Liturgy by TLW



Ideas for Holy Week

by The Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Holy Week is the most solemn time in the Church's calendar. It brings about the conclusion of the penitential season of Lent. And it begins the mysteries of the ancient Triduum, the Three Sacred Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday concluding in the first celebrations of Easter.

AT ANY TIME during Holy Week, consider using the Litany on the Stations of the Cross that I wrote for Holy Cross Day.  It serves well to focus the events of this week and to connect the parishioner with the journey of Christ.


PALM/PASSION SUNDAY.  The week begins with the Liturgy of Palms and the reading of the Passion -- both of which set the tone for the week.

Involving the congregation in the Palm Sunday Procession which begins this liturgy is important. It need not be a long walk. (At one church I served, we walk from the Parsonage porch to the church next door, having the hymn printed in the bulletin for singing.)

In addition to relating to the events in Jesus' life, the Procession emphasizes two things: 1. The drama that accompanies the Passion and all of this week. 2. That Holy Week (and our salvation) is something we participate in.

Before the Reading of the Passion, I suggest singing two stanzas of Hymn #109 "Go to Dark Gethsemane" in place of the Lenten Verse. Stanza 3 can be sung after the reading. There is no announcement of the gospel or acclamations by the congregation on this day. Allow people to sit for the hymn and reading until Luke 23:44.

The lectionary allows for long and short options for the Passion reading. Raymond Brown calls all the short forms "an abomination" in his little book, A Crucified Christ in Holy Week (f.4, p.19). I would encourage the longer reading because it is the centerpiece of our faith and only comes around once a year. The Passion may be read again in John's version on Good Friday, but we all know that attendance will be greater on Sunday than on Friday.

For my part, I consider the Word for the day to be in the Passion. It is not so much a time for preaching as for reflecting. I follow the long reading with only 3-5 minutes of reflection that help people to enter Holy Week. I ask questions, but do not answer them. The week will answer them.

The liturgy best ends without a closing hymn and with a quiet postlude, thus emphasizing the entry into the quiet contemplation of this holy week.


MONDAY-WEDNESDAY IN HOLY WEEK.  Lutherans have not tended to have much tradition associated with the first three days of Holy Week. Several parishes in our Lafayette Conference have explored some options.

First, these days have been set aside for Private Confession and Pastoral Conversation in at least four of our parishes. Specific hours are published when the pastor is available. Some have also published that portion of the Small Catechism in which Martin Luther talks about private confession.

Those pastors who have tried this have experienced both time spent with penitents as well as private reading/meditating time with no penitents. None of us feels that we will ever be swamped. Still, it has proved to be enriching for the Holy Week observance of those involved. There's much to be said in Luther and the Confessions about private confession. Check it out.

Secondly, I encourage the use of the Stations of the Cross during Lent and Holy Week. There are a number of scriptural versions of this ancient devotion available, although I have chosen to write my own for use in parishes I serve (see link above).

The tradition attempts to make us pilgrims walking in Jerusalem in Jesus' steps to the cross and grave. I have found many parishioners who have been moved by their "journey to Jerusalem" during Holy Week.

The stations themselves can be as simple as small crosses and Roman numerals cut out of black construction paper and placed on the walls of the nave.


MAUNDY THURSDAY.  While the Liturgy for the day focuses on the Last Supper of Jesus and the love he expressed there, there is a small "suggestion" in the rubrics of the liturgy that is quite powerful and too often passed over. That is the suggestion that Individual Absolution with Laying of Hands accompany the confession of the evening.

This suggestion is the parallel to individual imposition of ashes that occurs on Ash Wednesday. On that occasion, the whole season of Lent is initiated with a major act of confession which includes each person coming forward to receive the sign of ashes and repentance. However, no absolution completes the confession on that night.

What occurs at the beginning of the Maundy Thursday liturgy COMPLETES what was begun on Ash Wednesday. The final confession of Lent is made, and absolution is finally given. Just as each person came forward for ashes on Ash Wednesday, each person completes their act of confession and repentance by coming forward for individual absolution on Maundy Thursday. These are parallel rites. It is at this point that Lent ends, and the steps culminating in Easter begin.

After Corporate Confession and Absolution are made, I suggest adding the following invitation to make these connections apparent:


P. On Ash Wednesday, you began this season of repentance with confession, and you came forward to receive the ashes of repentance. Come forward now and receive your absolution, the forgiveness which comes from Christ our Lord.

Those who desire come to the altar to receive individual absolution, either kneeling or standing. The minister, laying both hands on each person's head, addresses each in turn:

P. In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.

Each person responds: Amen


FOOTWASHING.  Following the Service of the Word, the rubrics for the day suggest footwashing.  Having done this myself, I do indeed find it a humble service of the Lord.  I have known some Lutherans to follow the Brethren tradition of everyone in the assembly participating in the footwashing ceremony, both in terms of having their own feet washed and washing the feet of another person.  This certainly maximizes the experience of Jesus for each individual person attending.

I have tended to select a representative group, as large as 12 for each of the disciples or as small as three or four if your chancel is small (yes, I consider the space available and the ability for all to see what is happening).  

Make sure you prompt any women participating not to panty hose, so that stockings or calf length hose can be easily slipped off at the beginning of the ceremony.

Necessary items, of course, are a large basin of water (make sure you warm it, your people will appreciate it), as well as a large towel.  I have tended to tuck the towel into my cincture and wear it as an apron, thus leaving my hands free to manage the large basin of water.

The ELW and LBW rites do not call for any words to be spoken during the footwashing, although it has certainly seemed to me that something should be said, both to each person whose foot is/feet are washed (your option) as well as to the congregation at the conclusion of the ceremony.  Here is a suggested form for this section of the liturgy:



Hymn  "Love Consecrates the Humblest Act"

During the hymn, a representative group of the congregation comes forward and sits in chairs provided near the altar.



The humble act of footwashing takes place in solemn silence by the Presiding Minister. The minister says to each person whose feet are washed:


P: Where charity and love are found, there is God.

R: Amen

When all the footwashing is completed, the Presiding Minister addresses the congregation:


P: Jesus says, "If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, then you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you."

C: Where charity and love are found, there is God.


Hymn  "Where Charity and Love Prevail"

During the hymn, the representatives return to their pews and the ministers prepare for the prayers.

Communion and the stripping of the chancel complete this powerful service.  Make sure you have a small group (four is generally enough, often from the Altar Guild and/or ushers) ready to receive items from the ministers in the chancel.  Also prepare a large table to receive these items out of the sight of the assembly, if counter space is not already available in a nearby sacristy.  Tell the acolyte to put out the candles immediately as Psalm 22 is done.  Allow the candles to cool (if beeswax) before removing them.  Remove everything that is movable, including the cross.  No decorative or shiny objects or banners should remain.  DON'T FORGET to put out the Sanctuary Lamp (sometimes called the Eternal Candle -- it's not, as you see, for it should be put out on Maundy Thursday and not relit and returned until the Easter Vigil).  Remove numbers, etc. from any hymn boards that are in the chancel as well.  Both the acolyte and assisting minister (deacon) can be enlisted to help hand objects to those waiting to receive items.  In other words, keep the ministers of the service in the chancel to fold up, move, etc., while others do the walking and carrying of items out of the church.  When all items have been removed, the ministers may return to their seats and rejoin the congregation in finishing Psalm 22.  Afterwards, they may simply and quietly leave the chancel.

I do suggest that the bulletin close with a note that there is no benediction this evening as this service continues with the Good Friday liturgy on the next night.


GOOD FRIDAY.  The liturgy for this day follows a traditional pattern and form that has much merit:  the reading of St. John's Passion, extensive prayers for the life of the world and the Church, and meditation upon the visual image of the cross or crucifix itself.  Evangelical Lutheran Worship restores to the Lutheran church this ancient liturgy, complete with the Solemn Reproaches arranged in versicle and response form.  The version that I have included on this website includes a some of the liturgy that was also provided for the Lutheran Book of Worship.

BE SURE to see the Introductions for each of the liturgies of Holy Week as they are posted in the individual services at this website.