Holy Week Celebrations

Christians who are searching for a Reformed tradition of celebrating the Holy Week may be disappointed by what they find. Although the Reformers observed parts of the Christian year, they left us no precedent for worship during the Holy Week except the celebration of the Lord's Supper on Easter Sunday. Not surprisingly, the contemporary Reformed church has experimented with many types of liturgies in an attempt to fill that void.

However, even though we are without concrete traditions, we are not without guidelines. Several overall Reformed perspectives can help us organize our observance of Holy Week.

Generally speaking, the Reformed understanding of worship has always involved three elements. First, we view worship as the gathering of God's grateful people to declare the mighty acts of their creating and redeeming God. Secondly, we understand that worship presents an opportunity for this people to be fed and strengthened by the Word of God—whether that Word be proclaimed audibly in the preaching of the gospel or, as Calvin desired, both audibly and visibly by preaching and by the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Third—an element no Reformed worshiper can ignore since it is so strongly presented in Calvin's own Form of Prayers—we believe that our worship must empower us for obedient service in the world.

It is with that understanding of our liturgical background that we must look at and evaluate our celebration of some of the specific days of Holy Week.

Palm Sunday

Until recently worship leaders had no questions about the observance of Palm Sunday. The liturgy always included one of the gospel narratives of our Lord's entrance into Jerusalem, and that same passage usually provided the basis for the sermon. Both music and church decorations reinforced the Palm Sunday story.

In more recent years liturgical scholars have reminded us that this is really Passion Sunday. The Palm Sunday ceremonies, they insist, may be used, but only as preliminaries; they must not be allowed to usurp the central thrust of the day, which is Christ's passion and death on Calvary. Instead of reading a Palm Sunday narrative, these scholars say, we should read the whole story of the passion, traditionally the one recorded in Matthew.

What does this new emphasis mean for a Reformed congregation? Should we celebrate Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday? The answer is that we should do whatever is most helpful in assisting the people of God to fulfill their liturgical role as Reformed Christians. My suspicion is that for most Reformed congregations that will mean celebrating Palm Sunday, but a few caveats are in order here.

One of the problems with our usual celebration of Palm Sunday is that we have tended to make it a mini-Easter. We have stressed the triumphal entry (where in Scripture is the basis for that?) and suppressed the fact that Christ's entrance into Jerusalem was a genuine part of his passion. He was entering the city not as a conquering hero but as a servant riding on a donkey. The jubilant acclamations from the crowd were a complete denial of his vocation as the Messiah.

In a word, understood in this light, Palm Sunday is a Passion Sunday. Our Lord is riding on in lowly pomp to die. Perhaps we might better understand that side of Palm Sunday if, at least occasionally, the Palm Sunday story were omitted from the service and the gospel of the passion were substituted for it. Because the passion story is a long lesson, it can be wearying if read as a monologue. But we certainly can find precedent for reading it as a drama—assigning the various characters to individuals and asking the entire congregation to read the words of the crowd.

In large measure the decision about Palm Sunday will depend on what is done on Good Friday. If the whole story of the passion is to be used on Good Friday, that would seem to be reason enough for omitting it on Palm Sunday. Certainly the story should be read sometime during the Holy Week, but, when possible, Good Friday seems the logical occasion.

The bread and wine should be shared at the same table as the chicken and the mashed potatoes.

Maundy Thursday

Since this is the day on which our Lord instituted his Supper, it is appropriate to make the Lord's Supper central in the Maundy Thursday celebration—even if another celebration of the Supper is planned for Easter (such repetition would not have bothered John Calvin). However, there is some debate about the appropriate setting for this Maundy Thursday Supper.

In recent years many churches have begun celebrating the Lord's Supper as part of a Seder supper on Maundy Thursday. And, certainly, holding a Seder supper on this night has good biblical basis. However, since it is by no means certain that the first Last Supper was a Passover meal, any kind of fellowship meal is appropriate for this service; a detailed reproduction of the Passover is not necessary. The important question is how to relate the fellowship meal and the Lord's Supper in a single evening's celebration.

In some congregations a fellowship meal is served in the social hall and afterward people migrate to the sanctuary for the Lord's Supper. Such a division competely frustrates the reason for holding the two events together. To demonstrate the origin of the sacrament as a table of fellowship, the bread and wine should be shared at the same table as the chicken and mashed potatoes.

No strictly biblical sequence can be applied to the celebration of the two suppers. However, thefollowing two approaches seem biblically appropriate:

  1. Begin the evening with a celebration of the Lord's Supper. This might include a reading of the story of the Last Supper followed by a prayer of thanksgiving and the sharing of bread and wine. Following the Supper the people would share a fellowship meal.
  2. Follow what seems to be Paul's sequence: Begin by taking the bread, giving thanks for it, breaking it, and sharing it with the congregation. Next comes the fellowship meal during which the congregation enjoys friendly conversation and perhaps sings a few songs. Conclude the event with thanksgiving and the sharing of the cup. In other words, the meal would come between the bread and wine of the Supper. Such an arrangement might seem startling, but it would certainly help to identify the Lord's Supper as the meal of the family of God.

No matter how we choose to organize the service, we must not allow our preoccupation with the meal to take the place of the preaching of the Word on Maundy Thursday. Following John's version of the Last Supper, the sermon could well come at the end of the Supper or after the sharing of the cup. The service could be concluded with the singing of a psalm and a benediction.

Another element that was traditionally part of Maundy Thursday ceremonies is foot-washing. In theory there is no reason why footwashing should not be part of Maundy Thursday services today, but there are many practical and logistic difficulties. For one thing, this practice is so different from our usual liturgical experience that it may easily strike a congregation as bizarre. How many feet should be washed and whose? A contemporary substitute (which I have seen done) for footwashing is shining each other's shoes—at least in token fashion. Shoe shining preserves the heart of the symbol without involving us in the custom of another time.

Good Friday

Whatever we may choose for our observance of Good Friday, it ought not to be the celebration of the Lord's Supper. The popularity of this custom is, of course, the result of a memorialist theory of the Supper which came to predominate in Reformed circles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and still lingers on in many places. If the Lord's Supper is a remembrance of Calvary, then Good Friday would seem the ideal time to celebrate this sacrament. But if the Lord's Supper is sharing in the presence of the risen and living Christ, then Good Friday is the one time of the year when we should not celebrate this sacrament. Here is a point at which our theology will completely govern our liturgical practice.

But how then should we observe Good Friday? By the preaching of the passion. If the long passion gospel has not been used on Palm Sunday, here certainly is the place for it. The old-style three-hour service with sermons on the seven last words probably has begun to slip in popularity, but surely there is still a place for an hour's service at noon. While the preaching of the cross should occupy most of such a service, that preaching ought not to exclude the real note of victory that we Christians believe was present at Calvary. Otherwise we easily slip into a false dichotomy between Good Friday and Easter: Good Friday is the sad and tragic day while Easter is the glad and happy day. Such a division is basically unbiblical and was never part of the celebration of the early church. Easter is implicit in Good Friday, and Good Friday is the necessary background for Easter.

The Good Friday preaching service, at whatever time of day, ought to be simple and sober. This is not an occasion for cantatas or oratorios or for decorations in the church. If at all possible, try to sing the hymns without the organ. At the very least, the organ accompaniment of the hymns should be subdued.

By some strange logic some congregations observe Good Friday by combining the Lord's Supper with the medieval service of Tenebrae. Tenebrae is a service in which, as the story of the passion unfolds, the lights in the church are gradually extinguished. (See article on pp. 18.) It can be a very moving service, but it is utterly inappropriate as a symbol of the Lord's Supper. We need to remember that every Lord's Supper is a celebration of Easter, of sharing new life with the living Christ by partaking of his body and blood. The gradual darkening of the church, while appropriate for a Good Friday service, is completely the wrong symbol for a celebration of the Lord's Supper.

Easter Vigil

The Easter Vigil is an old Christian custom that has been gaining popularity in recent years. So, although the service is not widely used yet in Reformed circles, it may be well to say something about it.

Originally the Easter Vigil was the time for baptisms. That tradition may not be viable any longer, but certainly the idea of a time for renewing baptismal vows is. What better thing to do on the Saturday night before Easter than hold a kind of preparatory service of which the renewal of baptismal vows forms the heart? Our parents took these vows for us when we were baptized. We took them for ourselves when we made confession of our faith. But now, on Easter eve, we remind ourselves of the obligations under which we live as Christians and, we renew our loyalty to them.

There are, of course, many other liturgical elements that belong to the traditional Easter Vigil, but most Reformed congregations would find them strange. However, the renewal of baptismal vows, which forms the center of the Easter Vigil service, can easily be transferred into a Reformed setting. Some congregations have found the Saturday evening Vigil a good substitute for the customary Easter dawn or sunrise service, which has worn itself out in many places.

No matter if it is held at night or early morning, a service of preparation for the great feast of Easter is certainly appropriate. Let all members of the congregation take advantage of the opportunity to renew their loyalty to their risen and living Lord.


We have been looking at numerous ways of observing Holy Week. But we must remember that from the beginning Holy Week was viewed as a time of preparation for Easter—not as a series of events, each with its own self-contained meaning. Whatever we do liturgically during Holy Week should be preparation for meeting the living Christ on Easter morning.

The traditional Reformed custom of celebrating the Lord's Supper on Easter is exactly right. Easter is our Emmaus, and we want Jesus to make himself known to us again in the breaking of the bread so that we are empowered to be witnesses to his resurrection.

The Rev. Dr. Howard Hageman is past president and Distinguished Professor of Liturgies of New Brunsxoick Theological Seminary.

Every Lord's Supper is a celebration of Easter, of sharing new life with the living Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Howard Hageman is past president and Distinguished Professor of Liturgies of New Brunswick Theological Seminary.


Reformed Worship 2 © December 1986, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.