lent Week.

For 2022, Holy Week begins on April 10 (Sunday) and ends on April 17 (Sunday).

The Holy Week Timeline

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. As Jesus rides through Jerusalem on a donkey, the people proclaim Him the messianic king while waving their palm branches. It also declares the prophecy foretold in Zechariah 9:9

Monday before Easter (Holy Monday)

The next day, Jesus and His disciples arrive at the temple, and there He finds the court full of corrupt money changers. Jesus overturned their tables and cast them out of the temple, reminding them that His temple is a house of prayer. (Mark 11:15-19)

Tuesday before Easter (Holy Tuesday)

Jesus and His disciples returned to Jerusalem on Tuesday morning. As they pass a withered fig tree, Jesus taught the importance of faith.

While back at the temple, the religious leaders organized an ambush to place Jesus under arrest. Jesus angered the religious leaders when He established Himself as a spiritual authority. Fortunately, Jesus avoids their traps and calls them out, saying:

You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First, clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” (Matthew 23:24-26)

In the afternoon, Jesus and His disciples left the city to go to the Mount of Olives. With the use of parables and symbolic language, Jesus gave His followers the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem known as the Olivet Discourse. He also told them about the end of the age and His second coming and final judgment.

Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Matthew 24:32-35)

Wednesday before Easter (Holy Wednesday)

There is nothing written about what Jesus and His disciples did on the Wednesday of Holy Week. Some scholars say that Jesus and His disciples rested in Bethany after two exhausting days in Jerusalem. 

Maundy Thursday

Many events transpired on Maundy Thursday. During the Last Supper, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet and shared a new commandment. Jesus also broke bread and wine with His disciples and asked them to do so in remembrance of His sacrifice continually. (Luke 22:19-20)

After dinner, Jesus then went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray to the Father. There, Jesus acknowledges God’s will even though He asks the Father if He could take it away. (Matthew 26:39)

After praying, Judas betrayed Jesus. The Roman soldiers took Him after Judas kissed His cheek and brought Him to the home of Caiaphas, where the council began their case against Jesus. (Matthew 26:47-50)

While Jesus’ trial was underway, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crowed, just as Jesus said he would. (Matthew 26:74-75)

Good Friday

Early Friday morning, Judas hanged himself due to the immense remorse when he betrayed Jesus. 

As we continue to read the Scripture, Jesus had multiple unlawful trials and underwent shame, condemnation, and beatings. Ultimately, He was sentenced to be crucified on the cross, the most disgraceful capital punishment at the time. (Luke 23:10-11)

Good Friday depicted Jesus’ painful last hours leading to His death. Soldiers tormented and mocked Him by placing a crown of thorns on His head. Jesus also carried His cross to Calvary. The Roman soldier’s insults continued as they nailed Jesus’ hands and feet to the wooden cross. Jesus said His final statement from the cross and breathed His last. (Luke 23:34)

“It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the entire land until the ninth hour because the sun stopped shining; the veil of the temple was torn in two. And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into Your hands, I entrust My spirit.” And having said this, He]died. Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, “This man was innocent.” (Luke 23:44-47)

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body by evening. They took His body down from the cross and wrapped it in linen cloth before laying Jesus’ body in a tomb in preparation for Sabbath. (Luke 23:52-54)

Holy Week

Black/Holy Saturday

Roman soldiers guarded Jesus’ tomb throughout the day. At 6 p.m., the Sabbath ended, and Jesus’ body was treated with spices for burial. 

“Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred litras weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.” (John 19:39-40)

Easter/Resurrection Sunday

In the morning, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Salome, and Mary, the mother of James, discovered the large stone covering the entrance had been removed. Mary finds two angels sitting where Jesus used to lay and tells her not to be afraid, for Jesus has risen, just like He said He would. 

“The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” (Matthew 28:5-6)

After hearing the great news, they rushed to tell Jesus’ disciples. But then suddenly, Jesus greeted them, and they went to Him and worshiped Him. Jesus then tells the women to meet His disciples and asks them to meet Him at Galilee. (Matthew 28:8-10)

The disciples gathered with the doors locked, and Jesus came to them. He showed them His hands and side as proof that He has risen again. The disciples rejoiced and worshipped when they saw Jesus. 

“Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:21-23)

Why Do We Celebrate Holy Week?

We celebrate Holy Week to remind ourselves of God’s immense love for humanity that He gave His only Son so that we may have eternal life. Besides that, we also have a lot to take away from the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. We learn about servanthood, loving one another, and genuine faith. We also observe Communion as a remembrance of God’s great gift of salvation to us all.

Importance of Celebrating Holy Week

Aside from remembrance, we celebrate Holy Week out of thanksgiving. We thank God’s love for us that led to sending His only Son as a price to pay for our sins. We also thank Jesus for the lessons He has imparted during His last week on earth. We can also take this time to evaluate ourselves and ask for forgiveness for our shortcomings. And finally, we celebrate Holy Week because we’re overcome with great joy knowing that Jesus has risen. 

How to Celebrate Holy Week?

Pray and meditate with Scripture

Prayer and meditation with the Scripture will renew our appreciation and thanksgiving for Jesus’ sacrifice for our salvation. Only reading the Bible will become repetitive. But if the Holy Spirit guides us through meditation, we’ll find a new way to apply Jesus’ lessons in our lives. 

Going into prayer and meditation is also a great way to reflect on ourselves. Have we been living the way just as Jesus instructed? Or have we become like the fig tree that fails to bear fruit? (Luke 13:6-9

Attend the special mass at church

During Holy Week, churches always hold special masses to commemorate Jesus’ last week before His crucifixion. Besides the assembly, there are also special prayer vigils during Holy Week. These events are a perfect opportunity to immerse ourselves into prayer and Scripture to refresh the teachings in our memories. 

Bring and share Easter foods or baskets at church

In celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, both Western and Eastern Christian churches hold festive feasts during Easter Sunday. You and your family can volunteer by bringing food to share during this day. You can also help make Easter baskets and decorate Easter eggs for the children to enjoy.

Rejoice for Christ has risen

And lastly, the best way to celebrate the end of Holy Week is to rejoice that our Saviour has risen. Celebrate the day with a thankful and joyful heart, and recall all the miracles and provisions God gave you thus far. Jesus’ resurrection is a time of triumph, victory, joy, worship, and celebration. It should provide and renew our hope for the future. 

Holy Week Around the World

Countries such as Colombia, Costa Rica, India, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Philippines, Peru, Spain, Venezuela, and Vietnam hold Holy Week processions. 

In Brazil, Holy Week is celebrated through parades and sermons, followed by dramas that show Christ being taken down from the cross. 

In Southern Italy, a day-long procession features twenty floats of individual sculptures of the scenes of the Passion. While in Malta, celebrations and parades take place in all churches. They also have the narrative of the passion read in some localities.

Prayer for Holy Week

Heavenly Father, 

This Holy Week, help us remember and be thankful. Help us not forget the great sacrifice your Son did so that we may have eternal life. Give us a grateful heart, especially when we find it hard to be thankful. Please forgive us of our sins, of our shortcomings and doubts. Help bring our hearts closer to your movement and calling. Also, remind us of Jesus’ commandment to love one another. Help us look past judgment and prejudice; help us love others just as you love us. 

We continue to ask that you use us to bring others to you, our God. We lift all praises and thanksgiving unto you, one God forever and ever. In Jesus’ name, 


Holy Week

In Conclusion

Jesus’ last week on earth was a roller coaster ride of emotions. From a triumphant return to Jerusalem to Judas’ betrayal that led to Jesus’ shame and suffering and, finally, to the immense joy of learning about His resurrection. 

Commemorating Holy Week will give you a newfound appreciation for Christ’s sacrifice for us all. And although it has become a tradition, I pray that we don’t just leave it at that. 

Holy Week should be the perfect time to remind us of the things we are thankful for, no matter how small they are. It should also be a time to share and portray God’s love to others, just as how Jesus taught us. 

God’s love and the gift of eternal life are for all of humankind, and it should be our goal to share it with as many people as we can.

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Alex Shute
Alex Shute, MBA
Alex is a family man and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. His passion is to serve the global Church and bring people of diverse backgrounds together to learn & grow.

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