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Why Is Holy Week So Significant for Christians?

Yearly patterns of worship can help to reinforce daily habits and bring them alive for the believer who tries to picture what it was like to live with Jesus, to lose him, and then to see him alive again.

Why Is Holy Week So Significant for Christians?

Easter Sunday is the most important day in the Christian calendar, celebrating the resurrection of Christ and his victory over the grave. But the week leading up to Easter is also important to many Christians.

Some denominations encourage their congregations to connect daily worship with the events, which took place on each corresponding day in the week leading up to the crucifixion.

Early History of Holy Week

The formal observation of Holy Week did not begin until after the fourth century when the Nicene Creed was established. Until that time, Saturday and Easter Sunday alone were kept holy.

Eventually, church leaders wanted to tighten believers’ focus onto a close examination of the details in Jesus’ last week from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem to his resurrection.

The Sunday before Easter is “Palm Sunday” because the people threw palm leaves onto the ground over which Jesus rode his donkey into Jerusalem. On Monday, Jesus cleansed the temple, forcing out money changers and vendors.

He also cursed a fig tree for not giving him fruit, and on Tuesday found it withered. Judas betrayed Christ on Wednesday. Maundy Thursday was the day of the Last Supper, followed by Christ’s prayer in the Garden, his arrest, his crucifixion, and the resurrection on Sunday.

Many Christian churches today, Protestant and Catholic, highlight the events leading to the cross, but this has not always been the case. What brought about change?

Holy Week Lost and Found

Many of the structural elements of what we now consider “church” came into being centuries after Christ’s death, which in turn made it easier to establish annual patterns of worship including the formal institution of Holy Week.

One commentator says that Holy Week was already honored before the Nicene Creed, but this was not a formally documented pattern.

The significant addition to Easter worship introduced at Nicaea was Lent, a 40-day period of preparation for Easter. “The council of Nicaea in 325 and the Second Vatican Council may be seen as the two poles in the history of Lent: Nicaea acknowledged its existence while Vatican II confirmed its importance.”

Between these two poles, numerous denominations and ideas about the structure of the church worship sprang up, and the Christian calendar stopped emphasizing the importance of either Lent or of Holy Week.

The intention behind reinstituting Holy Week was to encourage both joy and serious reflection, transformation, even purification of the heart in anticipation of Easter Sunday.

For a long time, religious leaders in America focused on the two special days — Easter and Christmas — until more recently when they came to believe their congregations had lost the more regular “rhythms” of faithful observance.

In the mid-20th century, “there arose a growing movement to restore the ancient Christian Year.” This led to the restoration of Lent and newly formalized Holy Week teaching and prayers.

The Second Vatican Council instituted official spiritual revival within the Catholic church, but the revival also spread to Protestant denominations.

Avoiding the Religion of Holy Week

Not all churches emphasize Holy Week or Lent because of the fear of turning both of them into a matter of religious duty.

A believing Christian, one whose faith rests on the risen Christ and not on the hope that good behavior will save him, must think carefully about why he would decide to participate.

For example, one might go to church every night for a week to hear Scripture relating to the withered fig tree, Maundy Thursday, etc. There is always the danger of wishing to appear pious or trying to earn salvation, thereby falling into a religious trap.

One might go because of pressure from the pastor, not out of a deep desire to imagine what Christ felt like each day he walked a step closer to Calvary.

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). The Christian “religion” often represents religious guilt and duty without love or true belief in the resurrected Jesus.

Fasting, attending church every day for a week, and knowing all the scriptures about the Last Supper, etc. are not signs of a changed heart. These actions do not glorify God. Their worth is in how such observations help one to understand the depth of Christ’s love for a fallen world.

Why Is Holy Week Important to the Believer?

The Bible is not primarily about God’s people: it is about Jesus. Palm Sunday reminds us of Old Testament prophecies, and how Jesus fulfilled them. “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

One might ponder the meaning of “temple” as portrayed in the temple cleansing and the cursing of the fig tree. Jesus “was telegraphing the upcoming transition from the temple as a place to the temple as a people,” wrote Leonard Sweet.

He “confronted a culture of consumption, reflected in that fruitless and unreproductive fig tree, with a culture of conception.” The temple cleansing and the withered fig tree reflect a cultural emphasis on materialism and production.

The Pharisees believed they were holy because they kept the law and they prayed frequently. They gave long religious speeches and performed many religious duties.

They were, however, fruitless; they were not leading people’s hearts towards their Father in Heaven and their own hearts were hard. A religious building did not make them or their transactions holy, and religion which does not lead to God is fruitless; worthless.

“He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me” (John 13:18). Remarkably, Jesus foresaw Judas’ betrayal yet still called him “disciple.” We as Christians are invited to take comfort in the depth of Christ’s willingness to forgive and are reminded by these words that God’s plan was always in place.

“His heel” takes us all the way back to Genesis 3:15, where God promised enmity between Satan and human beings: “he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.” Yet, Judas could have repented and asked to be forgiven.

He certainly regretted his actions, but this was not enough to save him. Billy Graham wrote that “being sorry for our sins isn’t the same as repenting of them and asking God to forgive us — and Judas never took that step.”

As Graham pointed out, Peter represents the alternative. He asked Jesus to forgive him, and Christ not only did so; he gave him a tremendous responsibility: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).

The Last Supper is remembered on Maundy Thursday, which is also the day Christians remember that Christ washed the disciples’ feet. Jesus taught that a disciples’ life was one of service to the Lord.

He himself came to obey God and save the world by giving his life. Christ taught the importance of regular repentance, but that one need not go through baptism every time he sins, stressing that the saving work would be done by him.

They ate their final meal together, where Jesus made a new covenant. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Jesus painted a picture, which the disciples would only understand in retrospect.

Remembering these events provided the disciples with comfort and confidence in their Savior. Those lessons from Holy Week would inform their teaching as they risked their lives to live out and share the gospel.

Our Life-Long Confidence

The disciples were initially afraid after the crucifixion on Friday and still confused when their Messiah appeared in the flesh, resurrected from the dead.

But after Jesus returned to Heaven, this final week became a holy reminder, which helped to strengthen their faith and pull together all they had learned about God in the previous three years.

We do not rely on these truths for a week but every day; yet, no other week in his life is as closely examined in Scripture as this one. This tells us how important Holy Week is.

Yearly patterns of worship can help to reinforce daily habits and bring them alive for the believer who tries to picture what it was like to live with Jesus, to lose him, and then to see him alive again after what appeared to be a crushing defeat.

Holy Week is the lead-up to the most important reversal in human history when Christ was raised from the dead.

Get your FREE 8-Day Prayer and Scripture Guide - Praying Through the Holy Week HERE. Print your own copy for a beautiful daily devotional leading up to Easter.

For further reading:

What Is Holy Week? The Biblical Events of Passion Week

Why Did the Crowd Shout ‘Hosanna in the Highest’ for Jesus?

What Is the Medical Account of the Crucifixion?

What Is More Important, the Death of Christ or His Resurrection?

What is Palm Sunday?

What is Spy Wednesday?

What is Maundy Thursday?

What is Good Friday?

What is Holy Saturday?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Javier_Art_Photography


Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.