Holy Week: When Jesus died.

Our yearly remembrance of Jesus’s death.

Sunday is Palm Sunday, the start of what we Christians call Holy Week, or Great Week, Passion Week, and various other titles. It remembers the week Jesus died.

It took place 9–17 Nisan 3793 in the Hebrew calendar; and in the Julian calendar that’d be 29 March to 4 April in the year 33.


The Holy Week schedule.

And the week had started so well….

Of course Jesus rose on Sunday the 5th, the day Christians now designate as Easter.

Now yes, there are some Christians who take issue with these dates. Mainly because they prefer the idea it took place some other year than 33; like the year 30, or 27. Mostly ’cause they got it into their heads Jesus was the age of 33 when he died:

  • Luke says he was about 30 when he began ministering. Lk 3.23
  • John refers to three Passovers during Jesus’s ministry. Jn 2.13, 6.4, 11.55 He died during the last one.
  • Thirty plus three equals 33.
  • So if he was born in 4BC, he must’ve died in the year 30. Alternately if he was born in 7BC, he must’ve died in the year 27.

Then they juggle the dates till they fit their timeline. Some of ’em even claim Jesus died on a Thursday, not a Friday, even though John totally says Friday—it was the day to prepare for both Passover Jn 19.14 and Sabbath, 19.31 ergo Friday.

You know what year Passover fell on Sabbath? The year 33.

Frankly the longer you listen to their explanations, the less logical they get. And for centuries Christians stated the year Jesus died was 33. Not Jesus’s age; they year. Because that year fits the chronology. The only reason Christians try to monkey with it, is because they’re trying to interpret one favorite verse or another way too literally. Plus there’s a certain amount of pride mixed up in bucking the trend.

Okay, that sorted out, I’ll mention customs vary round the world as to how Christians remember this week. But in general it’s a week of sober reflection. The death of Jesus is a serious bummer. We rejoice on Easter ’cause he conquered death, rose again, and lives forever. But we mourn during Holy Week ’cause he had to be brought low before he could be lifted high.

When does Easter take place?

Technically Easter is Christian Passover. English-speakers call it Easter, and many Germanic and English-influenced languages do too. But most languages’ name for Easter is based on the Hebrew Pesákh/“Passover.” Latin and Greek Pascha; Italian, Catalan, and Corsican Pasqua; Spanish Pascua; French Pâques; Dutch Pasen; Finnish Pääsiäinen; Portuguese Páscoa; Danish Påske; Swedish Påsk; Icelandic Páska; Russian, Kazakh, Kurdish, Uzbek, and Tajik Pasha; Filipino Pasko; Romanian Paşti; Basque Pazko; Turkish Paskalya; Irish Pas; Welsh Pasg; Swahili Pasaka; Xhosa iPasika.

Because your average English-speaker doesn’t know Easter in the Christian Passover, you’re gonna see claims around the internet that Easter was copped from pagan holidays about the vernal equinox. Was not. As every Christian knows, or should know, we swipe our holidays from the Jews.

We Christians just happen to do Passover way different than the ancient Hebrews and today’s Jews. Our focus is on the resurrection of Jesus, and less so on the salvation of Israel from Egypt. And the early Christians wanted to make that distinction pretty obvious. They didn’t want our Pascha to get mixed up with the Jews’ Pesach.

Yeah, some of it has to do with antisemitism. (Easter ham, a tradition the Spaniards implemented, definitely has to do with antisemitism.) But the Christians wanted to divorce Easter from the Jewish calendar and figure it with the Julian calendar, and make sure Easter always fell on Sunday.

So the rule is pretty simple: Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. All the other dates of Holy Week (and Shrovetide six weeks before) are derived from that.

Passover, on the other hand, always falls on the evening of 14 Nisan. Ex 12.6-11 So, some years Easter and Passover are gonna wind up in the same week, and some years they’re gonna be more than a month apart. Likewise the Jewish and Christian Pentecosts.

Palm Sunday.

Holy Week begins with the rather joyous-appearing “triumphal entry of Jesus.” Roman Christians tended to confuse it a bit with a Roman-style triumph, in which a victorious Roman general paraded all his conquered victims through Rome, showing ’em off before he ritually killed them before his gods. This wasn’t that. Jesus’s entry was more reminiscent of a Messiah, an ancient Hebrew king, entering Jerusalem for his coronation. Zc 9.9

Jesus rigged it that way on purpose:

Mark 11.1-11 KWL
1 When Jesus and his students came to Jerusalem (via Beit Fagí and Beit Anya, by Mt. Olivet),
he sent out two of his students 2 and told them, “Go into the village nearest you.
Immediately once you enter it, you’ll find a colt tied up, on which no one has ever sat. Untie and bring it.
3 When anyone tells you, ‘Why’re you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he’ll send it back here soon.’”
4 The students went off and found the colt: Out in the street, tied to a door. They untied it.
5 Some who were standing there asked them, “What’re you doing, untying the colt?”
6 The students told them what Jesus said, and the people permitted them.
7 They brought the colt to Jesus, and threw their coats on it, and Jesus sat on it.
8 Many people spread their coats on the road; others, palm branches cut from the fields.
9 Those who went ahead, and those who followed, were shouting, “Save us!”
“The blessed one who comes in the Lord’s name!”
10 “The blessed Kingdom Come of our father David!”
“Save us by the Highest God!”
11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and temple, looking round at everything.
Since it was already the evening hour, he went to Beit Anya with the Twelve.

John specifically states they waved palm branches. Jn 12.13 Hence so do we. But other parts of the world lack palms, and just use whatever branches they have available: Yew branches in colder climates, olive branches in Malta, pussy willow branches in Latvia. Sometimes they just strew flowers. And of course the kids in Sunday schools learn how to make fake palm branches out of newspaper.

Palm Sunday is mostly about about the branch-waving. But it’s also when we begin to talk about Jesus’s upcoming death.

Maundy Thursday.

For many Christians, Holy Week only focuses on the Triduum, Latin for “the three days”—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, the days Jesus suffered, died, and was in the tomb. Ends Easter Sunday.

More Christians tend to observe Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Fewer observe Maundy Thursday, or as it’s also called, Holy Thursday, Clean Thursday, or Green Thursday. It remembers Jesus’s last supper—his Passover seder, held the day before Passover proper. It turned out to be the last meal he ate before he died. The old English word maundy means to wash feet, and refers to when Jesus washed his students’ feet. Jn 13.2-17

Technically the last supper took place the same day Jesus died. Though westerners figure the 24-hour day goes from midnight to midnight, middle easterners reckoned it sunset to sunset. The last supper took place after sundown, and Jesus died and was entombed before the next sundown. But of course on the western calendar, these are two different days.

Two main customs are associated with Maundy Thursday: Foot-washing and visiting seven churches. Why seven? Likely it originated among the Catholics in Rome, Italy: You can easily find seven churches within walking distance. And thanks to all the different denominations of Christians in the United States, in many of our towns you can also easily find seven churches within walking distance. Some Christians visit 14, and at each church they meditate on a different station of the cross.

In formal churches, Easter is the day the church accepts new members. For them, Maundy Thursday is when the new members get anointed and prayed over—they, and anyone else who’s sick and needs anointing. Jm 5.14-15 And of course they wash feet. They also clear off the altars in preparation for Good Friday. And they stop ringing the church bells, which won’t ring again till Easter.

Good Friday.

Jesus defeated sin and death. But the way he defeated it—well, lots of people look at what and how he suffered, and struggle to call the day “good” anything. Sure doesn’t look good. So some Christians call it Black Friday, Holy Friday, Great Friday, Silent Friday, Mourning Friday, or even Easter Friday.

In my stations of the cross articles, I went through the events of Good Friday in greater detail. Christians observe it with memorial services, communion services, and prayer and meditation. In Jerusalem, locals and pilgrims walk down the literal road he traveled to his death, and wind up at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Popular Posts