How the Early Church Commemorated Christ’s Passion and Resurrection

April 4, 2012

Faith and Reasons

Some Triduum traditions date back to the Early Church--and some don't. Photo/Daniel Leininger Licensed under Creative Commons

If you’re looking forward to observing Holy Week and Easter as I am, hopefully you also see this as a good opportunity to grow in faith. Another aspect of the Triduum that I love is the tradition that shapes our prayer, worship and family customs during this important time.

This year marks the 1,979th time (approximately) that Christians have commemorated Holy Week and Easter.  That’s almost two millennia of celebrations involving hymns, incense and readings of the Passion, not to mention Easter lilies, ham and Peeps.

The early Christians unfortunately had no Peeps but they did have some prayerful and interesting ways of commemorating these holiest days of the year. Some of their customs have become part of our tradition and some of them are no longer practiced.

Fasting was an important part of the Early Church’s Holy Week observances. Second century Christians practiced an absolute fast from food for the 40 hours before Easter and a third century account indicates that some during that time fasted from food throughout Holy Week. It was the norm to fast on Holy Saturday, the hinge between the seasons of penance and Easter.

Walking in Jesus’ Steps

Some interesting details about Holy Week in Jerusalem are found in a document called the Pilgrimage of Egeria dating to about the year 388.

Christians began the week on Saturday evening before Palm Sunday in Bethany with dinner and the Gospel reading of the anointing of Christ’s feet. The next day they assembled at the Mount of Olives for hymns and readings, and then processed to Jerusalem with palms and branches.

On Holy Thursday, Christians attended the liturgy late in the afternoon and again traveled to the Mount of Olives where they commemorated Jesus’s agony and arrest all night. On Good Friday, they venerated a relic of the true Cross in the morning and commemorated the Passion for three hours in the afternoon. On Friday night clergy and laity who were strong enough held another vigil.

Another early Holy Week tradition that has endured is the Tenebrae (Latin for shadows or darkness) service. On the evening or early morning of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, Christians of various denominations chant or recite psalms and readings while a series of candles is gradually extinguished leaving the church in darkness. At Catholic services, readings are from the Liturgy of the Hours. The tradition of putting out lights at the service dates back to the fifth century.

Baptism and Fire at the Easter Vigil

The Easter Vigil was an all-night celebration during the Church’s first six or seven centuries, as sometimes hundreds and even thousands of catechumens were baptized at once.

The vigil blessing of new fire, during which Christians lit lamps, candles and the paschal candle, may have led St. Cyril of Jerusalem to comment that the night was bright as day. The Roman emperor Constantine illuminated Rome during the vigil with lamps and huge torches.

In the eighth century when the Church began administering the sacrament of baptism on Saturday morning instead of Saturday evening, Catholics in France, Germany and other countries developed a two-part ceremony to celebrate the Easter Feast on Sunday.

First, at midnight before Easter morning in the dark church the clergy brought the Cross from the sepulcher to the high altar. Candles were lit and the congregation processed solemnly with the cross through the church, the cloister, or cemetery. When they returned to the church, participants sang a hymn symbolizing Christ’s victorious entry into purgatory and hell.

Reenacting the Easter Story

Then before dawn on Easter Sunday, two priests representing the holy women went to a place designated as the empty tomb where another cleric representing the angel announced the Lord’s Resurrection. The first two priests brought the message to the choir prompting two other priests impersonating Peter and John to run to the tomb. Finding it empty, they showed the congregation the linen that had wrapped the body. These reenactments have been the basis for many Easter plays.

Whatever traditions you keep, I pray that during this 1,979th Triduum we may enter more deeply into the mysteries of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Finally, I hope this much-loved Paschal homily by St. John Chrysostom inspires you.

Blessed Holy Week and Easter!

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About Susan Klemond

I'm a freelance writer who enjoys writing about the Catholic Faith, local issues and people. I love the challenge of learning about the Church and discovering the reasons behind her teachings.

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