Symbols in Holy Week

As we journey with Jesus from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, Fleur Dorrell explores the key symbols and their meanings during Holy Week.

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Palm Sunday

Jesus rides into the East of Jerusalem on a donkey – cheered not by the Jerusalem crowd but by his followers and friends who have journeyed with him for the feast from Galilee. So this is not the story common to popular preaching of the fickle crowd who welcome him one day and turn against him within a week. It is his own followers who celebrate his entrance.

The Palms symbolise victory, peace and eternity – this symbol comes from the Ancient Greeks who used them in victorious battles and competitions where the winners were given palms as trophies and for leaders entering a new place as a sign of their power. They were also used on coins so by Christiansing a pagan image, they now symbolised Jesus’ ultimate victory and triumph as the Christ. The ashes used to mark our foreheads on Ash Wednesday come from the burning of palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations.

However, Jesus’ was not the only entrance procession that weekend. There was a procession that had entered Jerusalem on that day for the last 30 years. It was 30 years since the Romans had extended their Syrian province down to Jerusalem and lower Judaea. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, accompanied by imperial cavalry and foot soldiers, marched into West Jerusalem to reinforce the Jerusalem Garrison in a fortress which looked down on the Temple. Why? Because the great national feast of Passover could easily lead to riots against the power of imperial Rome. So Jesus’ processional entry is deliberate, it is a pre-planned peaceful political demonstration. Jesus rides in from the east on a donkey, a peasant’s animal symbolising poverty and the agrarian life, rather than with the pomp of the imperial power from the west. Jesus’ entrance symbolises what the prophet Zechariah described in chapter 9 – “Rejoice, rejoice, a humble king of peace riding on a Donkey.” Jesus is not trying to fulfil prophecy but is making use of prophetic symbolism, the prophetic imagination.

Monday is the Anti-Temple act

Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers. This is not a protest about mixing business and religion. Overturning their table was a protest against the role of the temple in supporting the Roman systematic oppression of God’s people. Jesus quotes from Isaiah “God’s House is meant to be a house of prayer but…” (and then adds  Jeremiah 7:11) “but you,” the people in charge, “have made it a den of robbers”. It’s not about the money changers but the temple under its authority as exploitative of the poor, the majority of the people. It’s a prophetic provocative act, symbolic of the material world being reversed in favour of the oppressed.

Tuesday is the Day of Debate

Here, we listen to representatives of the authorities in the temple court area – a very public area – trying to trip up Jesus, who emerges as a brilliant debater. So they try to trap him on the question of taxes. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If he says yes then he’ll discredit himself with the crowd. If he says no, then the Romans can arrest him for treason, so Jesus asks them: “Do you have the coin of tribute?” They produce the silver denarius with the emperor’s image, as a God. As believers, they should not have “idols”. The crowd would have laughed at Jesus’ cleverness. Then he rubs it in by asking, “Whose image is this?” and then says, “Well then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Wednesday is the Day of Anointing

An unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ feet while he eats at the house of Simon, the Leper. The disciples rage at the waste of 300 denarii worth of pure nard. The most expensive perfume in the ancient world and the equivalent of nearly a year’s wages for a working man. Jesus tells them she has done a beautiful act preparing his body for burial. Nard symbolises embalming here. Jesus prophesises that wherever the Gospel is proclaimed throughout the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. She anoints him now because she is not sure there’s going to be anything left to anoint afterwards. And Judas slips away to the authorities to let them know where they can find him without the crowd. He is paid 30 pieces of silver to hand Jesus over with the sign of a friend’s kiss.

Thursday is the Last Supper

Among Jesus’ friends, and using the language of the Passover meal, he interprets this meal in terms of the separating of his body and blood, this is the language of violent death. We tend to describe this meal as the original Christian love feast putting the emphasis on service and the role of leaders who wash feet, usually the task of the woman of the house or the resident slave. But Jesus’ language of body and blood in memory of him has clear connotations of a violent death. To turn it merely into the commandment to love one another and ritually share his life is a weaker symbol which denies the reality of his bodily sacrifice.

Good Friday is the Day of Death

No Eucharist is celebrated on Good Friday – the only day in the year that it is not which is highlighted by everything being covered up in church as a mark of respect and of grief. Timing is everything: the hour that Peter betrayed Jesus as symbolised by the cockerel; the hour the soldiers spent flogging Jesus while he wore the symbolic crown of thorns as a mock king; the time it took Jesus to carry his cross to Calvary; the time the Romans spent hoisting Jesus between two criminals; and the time of the eclipse as he breathed his last. In this extraordinary moment, two further things occur: the Temple Curtain tears in two enabling direct access to God to become possible, and Jesus gives us another symbol of his love. He forgives a thief from the cross while in the very act of dying – no one is ever beyond forgiveness or inclusion.

Holy Saturday is the Day of Waiting.

We quietly remember Christ’s body lying in the tomb and guarded by angels. In this liminal space, time shifts between his dying and rising. We wait and we pray. The early Church believed Jesus went among the dead to proclaim to all of humanity the possibility of salvation. Hence the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed “he descended into Hell.” Between the old and the new life where everything hangs in the balance and in silence, we wait for Jesus to rise from the tomb. On this day the Church’s readings from the Scriptures focus on the prophecies in the Old and New Testaments waiting to be fulfilled.

Easter Vigil

All fires and lamps were put out on Holy Thursday evening hence the need for a new fire on Holy Saturday and a Lumen Christi Procession. The lighting of the Easter light became the opening rite. This evening light brought joy and security in a world without electricity. But there are also echoes of the light by night and smoke by day which lead the Hebrews to freedom in the Exodus crossing of the wilderness. This symbolic lighting already marked the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath.

Again, we hear the echo of John’s Jesus: “I am the light of the world; the one who follows me will not walk in darkness.”(John 8:12). The candle is enthroned in the largest candlestick next to the ambo to be lit throughout the 50 days of Easter to Pentecost. (It is also lit for all funerals, baptisms, confirmations and weddings throughout the year- so that all Christian life is seen within its light and illumination, within the shared light of the risen Christ.)

The ancient hymn, the Exultet, sung by the Deacon, weaves all our themes and symbols together.

This is our Passover feast, when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain;
whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.

This is the night when first you saved our fathers; you freed the people of Israel from their slavery and led them dry-shod through the sea.
This is the night when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin!

This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.

This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave. What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer?

Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.

O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!
Most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!

Of this night scripture says: “The night will be as clear as day: it will become my light, my joy.”

The power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy; it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride.

Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth and man is reconciled with God!
Therefore, heavenly Father, in the joy of this night, receive our evening sacrifice of praise,
your Church’s solemn offering.

Accept this Easter candle, a flame divided but undimmed, a pillar of fire that glows to the honour of God.

Let it mingle with the lights of heaven and continue bravely burning to dispel the darkness of this night!

May the morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning: Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all mankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. 
(Source: The 1975 Sacramentary.)

Easter Sunday – Resurrection Glory

Now we sing and say Alleluia for the first time since the start of Lent. The real power here on Easter Sunday is Christ’s gift of self, the power of radical, transformative love. So that although Jesus had died on the cross, and was outstretched, outcast, outlived – he was not outdone.

This is a moment of self-revelation on Christ’s part. To realise the unrealisable, to bring this miracle within the immediate grasp and understanding of everyone, is the genius of both the Gospel writers and all artists who portray it everywhere.

There is a difference in believing in the passion of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and participating in his passion, participating in his death and resurrection. Our liturgies can help us to do this better through their powerful symbols and rituals.

So if the Law became the Word, the old became the new, the model became the reality, then we can be made new this Lent and Easter too. Over the years our symbols and sacraments draw us ever deeper into the mysteries of faith which they express, and they enable new encounters with the risen Christ.  They transform us every time we participate in them, and they will do this for as long as we live and believe in God.

“We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.” St. Pope John Paul II.