The early days of Holy Week

By Father Aaron Williams
In my previous column, I discussed the development of the liturgy of Palm Sunday. In this edition, I want to address Masses which belong to the ‘early days’ of Holy Week: namely, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Mass given for the Monday of Holy Week has been surprisingly consistent throughout the centuries, more so perhaps than any other Mass during the week. The Gospel passage is taken from the twelfth chapter of St. John’s gospel and chronologically speaking occurs the day before Palm Sunday, making it interesting to be placed the day after in the Lectionary. But, there are two reasons for the placement of this passage: one, because it makes mention of the rising of Lazarus within the context of the Passover (thus, foreshadowing the rising of Christ), and second, because of St. John’s aside that Judas was a thief and would take money from the apostle’s communal purse.
Apart from the Gospel, there is no proper rite associated with this day. Before the reform of the Holy Week liturgies promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1955, special petitions were offered on this day against the church’s persecutors and for the Pope. These were suppressed in 1955, and with the exception of the change of the order of the Mass, the Mass given in the Missal of 1962 is virtually the same as the Mass in the Missal of Pope St. Paul VI.
The Masses of Tuesday and Wednesday are where we see real change. Prior to the reforms which followed the Second Vatican Council, the Passion according to St. Mark was read in full in the Mass of Tuesday, and that of St. Luke was read at the Mass of Wednesday; St. Matthew’s had been read on Palm Sunday. In the reformed Mass, the gospels of Palm Sunday are read on a three-year cycle so each year during Holy Week the faithful only hear two readings of the Passion: one from either Matthew, Mark, or Luke and then St. John’s version on Good Friday. In the older form of the Mass, all four Passion accounts were read during the course of the week.
There was a slight alteration in the length of the Passion readings from before 1955 and after. In the liturgies before 1955, the synoptic Passion readings included the account of the Last Supper. This section was removed after 1955 and the readings begin in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The modern Roman liturgy introduces two new Gospel readings for Tuesday and Wednesday, but with a sort of traditional flair. The reading given for Tuesday is Our Lord’s prediction of the betrayal of Judas at the Last Supper as given in St. John’s Gospel. The placement here is appropriate since the next day, Wednesday, is traditionally known as “Spy Wednesday” – when Judas met with the chief priests to arrange the manner in which he would betray Jesus. Naturally, the Gospel passage in the modern liturgy which is read on Wednesday is this the account of this meeting between Judas and the Jewish authorities as given in St. Matthew’s Gospel.
Thus, while the arrangement of the readings in the older form of the Mass were designed to bring the faithful’s attention to the events of the Passion itself, the readings of the newer form intentionally lead the faithful chronologically through the events of Holy Week in the order they played out.
One final note since I will not have space to provide a full column on this topic. In the early Medieval liturgical rites in use prior to the Council of Trent, these three days served as a final preparation for the Penitents to be given absolution on Holy Thursday morning. Formerly, grave public sinners brought themselves to the door of the Cathedral on Ash Wednesday when they were ceremonially ‘cast out’ of the church and given sackcloth to wear in penitence for all of Lent. In these last days, their penitence often took on a more physical form and they would beg outside the door of the Cathedral until the morning of Holy Thursday when the Bishop would prepare to meet them inside at the altar.
The deacon would go outside into the square and three times tell the penitents to approach the church. Three times the penitents would step forward and prostrate themselves. Once this was completed, the deacon took them by the hand and led them straight through the church and up to the altar where the Bishop would remove their sackcloth and grant them sacramental absolution. This would allow them to rejoin the faithful for the Mass of Holy Thursday night where they could once again partake in Holy Communion.
In my next column I will discuss a the traditional prayer service of Tenebræ, which is regaining popularity today in many parishes, as well as ways this service is even included, in an altered form, in the modern Liturgy of the Hours.

(Father Aaron Williams is the administrator at St. Joseph Parish in Greenville)