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Preaching in Holy Week

By Duncan Macpherson

Features Editor, Roman Catholic Deacon, and retired Principal Lecturer in Theology at Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham

Holy Week represent a dramatic climax to the life of Christ. Different Christian traditions celebrate Holy Week with different liturgies and ceremonies, but all follow the pattern provided by the Gospel narratives.



Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week and commemorates the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. In Roman Catholic and in many Anglican churches a reading of the entry into Jerusalem is immediately followed by a procession with palms and olive branches and a Eucharist that includes a reading of the Passion narrative from one of the three synoptic Gospels (In Year B both readings are from Mark). In some church traditions a Word Service will focus on either or both of these readings without any procession of distribution of palms.


Were you there?

Whether preaching on the procession of Palms or on the reading of the Passion, a possible strategy for the preacher is to invite the worshipper to identify with characters in the story. Reflecting on the Passion narratives on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday the preacher can contrast the demonstrators who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday with those calling for his crucifixion on Good Friday. The question in the hymn ‘Why, what hath my Lord done? What makes this rage and spite…?’ can be brought home by asking which side we are on? Having welcomed him in church, holding palms and singing hosannas, might there be ways in which we will later cry, ‘Crucify him?’

The preacher might reflect that not everybody in the crowd on Palm Sunday might have been around on Good Friday. Maybe some stayed at home and said nothing. We can ask if we are like them, failing to witness to our faith or failing to speak up for individuals or groups who are being badmouthed thus, like Peter, denying him.

This can lead to an invitation to pray that we never call for Christ to be crucified and may always have the courage to acknowledge ourselves as his disciples: ‘Jesus I am your side. I am on the side of your values, your people, and your future for me and for your world.’


Do this as a memorial of me.

Holy Thursday, otherwise known as Maundy Thursday, commemorates the Last Supper and is widely marked by an evening celebration of the Eucharist and often by a re-enactment of the washing of feet. The first reading from Exodus 12:1-8 records the institution of the Passover followed by the account of the institution of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians (11:23-26), and of John’s account of the washing of feet (13:1-15). In Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches, the service concludes with a procession recalling the journey from the Cenacle to the Garden of Gethsemane and a silent vigil before the Blessed Sacrament that will be distributed at the Liturgy on Good Friday.

In whatever way the service is celebrated, the preacher has the opportunity to present the accounts of Holy Thursday and the events that follow it as a powerful drama that can fire the imagination. Although we may identify with Peter in his denial of Christ, the most powerful part of the evening’s drama is not about our weakness but about the love revealed in Jesus in washing his disciples’ feet. The God who emptied himself and took the form of a servant shows how low he can stoop to invite our love and to bring real happiness into our lives. In doing so it does not only show us how much God loves us it also shows how much we should love one another in the new community of love celebrated in the washing of feet and in the Eucharist. These events can be seen as a challenge to change our world.


It is finished

Good Friday provides a challenge for the preacher. Traditionally a fast day when the church is stripped of ornament and flowers many people may find Good Friday depressing. Certainly, the message that Jesus was crucified is a solemn one. Sometimes celebrated with a three-hour service of hymns and readings (often shortened to one hour), or with the Stations of the Cross, these services leave the choice of scriptural readings open. By tradition, the Eucharist is not celebrated on this day and many Anglican Churches celebrate a service of Litany and Ante-communion, while others follow the revised Roman Catholic Good Friday Liturgy which includes the veneration of the Cross and a sharing of Communion, consecrated earlier at the Holy Thursday Eucharist. However, the common factors to both liturgies are the readings from the Letter to the Hebrews that identify Christ as the ‘one who ‘learnt to obey through suffering’ and the Passion narrative from John then takes us on a journey of the imagination from Gethsemane to the closing of the tomb.

One possible line of preaching might be to emphasise that in John’s Gospel the lifting up of Christ on the Cross and his being raised up at the resurrection are one action; ‘when I am lifted up I will draw all people to me.’ Because, in Christ, God became what we are—in all our brokenness, in our tragedies as well as our joys—he assumed our human nature in all its fullness so as to make us fully human and become what he is.

Looking at Christ lifted up in suffering on the cross, we are drawn by him - to be one with him and with each other, strengthening us to work to transform pain and despair into the joy that we will celebrate at Easter.


Risen Indeed!

In the early centuries of the Church, Holy Saturday was marked by a vigil of Scripture readings and prayers leading to adult baptisms and an Easter Eucharist at which the newly baptised received Holy Communion for the first time. The vigil readings traced the History of Salvation from Creation, the Exodus, and the ongoing story of the people of Israel before the coming of Christ. Ceremonies developed to accompany this service, using a Paschal candle brought into a darkened church representing the truth that the Old Testament is read in the light of the Risen Christ. The Gospel reading for this service in 2024 is Mark 16:1-7, which may also be used on Easter morning.

Where all or part of this vigil service has taken place the symbolism of light offers rich opportunities for the preacher. An inductive approach might begin by exploring the experience of the darkened church before the kindling of the Easter fire as representing the dark side of human experience. The Good News of Easter is that the light of the risen Christ has altered that. In the light of the paschal candle the congregation have listened to the story of creation and the story of God’s people. And now they can see: ‘In the light of Christ, everything that is puzzling and amazing in our own lives looks different now too —we all have a new life!’

An alternative focus on Mark’s account of the empty tomb invites comparison with the way in which serials often end with a cliff-hanger. What will happen next? The reaction of the women who came to the tomb is recorded immediately after the last verse of tonight’s reading ‘The women came out and ran away from the tomb because they were frightened out of their wits; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid’ (Mark 16:8). After the drama of Holy Week, the betrayal, the prayer in the garden, the arrest, trial and the execution, we were looking for a tying of loose ends rather than for a cliff-hanger. Maybe that is why the lectionary doesn’t include this verse, but even without it we are still left with an empty tomb and no Jesus.

Our homily might stress that the message of Easter is a message of unfinished business. We have heard that the tomb was empty but the meaning of it all has not sunk in. It takes time for the earth-shattering wonder of it all to sink in. And when it does, it makes all the difference. Paul says that it is like the difference between being alive and being dead: ‘Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ, you must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.’

So, the preacher can ask whether we are like the women who were still afraid and uncertain. Still frightened and confused, we are told to tell the good news to others. ‘Come and see the place where he lay, then go quickly and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you into Galilee: it is there you will see him, just as I told you.’

Brought to the climax of the story, the drama continues - -with a message to proclaim.

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