Holy Week

We have now reached the beginning of the Great Week. The Church has done well to lead us to the sacred way of Calvary with serious teachings, great examples, the silence of recollection, the austerities of penance. Without the penance of Lent, without the tears we have shed, the privations to which we have subjected ourselves, the white robe of innocence which repentance has given us, how could we dare go up to Golgotha to witness the death of a God? But if we have wept from the depths of our heart and plunged into the bath of reparatory blood, we are as pure as Angels; and we may stand like them around the Cross.

The week which begins with Palm Sunday and ends with Holy Saturday is known by various names. First of all, it is called the Great Week. There are two great weeks in the existence of the world. The first is the one in which God created the world, and during which each day was marked by a miracle of power. The second is the one in which God repaired and in a way recreated His work, purified it, restored to its first sanctity by the blood and the death of His Son. And that second week, whose every day was marked by a miracle of love, is incomparably greater than the first.

Saint John Chrysostom says, “We call it Great not because it has more days than other weeks, or because its days have more hours, but because of the number and greatness of the mysteries we celebrate therein. For it is in these days that the devil’s tyranny was destroyed, death was disarmed, sin and the curse were taken away, Heaven was opened and made accessible to man who, because of this, became the equal of the Angels. Its fasting and vigils are also longer, its offices more numerous.” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily XXX on Genesis.)

We also call it the Week of Sorrows, because of the Savior’s sorrows and sufferings; the Week of Indulgence, because therein penitents are received for absolution and then into the communion of the faithful; the Week of Xerophagia, that is, during which one eats only dried food without seasoning, as everyone practiced during the six days in this week; and finally, Holy Week, because of the holiness of the things accomplished therein and the dispositions with which we should attend them. And that name, worthy of an entire book, has generally prevailed. Let us show by our works that we understand its full extent; and to do so, let us recall the examples of our forefathers.

The piety of our forefathers

Long ago, all the days of this great week and of the one following were as many feast days. Manual labor, commerce and court cases were forbidden. By their decrees, the Roman emperors confirmed this beautiful ruling of the Church. (Codex Theodosianus, Part I, sec. II, chap. 8, art. 2.)  Saint John Chrysostom had these imperial ordinances in mind when he said to the people of Antioch, “It is not only the pastors and preachers of the Church who recommend that the faithful honor and sanctify this week; the emperors also command it for all the earth, by suspending criminal cases and suits and all civil and secular business, that these holy days may be free from disturbances, disputes, the troubles of court cases and any other turmoil capable of keeping us from employing them for piety with leisure and tranquility, in exercises of Religion and for the spiritual good of souls.” (St. John Chrysostom; Gothofr., Codex Theodosianus, note, p. 114.)

Holy Week is also a time of indulgence and remission. Christian monarchs — either out of gratitude for the graces God grants to men through the merits of the death of Our Lord, or out of a desire to imitate His goodness in some manner — conformed their policy to that of the Church, which reconciled public penitents during this period. They opened prisons, paid the accounts of debtors and set them free. Saint John Chrysostom adds, “The Emperor Theodosius sent the cities letters of remission to free prisoners and grant life to criminals, during the days that preceded the great feasts of Easter.” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily XL on Holy Week.)

The emperors’ clemency was regulated by prudence. Only prisoners whose contact and freedom would not be dangerous to others nor to society were freed. The successors of this great monarch acted likewise. Not satisfied with writing to their officers, they made laws to renew this type of grace every year. Saint Leo the Great speaks of it as follows:

“The Roman emperors, as an effect of their piety and following an ancient custom, humble their majesty and suspend all their power in honor of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. They soften the severity of their laws and give freedom to those who are guilty of various crimes, so that in these days in which the world was saved by the mercy of God, they may represent His infinite goodness to us in some manner by this feature of their clemency.” (St. Leo the Great, Sermon XXXIX on Lent, p. 210.)

And that holy Pope, drawing the religious conclusions of this admirable behavior, adds, “It is very just that the Christian people should imitate their princes in this way, and that these great examples should incline them to be more indulgent during this holy time; for domestic laws should not be less humane than public laws. Therefore, let us forgive one another reciprocally, let us remit offenses and debts, let us be reconciled and renounce all resentment, if we wish to take part in the graces which Christ has merited for us by His Passion and worthily celebrate the feast of Easter.” (Ibid.)

Saint Augustine teaches us that this touching custom was established in his time in Africa. In a sermon given on Quasimodo Sunday (the Sunday after Easter), he exhorts the faithful to continue throughout the rest of the year the cessation of trials, quarrels and enmities, and to maintain the spirit of peace and repose prescribed to them during the holidays of Holy Week and Easter. (St. Augustine, Sermon XIX, p. 229.)

France, so pious in the past, adopted and religiously kept the touching custom of delivering prisoners. (There were still vestiges of this in Paris until the French Revolution — Cf. Fr. D’Hauterive, Grand Catéchisme de la persévérance chrétienne, Vol. III, p. 542.) On the Monday after Passion Sunday, the last day of its sessions, the Parliament of Paris removed to the palace prisons: prisoners were questioned, and many were delivered if their cause was favorable or if they were not first-degree criminals. The same thing occurred during the days preceding Christmas Eve and the eve of Pentecost. (Fr. Louis Thomassin, C.O., Les Fêtes, Bk. III, chap. 11.)

What do you think about this? Would not Holy Week, if celebrated in this manner, have a great influence on public morals? While the sole end of Religion would seem to be happiness in the hereafter, is it not true that it is wonderfully capable of providing for happiness in this life? Why, then, is it so little known, so little loved? Are not the woes we are suffering sufficient to open our eyes? Will the voice of experience always be treated like that of an old man we hold in scorn?

For us, this solemnity which the Church displays in the last week in Lent reminds us of our obligation to redouble our fervor. A person so lax as to miss it is unworthy of the name of Christian. Let us end the holy season of Lent as we should: this is the true means of gathering the abundant fruits of the penance prescribed for us and of the sacred mysteries whose memory is celebrated by the Church.


O my God, Thou art all love! I give Thee thanks for all the means of salvation which Thou hast given us during Holy Week. Grant us the grace to enter fully into the spirit of the Church, that this week may be truly holy for us.

Msgr. Jean Joseph Gaume, Catéchisme de persévérance (Emmanuel Vitte: Paris, 1889 — 13th ed.), Vol. VIII, pp. 63-74.

Published in the Magnificat Magazine, February 1996, p. 33-35