What does it mean to call a week holy?

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

It hardly seems possible that the 40 days of Lent have brought us to the final seven days of solemnity observed in a variety of ways as Holy Week.

For some, this may not be marked with a drastic change of schedule. Schools are yet in session. Supermarkets and other venues still have some chocolate bunnies or marshmallow Peeps for sale. Easter bonnets no longer hold popularity but department stores continue to stock spring frocks and footwear to mark this time of year.

So why is this noted as a time set aside to concentrate on holiness? Why are these days considered to be different? How is this a “week out of time,” so to speak?

One way to respond might be to note the history underlying the reality. Information sessions could be held to present the faith and fear of the God-man’s final week on Earth as a physical presence. Dramatic presentations of the cross-bearing walk to Calvary with its climatic crucifixion are possible ways to evoke the power bursting within the memory of this unique seven-day experience.

Calls for special sacrifices and prayer times bring us to a certain degree of attentiveness. All these, and so many more, are ways to stamp the time with reverent solemnity.

Yet I wonder. I wonder if the doings, the actions, the “works” of holiness are enough to cause us to ponder the power of holiness. Are they enough to empower us to live our lives as wholly gracious people? Are they really bringing us into the bower of life as well as the brink of death?

Do they evoke a lifelong walk into cross-eyed vision? Will these seven days be both a reflection of and response to the lifestyle of a journey from ashes to Easter?

I ask myself those questions as my fingers fly over the computer keyboard. I ask as my mind wanders into the strange darkness of a week that begins with such majesty. Palms waved cheerfully as markers of wonder and glory. The presence of a Messiah brought crowds of watchers to view the spectacle. All seemed so grand and positive and welcoming. I could almost hear the alleluias screaming and streaming as people felt the joy of being saved from their poverty. 

No one saw what was coming. None would ever have thought those palm branches would be burned into ashes, ashes that one day would mark foreheads with the reminder that repentance was required before Good News could be spread. Palm waving precedes passion. To be holy is to be wholly alive. In turn, that vitality evokes virtuous living. It is remembered in a week called holy.

Some churches hold Tenebrae services during this week to help worshippers experience more deeply the power and imagine what Jesus was feeling before he died. 

Research offers this explanation: “A typical Tenebrae service takes place in a dark room lit by a number of candles. A series of Scripture readings chronicles Jesus’ final week, ending with his burial. At the end of each reading a candle is snuffed out, until the final candle, the Christ candle is carried out, leaving the room in darkness…remember that this is not the end of the story!

As believers, we know that Jesus is risen. Light a candle in the hope of the resurrection and leave in quiet meditation.” All is done in profound silence. Noisy dailiness is swallowed in soulful solemnity.

In other places of worship, special liturgies mark the distinct difference of this time. Each one brings us more deeply into remembering who we are and who God is. Each one recalls the past in order to invite our being remembered, and recalled into passionate living. Each one asks us to consider the painful joy of being God’s people.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty phrased it this way: This “is our week to ask about our love, about how much we love Jesus. It is our week to ask ourselves how much we really follow him. There are thousands of little escapes that we can indulge in, that will make it appear that we are following him when we are not. It is our week to find out how little we love, or how much. It is our week to cry out to the Lord to learn to love him more.” 

The journey is an interior one. Surely exterior deeds and sacrifices help us to walk the way, but the interior pilgrimage is one we take alone. We walk with others and they with us, but our inner spirit is a solitary one. It is the path of holiness marked for each of us individually. Doherty called it “a journey inward to meet the Triune God who dwells within us. But also to follow Christ from the moment of the changing of the bread and wine, to the stone of agony in the Garden, to the departure of all his disciples.” 

Each moment shakes us to the core. At least, it should be soul-shaking. Each experience invites us to cross-eyed living, to being food for each other, to giving more than receiving and receiving all that is given. This is a week when we pass over all the events and encounters of our personal histories and ask the time-honored question posed in the liturgy of the Seder meal. We ask it with different words but the same quest. We ask, “Why is this week different from all other weeks?” Our answer comes in the telling of the story that underlies our stories. It comes in the recounting of our genesis as people. It reminds us of our humanity and the ways in which we have destroyed it with inhumanity. It recalls our exodus from graciousness as well as the promise of return to God, a promise God both honors and enacts.

So it is that seven solemn days describe what it means to be holy. During this time, a time like no other, we learn again the potency of love. We promise again to do what is best for the other and learn how to love. Lest we fall into the darkness and miss the holiness, Doherty tells us “already the light of the Resurrection shines blindingly on this week. We know the darkness is temporary and exists only…to show us the face of Love.”

This, then, is the meaning of Holy Week.


Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” (a trilogy of scriptural meditations), lead volunteer chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at hope5@atmc.net.