Catholic Activity: Holy Week in the Catholic Tradition
An explanation of Holy Week traditions in the history of the Church.
THE GREAT AND SACRED WEEK
NAMES — In the Greek Church Holy Week bears the solemn title the "Sacred and Great Week" (He hagia kai megale hebdomas). In the Latin Church the official term is the "Greater Week" (hebdomada major). The popular names are "Great Week" among the Slavic nations, and "Holy Week" in other countries. The German name Karwoche means "Week of Mourning." In ancient times Holy Week was also called "Week of Remission," since the public sinners were absolved on Maundy Thursday. Another name was "Laborious Week" (semaine peineuse) because of the increased burden of penance and fasting. The faithful of the Eastern Churches also call it the "Week of Salvation."
OBSERVANCE — From the very beginning of Christianity it has always been devoted to a special commemoration of Christ's Passion and death through the practice of meditation, prayer, fasting, and penance. After the great persecutions, the Christian emperors of both the East and West Roman Empires issued various decrees forbidding not only amusements and games, but also regular work in trade, business, professions, and courts. The sacred days were to be spent free from worldly occupations, entirely devoted to religious exercises. Every year during Holy Week an imperial edict granted pardon to a majority of those detained in prison; in the courts many charges were withdrawn in honor of Christ's Passion.
Following this custom, kings and rulers in medieval days retired from all secular business during Holy Week to spend the time in recollection and prayer, often within the seclusion of a monastery. Farmers set aside their plows, artisans their tools, schools and government offices closed, and courts did not sit. Popular feeling caused the banning not only of music, dancing, and secular singing but also of hunting and any other kind of sport. It was truly a "quiet" and "holy" week even in public life.
The Sacred Triduum of Holy Week (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) was a time of holyday obligation all through the Middle Ages. The Christian people, freed from servile work, were all present at the impressive ceremonies of these days. Due to the changed conditions of social life, however, Pope Urban VIII, in 1642, rescinded this obligation. Since then the last three days of Holy Week have been classified as working days, despite the sacred and important character they bear, which was powerfully stressed by the renewal of the liturgical order of Holy Week in 1955.
EASTER CLEANING — According to an ancient tradition, the three days after Palm Sunday are devoted in many countries to a thorough cleaning of the house, the most vigorous of the whole year. Carpets, couches, armchairs, and mattresses are carried into the open and every speck of dust beaten out of them. Women scrub and wax floors and furniture, change curtains, wash windows; the home is buzzing with activity. No time is wasted on the usual kitchen work; the meals are very casual and light. On Wednesday night everything has to be back in place, glossy and shining, ready for the great feast. In Poland and other Slavic countries people also decorate their homes with green plants and artificial flowers made of colored paper carrying out ancient designs.
This traditional spring cleaning is, of course, to make the home as neat as possible for the greatest holidays of the year, a custom taken over from the ancient Jewish practice of a ritual cleansing and sweeping of the whole house as prescribed in preparation for the Feast of Passover.
Activity Source: Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1958