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History of Holy Week

Interview With Father Juan Flores Arcas

ROME, APRIL 10, 2006 (Zenit) - The roots of the liturgical observance of Holy Week go back to the second century.

In this interview, Benedictine Father Juan Javier Flores Arcas, president of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of Rome, explains the history of Holy Week.

Q: Has Holy Week been observed as such since the beginning of Christianity?

Father Flores: The most ancient original core of Holy Week is the Easter Vigil, of which there were traces already in the second century of the Christian era. It was always a night of vigil, in remembrance and expectation of Jesus Christ's resurrection.

To it was soon added the reception of the sacraments of Christian initiation: baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist, so that it became in turn the great sacramental night of the Church.

Subsequently, the Easter Vigil was extended in time and transformed into the triduum of the Lord's passion, death and resurrection, which St. Augustine already mentioned as a very generalized celebration.

This triduum added to the existing vigil other important moments of the celebration, specifically, the memorial of the Lord's death on Good Friday, and Holy Thursday. The latter involved no fewer than three very different Eucharistic celebrations.

According to the various sources of different liturgies, a Mass was celebrated to reconcile sinners, a Chrism Mass and a Mass in the evening to commemorate the institution of the Eucharist.

In the present-day liturgy, the Easter triduum begins on Holy Thursday evening with the Mass of the Lord's Supper and is united to the first day of the triduum which is, in itself, Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord.

The second day is Holy Saturday of the Lord's burial, a day of silence, fasting and expectation. There is no Eucharist that day, as a sign of expectation.

The Church pauses before the crucified Lord's sepulcher and awaits his resurrection. With the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night, the third day of the Easter triduum begins: Sunday of the Lord's resurrection.

Q: Why is it said that the Easter Vigil is the most important day of the year?

Father Flores: Sunday of the Resurrection is the most important day of the liturgical year. Its center is precisely the Easter Vigil, on Holy Saturday night to Sunday of the Resurrection, but it belongs integrally to Sunday.

It is the most important celebration of the year, the center of the whole liturgical cycle. It is the great sacramental night of the Church.

It was so for centuries and, thanks to the liturgical reform promoted by the Second Vatican Council, it is so once again. Christians renew their baptismal promises while they see new Christians being incorporated in their ranks. It is the origin of every liturgical celebration and all culminate in it.

Because of this, the importance given to Holy Thursday over the last centuries has now been transferred, with the recent renewal of the liturgical books, to the Easter Vigil, also translated in the way of celebrating.

Q: Must the Chrism Mass take place on Holy Thursday, or can it vary?

Father Flores: The Chrism Mass is very ancient in the whole Church.

In it, the bishop consecrates the three oils needed for the administration of the sacraments: the holy chrism, the oil of the catechumens and the oil of the sick. Liturgical sources tell us of their importance and antiquity.

It acquired special importance in Rome and was full of symbols. Today, every bishop blesses and consecrates the three types of oils in his cathedral church on Holy Thursday morning -- the traditional place and moment in the Roman liturgy as early as the fifth-sixth centuries -- or another close date, according to pastoral convenience.

In the liturgy that ensued after Vatican II, a significant rite was added in this Chrism Mass: the renewal of priestly promises. However, it is very important that the center of the celebration be precisely the consecration of the three oils -- which are used for the administration of the sacraments -- and not the renewal of priestly promises.

Q: How did the adoration of the cross on Good Friday arise?

Father Flores: Adoration of the cross was a peculiar rite of the Church of Jerusalem, as it had among its most precious relics the cross on which Christ was crucified.

On Good Friday a very popular and deeply felt ceremony took place: adoration of the cross. Fourth-century accounts of it are very moving. St. Cyril of Jerusalem recounts them with a profusion of details.

At a given moment, this rite passed to Rome that, for its part, celebrated the Lord's passion with a reading of the passion according to Saint John and the well-known solemn prayers of Good Friday.

To this was then added the adoration of the cross, which has been kept until today, but it is not the most important rite of Good Friday.

Liturgical action continues to be centered on the Liturgy of the Word, whose culminating moment is the reading of the passion of the Lord, the account, memorial and actualization of the redemption with which the celebration acquires all its force.


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