Jeremy Haselock surveys the origins and great liturgical actions of Holy Week


To understand the beautiful liturgy of Holy Week, the Great Week as it was known in the earliest centuries of the Church, we first need to realise that it is focussed on a person and centred on a place. The person is, of course, Jesus, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, and the place is Jerusalem, the city where the climactic events of his all-too-short life were played out before a largely uncomprehending and uninterested group of people. The city of Jerusalem plays a multiple role in our story: the place where the saving events commemorated in Holy Week took place, and the city where the local church’s ritual and ceremonial recollection of those events shaped in large part the liturgy we still celebrate today. 

As far as place is concerned, we can easily sum up the witness of the Gospels: ‘Jerusalem is the city which Jesus entered on a donkey; whose temple he cleansed; whose clergy found him too hot to handle; where he sat and supped for the last time with his inner circle; outside which he was arrested for no apparent reason; inside which he was tried; and beyond which he was executed, buried, and then raised to life.’ The liturgy we have inherited is about the Jerusalem of the New Testament, it is shaped by the opening up of that city to pilgrims in the fourth century AD and it is transformed by the extraordinary variety of pious traditions and perceptions of the place which then went into the liturgical books of the Latin Church.

Whatever the differences in theological emphasis we find in the four gospel narratives they are all united in placing the events they describe in the particularity of location. They speak of real places where real events took place. Those of us who visit Jerusalem as tourists or pilgrims can still go to these places or at least to the locations revered by millennia-old traditions. This sacred topography is determinative in shaping the Holy Week ceremonies. Despite the complete destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70, the dispersal of its inhabitants, and its reconstruction as Roman Aeolia Capitolina, the survival of a Christian community ensured that a collective memory of the traditions behind the Passion narratives was maintained even when the street plan of the city was radically transformed by the Roman builders.

This sense of ‘holy geography’ lay behind the setting up of churches and shrines throughout Jerusalem and, indeed, the whole of Palestine once Constantine came to the throne and Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. Whatever the truth behind the legends of the Empress Helena’s archaeological activity in Jerusalem, these stories accurately reflect the immense amount of excavation and building work that went on, funded by Constantine, during which all the locations which figured in the events of Holy Week were enshrined in major buildings which dominated the new cityscape. The Empress was revered from very early on as the discoverer and protectress of the holy places and I have no doubt there is more than a grain of truth in the legends. 

With rediscovery came the setting up of a far more formal church establishment and hierarchy in Jerusalem with Imperial approval and financial backing. A natural consequence was the development of place-related liturgical worship, not only for the resident Christian community now rapidly increasing in size, but also for the large number of pilgrims who flocked from all over the Christian world to see for themselves the places of the gospels and to pray at them. They experienced what was happening liturgically in the Jerusalem Church and, reporting back to the communities from which they had come, led those communities to imitate and expand upon the ceremonies.

The liturgy of Lent, Holy Week and Easter emerges in its classical form from the Jerusalem of the fourth century. It is inspired by four main themes of which the most important is the contemplation of the Passion of Christ and the events surrounding it. You have only to look at the prominence the Passion narrative has in each of the four gospels and its scale relative to the rest of the account to realize its centrality in the mind of the embryonic Church and its significance in the development of a distinctive liturgy. Second in importance is penitence, corporate and individual – Lent was the clear focus of this. Thirdly, there is the fast before Easter – the dynamic of feast and fast was determinative in the creation of the calendar we call the Christian year. Finally, based on St Paul’s influential teaching, from very early on Easter is seen as the day par excellence on which new members of the Church are baptized. 

What we can most perfectly call the Easter Liturgy, the baptismal liturgy of Easter night as we now have it restored to us, is perhaps from a historical point of view the most perfectly preserved set piece from this classical period. In the study of liturgical stratigraphy, as it were, this is the earliest level we have. There is evidence from around 170 which indicates that a celebration of the Christian Passover, with a long Vigil service of readings from the Old Testament leading into a proclamation of the Easter message of the New, was already well established. These early worshippers would not have understood the concept of Holy Week as we do now. Perhaps they would have used the preceding week for fasting and prayer, readings from the Passion narratives, and some degree of proximate baptismal preparation but they were content to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in this one great, all-night service.

By the middle of the fourth century we have a second very clear layer. This was characterized by the development of what scholars have called ‘historicism.’ This is the desire to commemorate on particular days – and indeed, in Jerusalem, in particular places – the events that took place on them. The Sunday before Easter sees a commemoration of the triumphant entry of Christ in to Jerusalem to set in motion the events leading to his Passion. Thursday becomes associated with Christ’s betrayal and arrest and Friday with his crucifixion and so on. 

In 1884 a manuscript, lost for 700 years, was discovered in Italy; it is part of a travel diary written by a rather gossipy, religious sister or nun, probably called Egeria, who seems to have come from the Atlantic coast of Spain. Writing for her sisters back home, she compiled this account of her pilgrimage to the Holy land and the Near East in the penultimate decade of the fourth century, during the time that St Cyril was Bishop of Jerusalem. Of particular significance is her description of the events of the ‘Great Week’ as observed in Jerusalem. It is clear that she mentioned certain things in her description of the ceremonies only because they were totally unfamiliar in her home community. In particular the Easter Vigil, the universally observed liturgical commemoration of the Paschal Mystery, she does not describe, recording simply that ‘they keep the Paschal Vigil like us’. Her failure to find anything noteworthy about the vigil is precious evidence that the Jerusalem practice was already pretty much considered normal in her home country. 

In Egeria’s book we can read of her enthusiastic participation in Jerusalem in a programme of services which would have exhausted the most assiduous of modern church-attenders. At this level of historicism, Egeria’s account helps to understand how our present Holy Week and its ceremonies can only have originated in Jerusalem. What also emerges from her diary is that these services were almost certainly the result of the keen pastoral sensitivity and educational imagination of a great teaching bishop, St Cyril of Jerusalem. Moreover, her account helps us better to appreciate how these liturgies could only have developed after the rediscovery of the Holy Places. Their rediscovery and the consequent building programme opened them up for the devotion of the faithful, not just the Christian community in Jerusalem, but also the wave of pilgrims which these developments encouraged. The new accessibility of the actual sites where the separate events of the Passion had taken place could not have failed to shape liturgical performance. The impression made on pilgrims – notably Egeria herself – by Holy Week and Easter in Jerusalem helps us to understand how the actual ceremonies of the Jerusalem liturgy came eventually to be exported to other parts of the Christian world.

By the end of the fifth century in much of Christendom, the separate events of Christ’s redemptive Passover were celebrated as distinct festivals. The influence of the Jerusalem liturgy and its associated ceremonies had helped to create a serial, historical commemoration of these events in Holy Week. By deliberately reconstructing the final events in Jesus’s life in a week of celebration, the worshipper was led not merely to recall those actions, but also, in some mysterious way, to share in them. Hence the tremendous appeal of the Holy Week ceremonies and the desire in our lifetime to revive them or reclaim them for the whole Church. 

I have already hinted at the existence of two liturgical pieties in the development of Holy Week: the first is called ‘unitive’ by scholars. It is the oldest of the pieties and to satisfy needs only the Easter liturgy itself with its long vigil of readings, austere and stark but full of liturgical symbolism, its baptisms, perhaps, and the Eucharist of the dawning day. The second is called ‘rememorative’ and is that which lies behind the historicising tendencies of the Jerusalem ceremonies. In this approach, born in Jerusalem, key events are celebrated on different days in the locations associated with them but with symbolism attached to each commemoration. We read in Egeria that a relic of the True Cross is venerated on Good Friday but there is no re-enactment of the crucifixion – how could there be? The daily liturgy seeks its own character through contextual reading of scripture, topographical association and continuity. The faithful walk down the Mount of Olives into the city on Palm Sunday, but there is no donkey. This piety to a large extent shapes the services we know today but there is also a third liturgical piety, the ‘representational’ which, like the others, is still around. It works on the principle that liturgy should be dramatic and examples abound in the medieval period: dramatized renderings of the passion narrative such as those we are accustomed to on Palm Sunday and Good Friday and, less often encountered today, the burial of a crucifix and consecrated host in an Easter Sepulchre. 

Today, the second and third pieties have gained a hold on our liturgical stance and moved us away from being bystanders and to experience more fully the profound, saving truths we are celebrating. However, it must be remembered that in this great and Holy Week, the Church of God is celebrating the whole of the Paschal Mystery. Today, even if, after the fashion of the Jerusalem Church, each day is given over to celebrating one aspect of this mystery its fundamental unity is not broken up. The unitive and eschatological dimensions are not lost in the rememorative, but we continue to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. As in the Eucharistic Prayer so in the celebration of Holy Week: we acclaim a past event, a present reality and a future expectation: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is why we are able to use the expression ‘The Sacrament of Easter’; it makes real and active in the present the saving events of the past.


The Revd Cn Jeremy Haselock, a former Precentor and Vice-Dean of Norwich Cathedral, is Associate Priest at St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London.