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  • Traditions of Our Ancestors: Holy Week

    The long wintery days of Lent are drawing to a close and Holy Week is fast-approaching. Holy Week memorializes the last week of Jesus Christ's life and his crucifixion. It culminates in Easter, the celebration of his resurrection. Christians of many different denominations feel more connected with Christ re-living events from his life during this week.

    The practice of honoring Holy Week is as old as Christianity itself. Holy Week observances began in Jerusalem in the first centuries A.D., when Christian pilgrims traveled there at Passover time to re-enact the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The earliest written account of these practices is from Egeria, a Spanish woman who made pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the fourth century. By this time, Holy Week traditions had already grown quite elaborate, including Good Friday processions along the Via Dolorosa, the road where tradition says that Jesus carried his cross through the city. Via Dolorosa means "way of pain" in Latin, and early Christians developed the practice of stopping their processions at each station of the cross, a tradition that continues today in the Holy Land and elsewhere.

    The customs of Holy Week spread from Jerusalem first to Spain, where Holy Week celebrations today are still among the most renowned in the world. By the seventh century, Holy Week celebrations were widespread in Gaul and the British Isles as well.

    Eastern Christians and western Christians alike consider Holy Week to be the week before Easter; however, the celebrations don't occur at the same time because eastern Christians use the Julian calendar to calculate Easter.

    Holy Week is preceded by Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts about forty days. Historically, during Lent Christians abstained from eating meat on Fridays in honor of the Savior's suffering on Good Friday. Many Christians today use Lent as a time to give up bad habits and grow closer to God. In either case, Lent is a time of reflection and repentance.

    Holy Week commences with Palm Sunday, which memorializes Christ's triumphal entrance into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, as was prophesied by Old Testament prophets. On this day Christians worldwide carry out Palm Sunday processions bearing palm branches. Holy Week also includes Maundy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper. The term "Maundy" is derived from the Latin word mandatum, which means "to entrust" or "to order." This refers to the commandment that Jesus issued to his disciples at the Last Supper: that they should love one another and their fellow men. The Last Supper is also remembered by Christians of all faiths by participation in the Eucharist, sacrament, or communion.

    Holy Week customs also include the observance of Good Friday, which commemorates Christ's crucifixion. On Good Friday, Christians mourn the death of Jesus and venerate him by performing processions bearing crosses. In many places, lifelike wooden sculptures of Christ, Mary, and the apostles are made and carried through the streets in processions.

    Easter, the celebration of Christ's resurrection, is the culmination of Holy Week. Many Christians greet Easter with candlelight vigil the night before; others hold sunrise services before dawn on Easter morning to remember Mary Magdalene's early-morning visit to the tomb. Either way, Easter a joyful and sacred celebration to Christians everywhere.

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