While so much of the renewal of the liturgy happened in the days of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, the renewal of the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter happened prior to the Second Vatican Council. The rites were revised and restored from 1951 to 1955 under Pope Pius XII. In 1988, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship issued a letter reflecting on how the Holy Week rites have been celebrated since their revisions, and offering many insights that are helpful for planning the celebrations so that the liturgies of those days are celebrated well. Here are a few of the letter’s major concerns.
The letter points out that Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday. On this day, before the Mass with the largest attendance (even if it is on the preceding Saturday evening), there is a procession of all the people, led by the priest and ministers. The procession begins in a place distinct from the church, and all participants carry palm or other branches. Later in the week, the Easter Triduum, the sacred three days, begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, and ends on Easter Sunday evening. By a long tradition, Christians have fasted on Good Friday, and fasting is also highly recommended on Holy Saturday.
An unusual element in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is the washing of feet, representing the charity and service of Christ. The letter does not deal with current issues surrounding the washing of feet, but clearly the rite of washing feet is meant to recall, only in a very brief and simple way, what Jesus did at the Last Supper. The norms nowhere suggest that the simple and brief rite be made more complex and prolonged by inviting everyone present in the assembly to wash one another’s feet. It is now customary in most places for the priest to wash the feet of both men and women. In 1987 the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy acknowledged that this developing custom is “an understandable way” to express in the liturgy that the Lord’s command to charity and service is addressed to all disciples, not just to male disciples. Following the evening Mass the eucharist in the tabernacle is adored solemnly in a part of the church or in a chapel suitably decorated, but this solemn adoration does not continue past midnight, for then the day of the Lord’s passion begins. The Blessed Sacrament is never exposed in a monstrance or in any other visible way during this evening adoration. The liturgy of Good Friday includes many special general intercessions, which should not be shortened or replaced, but “should follow the wording and form handed down by ancient tradition.” During the beautiful and powerful ritual of the adoration of the cross, only one cross is to be used. Multiplying crosses for convenience has no place in this liturgy. As the letter explains, multiplying things serves only to water down the full symbolism of the rite. It is for this same reason that no liturgy would ever use two gospel books, or two tabernacles, or two pulpits.
The letter has unusually tough language about when the Easter Vigil liturgy should begin. Simply stated, it should begin after it gets dark outside, with no exceptions. The beginning of the Vigil is, after all, a night service, requiring darkness to make sense of the Easter fire and the illumination of the darkened church with flames from the Easter Candle. Darkness happens about an hour after sunset. The Easter Candle itself should be new each year, and should obviously be a real candle. In addition, recent revisions of the norms explain that the ritual for preparing and blessing the candle before it is lighted is no longer optional.