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7 Facts: Holy Week and the Early Church

image from pastorstrey.wordpress.com

1. The Gospels Antiquity of the Celebration of Holy   Week

From an attentive study of the Gospels, and particularly that of St. John, it might easily be inferred that already in Apostolic times a certain emphasis was laid upon the memory of the last week of Jesus Christ’s mortal life. The supper at Bethania must have taken place on the Saturday, “six days before the pasch” (John 12:1-2), and the triumphant entry into Jerusalem was made from there next morning.1

2. 4th Century: Pilgrimage of Ætheria

Of Christ’s words and deeds between this and His Crucifixion we have a relatively full record. But whether this feeling of the sanctity belonging to these days was primitive or not, it in any case existed in Jerusalem at the close of the fourth century, for the Pilgrimage of Ætheria contains a detailed account of the whole week, beginning with the service in the “Lazarium” at Bethania on the Saturday, in the course of which was read the narrative of the anointing of Christ’s feet. Moreover, on the next day, which, as Ætheria says, “began the week of the Pasch, which they call here the “Great Week”, a special reminder was addressed to the people by the archdeacon in these terms: “Throughout the whole week, beginning from to-morrow, let us all assemble in the Martyrium, that is the great church, at the ninth hour.” The commemoration of Christ’s triumphal entry into the city took place the same afternoon.

3. Rituals at the Mount of Olives

Great crowds, including even children too young to walk, assembled on the Mount of Olives and after suitable hymns, and antiphons, and readings, they returned in procession to Jerusalem, escorting the bishop, and bearing palms and branches of olives before him. Special services in addition to the usual daily Office are also mentioned on each of the following days. On the Thursday the Liturgy was celebrated in the late afternoon, and all Communicated, after which the people went to the Mount of Olives to commemorate with appropriate readings and hymns the agony of Christ in the garden and His arrest, only returning to the city as day began to dawn on the Friday.

4. Friday

On the Friday again there were many services, and in particular before midday there took place the veneration of the great relic of the True Cross, as also of the title which had been fastened to it; while for three hours after midday another crowded service was held in commemoration of the Passion of Christ, at which, Ætheria tells us, the sobs and lamentations of the people exceeded all description. Exhausted as they must have been, a vigil was again maintained by the younger and stronger of the clergy and by some of the laity.

5. Saturday

On the Saturday, besides the usual offices during the day, there took place the great paschal vigil in the evening, with the baptism of children and catechumens. But this, as Ætheria implies, was already familiar to her in the West. The account just summarized belongs probably to the year 388, and it is of the highest value as coming from a pilgrim and an eyewitness who had evidently followed the services with close attention.

6. Six Holy and Great Days

Still the observance of Holy Week as a specially sacred commemoration must be considerably older. In the first of his festal letters, written in 329, St. Athanasius of Alexandria speaks of the severe fast maintained during “those six holy and great days [preceding Easter Sunday] which are the symbol of the creation of the world”. He refers, seemingly, to some ancient symbolism which strangely reappears in the Anglo-Saxon martyrologium of King Alfred’s time. Further he writes, in 331: “We begin the holy week of the great pasch on the tenth of Pharmuthi in which we should observe more prolonged prayers and fastings and watchings, that we may be enabled to anoint our lintels with the precious blood and so escape the destroyer.”

7. Constantine & Ante-Constantine

From these and other references, e.g., in St. Chrysostom, the Apostolic Constitutions, and other sources, including a somewhat doubtfully authentic edict of Constantine proclaiming that the public business should be suspended in Holy Week, it seems probable that throughout the Christian world some sort of observance of these six days by fasting and prayer had been adopted almost everywhere by Christians before the end of the fourth century. Indeed it is quite possible that the fast of special severity is considerably older, for Dionysius of Alexandria (c. A.D. 260) speaks of some who went without food for the whole six days (see further under LENT). The week was also known as the week of the dry fast (xerophagia), while some of its observances were very possibly influenced by an erroneous etymology of the word Pasch, which was current among the Greeks. Pasch really comes from a Hebrew meaning “passage” (of the destroying angel), but the Greeks took it to be identical with paschein, to suffer.

SOURCE: The entirety of the article is quoted from the first section of the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on Holy Week

Fasting and Abstinence

I have been looking into the meaning of fasting and came across the  definitions of fasting and abstinence:

Fasting is concerned with the quantity of food eaten and so must be distinguished from abstinence. The law is that on fast days only one full meal may be taken. Fasting is only imposed on those over 21 and under 59, but severe work, whether manual or mental, sickness or debility excuse from obligation (see your parish priest for dispensations). Collations may normally be taken on fast days if they do not add up to a second meal.

Abstinence refers to the refraining from eating flesh-meat or soup made from meat, and to be distinguished from fasting, with which it may be combined. Abstinence is normally obligatory for all who have completed their seventh year, on specific days of the Church year(From the Catholic Dictionary)

The Bishops of England and Wales released this official statement on fasting and abstinence in May of 2011. Herewith the full statement:

”By the practice of penance every Catholic identifies with Christ in his death on the cross. We do so in prayer, through uniting the sufferings and sacrifices in our lives with those of Christ’s passion; in fasting, by dying to self in order to be close to Christ; in almsgiving, by demonstrating our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ in those in need. All three forms of penance form a vital part of Christian living. When this is visible in the public arena, then it is also an important act of witness.Every Friday is set aside by the Church as a special day of penance, for it is the day of the death of our Lord.      

 The law of the Church requires Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays, or some other form of food, or to observe some other form of penance laid down by the Bishops’ Conference.The Bishops wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity. They recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness. It is important that all the faithful be united in a common celebration of Friday penance.Respectful of this, and in accordance with the mind of the whole Church, the Bishops’ Conference wishes to remind all Catholics in England and Wales of the obligation of Friday Penance.      

The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat. Those who cannot or choose not to eat meat as part of their normal diet should abstain from some other food of which they regularly partake. This is to come into effect from Friday 16 September 2011 when we will mark the anniversary of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom.Many may wish to go beyond this simple act of common witness and mark each Friday with a time of prayer and further self-sacrifice. In all these ways we unite our sacrifices to the sacrifice of Christ, who gave up his very life for our salvation.  

What has now happened has been gathering momentum ever since the pope’s visit to Britain. It will be recalled that during the papal afterglow some very surprising people started to recommend the restoration of the Friday fast. Bishop Kieran Conroy, for instance, argued that abstaining from meat on Friday “…. was one of the most obvious signs of Catholic identity, apart from going to Mass. It determined the diet in places like prison and hospital, and was something that Catholics were instinctively conscious of: we knew that we couldn’t have meat like everybody else that day, and it was a source of a sort of pride – it marked us out as different”.

Many Catholics were taught as children to “give up something” for Lent. The sacrifices in Lent are really penance, in the same spirit as the Ninehvites that repented at the preaching of Jonah. Throughout our history, Christians have found prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to be an important part of repentance and renewal. Many Christians now add something during Lent rather than giving up something, either to address personal habits that need work or to add some outreach to others in need. It is not necessary to “give up something” but it would be a tragedy to do nothing.