Egeria, a fifth-century woman who recorded one of the earliest accounts of Christian Holy Week observances.
Despite what contemporary “enlightened” theologizers might suggest, the church year was not developed overnight by some bored hermit in the Egyptian desert with nothing else to do but ponder the locusts and honey in his cave. The church year developed soon after Jesus’ own ministry, when His disciples and followers wished to reenact, and therefore to teach Christians as well as neophytes, the essential doctrines of the Church. Although sermons and lectures were part of it, the early Church realized that many people learn more through doing. The Church in Jerusalem quickly started to revere the historical sites of Holy Week. From the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane to the hill of Golgotha, this particular Church was well-suited to relive the highlights of Jesus’ ministry.
A Christian woman named Egeria (writing from 404-417) maintained a series of journals which recounted her pilgrimages to holy sites, one of the most interesting being her description of being in Jerusalem during Pascha (Holy Week.) In her description of the week’s events (which the writer of music notes cannot summarize nor condense, but which can be found on http://www.ccel.org/m/mcclure/etheria/etheria.htm), Egeria describes systematically in exacting detail how the faithful reenact the events of holy week in their worship. For example, on the Sunday before Easter, they gather at the Mount of Olives to “sing hymns and antiphonies appropriate to the day and place, as are the readings.” Shortly thereafter, “that place in the Gospel is read where infants with palms and branches ran to the Lord saying, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Immediately the bishop rises with all of the people and they walk before the bishop singing hymns. . . And whatever children in this place, even those not able to walk, are carried on their parent’s shoulders, all holding branches, some of palm, some of olive; thus the bishop is led in the same way the Lord once was.” On Thursday, the congregation regathers in the Garden of Gethsemane to hold the vigil the Apostles were unable to keep. Of this Egeria writes, “. . . there a hymn is sung, prayer is made, and the bishop offers the Oblation and serves communion to everyone. . . and the place in the Gospel is read where the Lord was arrested. While this passage is being read, there is such moaning and groaning with weeping among the people that they can be heard by all the people of the city.” Imagine what a witness this must have been! This continues all night, just as Jesus passed His last night on earth.
The next morning, the people meet at “Sion to pray at the column where the Lord was whipped.” Shortly thereafter, they gather at Golgotha, which now has a church built upon it, and where is housed parts of the true cross. (Which, Egeria tells us, is heavily guarded because “someone once bit off and stole some of the holy cross.”) From noon to three, readings about the Passion are interspersed with prayers until the ninth hour (3pm) at which time “the passage in the Gospel of John is read, where He delivers up His spirit.” The crowd then disperses until evening, after which time they gather at the Anastasis, or the Church of the Resurrection. “And when they have come there, the passage in the gospel is read where Joseph asks Pilate for the body of the Lord, that he might place it in a new tomb. . . through the whole night hymns and antiphons are sung until morning.” Saturday morning arrives where the “Paschal vigil is observed,” again spending the day and night in prayer, scripture and singing, although Egeria observes that confirmands would be baptized on this Holy Saturday. The celebration of Easter culminates, apparently, at midnight, after the vigil service has been dismissed and the people process to the Church of the Resurrection (supposedly built over the Holy Sepulchre) at which time the resurrection gospel is read and the bishop celebrates Holy Communion.
In their reenactment of Christ’s last days, the Christian pilgrims are not only learning about Christ’s life, but they are participating in the sacraments (baptism was only offered on Holy Saturday and Pentecost) and learning application through sermons and hymns. This was a multi-faceted approach toward catechesis, or the learning of the fundamentals of the faith. Importantly, the pilgrims probably experienced the emotions associated with each location—the triumphant palm waving, the feeling of betrayal in the Garden, the sorrow and horror at Golgotha. This is not some dry lesson from a book, nor an entertaining show. Although Egeria does not note the fact, it seems that all these people—pilgrims plus those Christians living in Jerusalem—must essentially devote an entire week to these proceedings. . . not a small feat in an age in which the necessities of daily life were more difficult to obtain. Egeria does allow that some people keep the pilgrimage more than others, who presumably would be distracted by mundane tasks; however, “No one demands that anyone do anything, but all do as they can. No one is praised who does more, nor is the one who does less blamed. For such is the custom here.” In other words, these are traditions which are evangelical. . . they teach the faith not only to the Christians but are a great witness to the unbeliever, and none of it is viewed as being essential to salvation. These traditions are simply the best way available to imbue the truths of Christianity within the human heart.
So it is with us. We began Palm Sunday processing from the garden with palm branches, but the service ended somberly, singing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” We regathered on Thursday to meditate on the Lord’s mandatum novum—to “love one another,” as exemplified on the night He instituted Holy Communion. The betrayal of that Thursday was also evidenced in the sadness of the stripping of the altar. A watch was kept overnight. On Friday, we somberly read of Jesus’ death on the cross, lamenting our sin which cause this. At Easter Vigil on Saturday we gather in candlelight, reading texts from the Old Testament, meditating on Christ passing “from death to life,” culminating in the return of the Gloria in Excelsis and a full celebration of the resurrection, which continues the next morning. We celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection with churches all over the world, most of whom participate in hymns, readings, teaching, and Holy Communion. In this way, we are made one in Christ, whether it is our unity with the Invisible Church in the present age, or the Church Universal of centuries past. We do not reenact this Paschal festival for our own amusement or boredom; this anamnesis–or remembering the past by reliving it–is possibly the most important tool through which one is enabled to live out the gospel on a daily basis as one sanctified in the blood of the Lamb.