A guide to a transformative Holy Week

Let the rituals of Holy Week guide your heart toward God.
Our Faith

At the risk of sounding cliché, there is something special about football Saturdays at the University of Notre Dame. Whether you have zero interest in football, have seen the film Rudy, or have spent a game day in South Bend, Indiana, you can imagine the excitement and lore that the Golden Dome elicits from hundreds of thousands of students, alumni, and friends.

The sound of the “Notre Dame Victory March” spills through campus on crisp September Saturdays as people partake in game-day traditions. Cars pop their trunks for tailgating spreads that rival multicourse meals. The bells from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart keep time. The band marches from the Golden Dome to the stadium with cheering fans following and flanking the pathways. The student section proclaims their usual chants and cheers throughout the game. When the Irish score, students throw their peers into the air for push-ups.

After the game, the team gathers near the students to sing the Alma Mater song, “Notre Dame, Our Mother.” Everything about the day, from the words shouted to the actions performed, is centered on bringing about an Irish win. Somehow, we have come to believe that if we do all the correct things—that is, say the right words and perform the corresponding actions—we will have compelled the football gods to rule in our favor.

But that’s not how liturgy works. In his book Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press), Gordon W. Lathrop writes, “When the liturgical things we do are conceived as our ladder to God, our way to compel God, our marks of excellence distinguishing us from other wretches, they become part of our self-deception.” Our liturgical life is grounded in ritual, but we don’t perform ritual to convince God that we know how to pray.


Likewise, our prayers are not about earning “grace points” or winning favor. Rather, ritual fosters unity, establishes identity, and points to some deeper reality. Ritual shapes and forms us into who and what we are called to be, whether Irish fans or a Christian community rooted in the paschal mystery. The prayers and rituals of Holy Week are particularly formative and transformative if we allow them to be.

While these days contain so much richness, you can transform your Holy Week by focusing on a select few moments.

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion 

April 10, 2022

Palm Sunday celebrates two seemingly contrasting realities, as even the name suggests. The liturgy begins with exultant praise and acclamation: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matt. 21:9). The tone quickly changes, however, with shouts of “Crucify him!” But there is only one story: the story of the paschal mystery. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are intimately connected, so much so that we cannot compartmentalize any aspect. The same is true for us. Everything we do—the good and bad, our joy and lament, our hope and grief—we do united in Christ.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the Palm Sunday liturgy is the commemoration of the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem with the blessing and distribution of palm branches. We read in the Gospel of Matthew that the crowds in Jerusalem “spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road” (21:8). When we hold our palm branches today, we also acclaim Christ the King, and we come not as individuals but as a community. We pray in a special way that as we begin our journey through Holy Week, we may more closely align our lives with the God who loves us.


But how do we do this in our own lives beyond today’s liturgy? How do we testify to Christ the Lord? Do we place Christ above the other “gods” we know so well: power, prestige, and gratification? Do we freely share our experiences of Christ with others? Do we allocate time amid our busy schedules for personal and common prayer? Even without waving palm branches every day, we certainly can proclaim “Hosanna to the Son of David!”


Take some time this week to listen to the song “Jesus the Lord” by Jesuit Father Roc O’Connor, available on YouTube, Spotify, or other streaming services. Based on the Canticle of the Philippians from today’s second reading, this song invites us to unite ourselves with the One in whom we live and move and have our being. While I have always found this song to be particularly moving, several months ago it was prayed at the funeral for a friend’s young son who tragically died. As we sang, I could feel a sense of hope push past the tears. That is the paschal mystery.

Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper 

April 14, 2022

The sacred paschal triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and ends with evening prayer on Easter Sunday. The word triduum comes from the Latin for “three days.” These three days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil/Easter Sunday are the peak of our liturgical year and rich with symbolism and ritual. “What Sunday is to the week, the solemnity of Easter is to the liturgical year,” according to the General Norms for the Liturgical Year.

Holy Thursday commemorates, in a special way, Jesus’ command to humbly serve others, an essential element of our Christian faith. We read in the Gospel of John (13:4–5) that Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, and ties a towel around himself. Then he pours water into a basin and begins washing the dis­ciples’ feet.


The pedilavium, or footwashing, has been a Holy Thursday practice since as early as the seventh century. A 1955 decree from the Sacred Congregation of Rites reminds us, however, that this action is more than a literal footwashing. The decree notes that the faithful should “abound in works of Christian charity.” If we limit ourselves to literal footwashing, we miss the reality of Jesus’ request: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Jesus tells us to follow his example of welcoming the stranger, eating with the outcast, and caring for the sick, among so many other concrete actions. This is a command, not a suggestion. Some people still refer to Holy Thursday as “Maundy Thursday,” rooted in the word mandatum, or command. How do you serve others in your family and community? How do you connect this service to Jesus’ command?


Just as we wash feet during the Holy Thursday liturgy, so too can we wash feet in our own homes. Jesus shows us how to love and how to live. May we respond to this love by freely loving others without reservation or condition. Gathering as family or friends, take a pitcher of warm water, a large bowl, and a towel. Then invite everyone to sit in a circle on the ground. Read John 13:1–15 together, and spend some time in silence, thinking especially about Jesus’ mandatum. One person can wash the feet of all present, or each person can take a turn washing the feet of their neighbor after their own feet have been washed. While washing, the washer may share a prayer for the person whose feet they are washing. You may also wish to play soft music in the background. Close your time together by sharing intentions and communally praying the Lord’s Prayer. Let this family prayer shape the way your family lives, rooted in selflessness and service, rooted in agapic love.

Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion 

April 15, 2022

As we celebrate the passion of Jesus Christ, we hear John’s account of Jesus’ suffering and death. We remember that these are not some events relegated to the past. Rather, the paschal mystery invites us to contemplate and live these realities anew today. One need not look far to see pervasive examples of suffering and death in our families, churches, communities, and world. It is easy to lose hope or become overwhelmed by the magnitude of such distress. Homophobia, racism, sexism, and xenophobia are increasingly rampant. Children are gunned down in their schools. Refugees drown at the border. People starve while others dance in excess. Thousands die of COVID-19 every day while individuals cry for their freedoms and rights without understanding the importance of solidarity and interconnectedness. We know, however, that death never wins. Life is always victorious. This is the essence of the paschal mystery and our Christian identity in Christ. Even so, we cannot use this as an excuse to ignore suffering or perpetuate injustice. We are called to name these social sins and actively work against them.

When we think of Good Friday, we might immediately imagine the reading of John’s passion account or the unveiling, procession, and adoration of the cross. Both speak to the deeply relational nature of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and are fundamental parts of today’s liturgy. But there is a third significant component of our Good Friday prayer.


The Good Friday solemn intercessions contain specific prayers for the Holy Catholic Church, for the pope, for all orders and degrees of the faithful, for catechumens, for unity of Christians, for the Jewish people, for those who do not believe in Christ, for those who do not believe in God, for those in public office, and for those in tribulation. In 2020 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved an additional prayer for an end to the pandemic. While we raise these prayers of intercession every time we pray, today we name them in a special way.


Pick one (or more!) of today’s intercessions and find a way to live that prayer in your own life. As Pope Francis reminds us, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.” Make a concrete plan to pray for that need and then work to do something about it. Take one of your parish catechumens out for coffee. Show your faith in God and Christ through authentic encounter. Organize an ecumenical prayer for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Volunteer for a local organization that assists in sharing information about the COVID-19 vaccine. Steward the Earth by committing to refuse single-use resources. Commit to something that interests you, remembering that our liturgy shapes the way we live. As we encounter in every liturgy, but particularly remember today, God gives of Godself for others. We are called to do the same.


Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil 

April 16, 2022

If anyone asks you to share what Catholicism is all about, bring them to the Easter Vigil. Filled with rich symbolism and ritual, the Easter Vigil celebrates God’s salvific work. We proclaim that the light of Christ banishes all darkness. We hear the stories of our ancestors in faith from both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. We welcome new members into our Christian community through the sacraments of initiation. We celebrate the Eucharist. As the Exsultet, or the Proclamation of Easter, begins, “Exult, let them exult!” As a Christian people we do exult, for Christ is risen from the dead.

The celebration begins with lucernarium, or “service of light,” rooted in the practice of early Christians lighting lamps for evening prayer and rejoicing in the light of Christ. As the community gathers around a blazing fire, the priest prays, “Grant that, by these paschal celebrations, we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires, that with minds made pure we may attain festivities of unending splendor.” Notice the word choice and imagery here. What does it mean to be “inflamed with heavenly desires” so to “attain festivities of unending splendor”? We find the answer later in the liturgy.


Following the baptisms and confirmations of the recently initiated, we hold lighted candles and renew our own baptismal promises. We recall that God claims us for Godself in our own baptism. When we realize we are chosen by God, we begin to see that we are indeed a special person and a special people. Think about Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan River. The heavens burst open and a voice proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). God says the same to each of us, “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

From the moment we recognize this, we are charged with the responsibility to become who we are. We are called to receive the love God gives us by loving others. We are called to embrace God’s welcome by welcoming others. We are called to live this new reality by living in community with others. We are called to be inflamed with heavenly desires.

This cannot be some superficial nicety. In his spiritual classic Life of the Beloved (Crossroad), Henri Nouwen writes, “When we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being the chosen ones, we soon discover within ourselves a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness. Instead of making us feel that we are better, more precious or valuable than others, our awareness of being chosen opens our eyes to the closeness of others. That is the great joy in being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well.”

We must be vulnerable enough to be transformed, and that is exactly what liturgy does, if we allow it. The ritual in which we engage and the accompanying words we recite are not about what we do. Rather, it is about what ritual and words do to us.
Consider Holy Saturday’s gospel reading. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James find an empty tomb where Jesus was buried. The women are the first to experience Christ’s resurrection, a point that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree upon and note in their writing. When the women tell the other disciples, however, their story is dismissed as an “idle tale and they [do] not believe them” (Luke 24:11).


Who are we quick to dismiss today when they share experiences? Do we listen to the voices of women when they bravely tell their stories of mistreatment and assault? Do we listen to voices from the Black community when they plead for their very lives to be recognized and respected? Do we listen to the voices of immigrants and refugees as they share the terror and trauma of fleeing oppression? Do we listen to the voices of the LGBTQ community when they share their experiences of love and relationship with God and others? Do we listen to the voices of those who are grieving when they shout their pain amid our Easter Alleluias?


As you leave Mass on Easter, take some holy water with you. Many churches offer both holy water and containers for people to bring home during the Easter season. You can bring your own container as well. If your church does not have holy water in the fonts due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, ask your parish priest for some. Place the water near your door so you can sign yourself when you enter and exit your home. This water is a reminder of the baptismal promises we renew at Easter and of our Christian responsibility to live in such a way that others may encounter the risen Christ through us. 

This article also appears in the April 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 4, pages 20-25). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image:  Flickr/stevecadman

About the author

John T. Kyler

John T. Kyler is an author, educator, musician, and speaker. He is the author of Welcome All as Christ: Reimagining Parish Hospitality (Liturgical Press, 2023).

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