Growing up, Palm Sunday was about putting on my second best Sunday dress (the best was obviously saved for Easter Sunday), and parading down the aisle of the church with my other Sunday School friends and shouting “Hosanna!” Little Leah loved the attention and how special that Sunday felt. I loved the routine and tradition that came with celebrating Holy Week, but I never understood the significance.
My first experience with Maundy Thursday (of memory) came when I was in 7th grade. As a student body, we would gather in the large auditorium with the faculty for service. The only light in the room was provided by a few candles on the stage. It was quiet and somber. Many students fell asleep, some checked out, and others were mostly focused on the fact that it was our last requirement before a long weekend. Again, the significance was fleeting. Good Friday was just a day off of school and Easter Sunday was an excuse for my best Sunday dress to make its appearance, followed by Easter baskets, maybe an Easter Egg Hunt, and a fantastic meal.
So what is the purpose of Holy Week? Why should it carry so much weight to the Christian? In just a brief snapshot, I want to explore the four main days of Holy Week, where we find records of it in the Bible, and why it is significant.
Palm Sunday, sometimes referred to as The Triumphal Entry, is when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem at the start of Passover, and was met by thousands of Jewish men and women worshipping him in the streets. We can read the account in John 12 or Mark 11. The crowd was overjoyed at the sight of their King as news had quickly spread about him raising Lazaraus from the dead just a few days prior They were convinced that Jesus was the one who would deliver them out of their present suffering by the hands of the Romans.
The Jewish people desired physical deliverance, but Jesus knew that in just a few days He was going to suffer and die for their deliverance from sin and for the opportunity for Eternal life. This is where the significance of Palm Sunday comes into play. It marks the beginning of the celebration of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. The people of Jerusalem did not fully grasp the hope that was in front of them during the Triumphal Entry, but two thousand years later, Palm Sunday serves as a reminder of that hope.
So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” – John 12:13 ESV
There is a lot that takes place on Maundy Thursday, also referred to as Holy Thursday and we can read the account in Luke 22. It begins with the plot to kill Jesus, where Judas Iscariot slips away to meet with some of the chief priests to betray Jesus for a bag of money (worth about 5 weeks salary at that time). Later that day, Jesus is gathered with the disciples to celebrate the Passover meal. You may have heard of this referred to as The Last Supper. It is here that Jesus announces to the group that one of them will betray him. Judas is identified and quickly leaves. After the supper is over, Jesus and the rest of the disciples go to the Mount of Olives to pray. It is here that Jesus is arrested and put on trial later that night for stating that He is the son of God.
One of the most significant things that we take away from Maundy Thursday, is the act of Communion. During the Last Supper, Jesus breaks bread with the disciples and says the following:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. – Luke 22:19-20 ESV
If you have taken part in Communion, or the Eucharist, then you have likely heard this passage, had a small sip of grape juice, and a terribly stale cracker — disgusting for sure, but incredibly symbolic.
So they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.” – Luke 22:70-71 ESV
Now Good Friday is the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ trial on Thursday, lasted into the early morning hours where he was then sentenced to death. We can read this account in Matthew 27. The people were given the option to release Jesus or to release Barabbas who was well known for murder. Of course the people scream for Barabbas to be released and Pilate, the Roman governor at the time, delivered Jesus to be crucified. Jesus was beaten and flogged and then forced to carry his cross to a hill on Golgotha where he would be hung on a cross to die. From about noon on Friday until mid afternoon, there was a darkness across the land and not long after, Jesus died.
I do not think I need to discuss in great length the significance of Good Friday. I remember as a child, before I could comprehend the gravity of sin, I wondered why the death of Jesus, much less anyone else, could be considered good. Now today I understand the significance of “good” or “holy” friday. Without Jesus’ death, I have no chance at sanctification. I stand unable to have eternal life in Heaven with Him. Good Friday is good because God’s sacrifice gives us the greatest gift we can ever receive.
When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” – Matthew 27:54 ESV
Late into Friday night, Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. The Pharisees were worried that Jesus’ followers would try to steal His body from the tomb and cry miracle, so they stationed guards outside of the entrance to the tomb. But as we all know, God had other plans and at dawn on Sunday (or dawn of the first day of the week), the Lord sent an angel and an earthquake to roll the stone away. This shocked many people as we see in Matthew 28 both from the tomb being empty, an angel talking to the grievers, and Jesus making an appearance. Jesus visited his disciples, some friends and family, and continued his ministry for forty days until he ascended into Heaven.
Now Easter is the most joyous day of Holy Week to write about. I am sitting here smiling thinking about the Easter hymns, the signs of new life all around as the Spring weather comes, and the joyful occasion that Sunday church will bring. While basking in the gift of Jesus and his death and resurrection is something I strive to think about often, there is just something about the corporate worship and celebration around the resurrection of Jesus. We have new life and Easter Sunday just gives us another reason to celebrate our Jesus.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20 ESV