The Three Great Days: Remembering Christ's death and resurrection calls for more than worship on Easter (and all the 'little Easters')

How many extra services does your church plan during Holy Week? Traditionally, most Presbyterian and Reformed congregations have held a service on Good Friday. Some have also gathered for a sunrise service on Easter morning. But few have considered anything further.

In recent years, that pattern has begun to change. Worship planners have enthusiastically discovered the riches of a liturgical heritage that goes beyond traditional Holy Week offerings, and have added new services to their Holy Week schedules.

In the process of implementing such changes, many of these worship leaders have bumped up against some practical questions: If we add a Maundy Thursday service, shall we skip Good Friday this year? If we add an Easter Vigil service, what can we expect on Sunday evening besides exhausted worship leaders and an even smaller gathering than on an ordinary Sunday evening? Can we expect congregations to gather for worship five times in four days? How should we observe Holy Week?

About the Vocabulary

Many have found the name "Holy Week" itself problematic. After all, why should one week be more holy than another? But "Holy" simply means "to set apart." And certainly this week is set apart in a unique sense.

Admittedly, the name "Holy Week" is not the best. Neither are "Easter" or "Sunday," but those titles have also stuck. Ironically just as some Protestants are getting used to the term "Holy Week," Gabe Huck (see also page 47), a highly respected Catholic writer on worship, challenges that term, preferring instead the Latin word Triduum, which means "three days."

The three days from Thursday sunset until Easter sunset take in the events from the Last Supper until the resurrection. In the new edition of his very helpful book of reflections and resources entitled The Three Days (LTP, 1992), Huck writes:

Would we be better off using (as the title of this book does) "the Three Days" or "the Easter Three Days" to render this strange word Triduum in English? .... People will continue to speak of "Holy Week." But perhaps in calendars and bulletins we should avoid that term, focusing instead on the final days of Lent that pass quietly into the Triduum. "Holy Week" was a useful term and it did its job. Perhaps one day Triduum will be that clearly defined and universally recognized in the church.

Perhaps. But the name "Holy Week" will not easily be replaced, even though Triduum or "The Three Days" has much to commend it.

An Outline of Holy Week

For now, let's use the term "Holy Week" and take a quick look at the events that Scripture records for that period.

Holy Week begins on Palm (or Passion) Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday. On Palm Sunday, Christ rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to the shouts of the crowd. On Monday, Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple. On Tuesday, he dealt with the questions of the priests ("By whose authority . . .?") and taught the people in parables, warning them against the Pharisees and predicting the destruction of the temple. The Scriptures do not record anything for Wednesday.

Then come the Three Great Days, set aside since the fourth century as a unit marking the beginning and the heart of the church year. Thursday was the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. This was the day when Jesus washed his disciples' feet and "took bread .. ." saying, "Do this in remembrance of me." On Friday Christ was crucified. Saturday evening, counting as the Jews did from sundown to sundown, began the first day of the week, the day of resurrection. Holy Week concludes with the celebration of the resurrection.

Remembering the Three Days

For some, the whole concept of the liturgical year is still problematic. What these churches may not realize is that by scheduling Good Friday services, they have already recognized the validity of an annual cycle of remembering the great events of salvation history.

And with good reason. Scripture encourages us to keep our fasts and our feasts on a schedule—not only weekly, but also annually. The early church remembered the death and resurrection of Christ on an annual basis with the Three Great Days, from Thursday sunset to Sunday sunset. These early Christians did not separate Good Friday and Easter. Indeed, Scripture often links the words "death and resurrection" of Jesus Christ together in one phrase. Today in many parts of the world, Christians gather late on Saturday night and spend time reviewing the history of salvation until the light dawns and morning breaks on the Day of Resurrection.

Another problem some people struggle with is the potential confusion between remembering and reenacting an event. We do not reenact the Lord's Supper on Thursday night or any other time, and we do not crucify Christ anew on Good Friday. Nor should our services ever confuse what happened once and for all with how we "remember" Christ in the Lord's Supper or in any other part of our worship. And yet, we "do" the Lord's Supper. And in a real way, Christ's resurrection is repeated in the life of every believer; we proclaim in our baptisms that we have died to sin and are raised to new life in Christ.

Here I think the example of birthday celebrations may be of help. Of course we do not reenact the one-time event of birth. But that does not prevent us from setting aside one day a year to celebrate that event and that person. We bake a cake, give gifts, sing, and gather to enjoy each other's company.

We have no difficulty separating the celebration from the origin of the event. Celebrating birthdays is a way to remember a life, not a birth; a person, not an event; a relationship, not a date on a calendar. Birthdays are times to honor, to show love, to celebrate and to remember.

A more fundamental problem with observing Holy Week, or the Three Great Days, is one rooted in a culture that doesn't like to be reminded of the cost of the things we enjoy. Although we are often reminded that there is "no gain without pain," we don't like it that way. Our culture—and many Christians living in this culture—would just as soon have Easter without Good Friday. So our churches are full on Easter Sunday, the most joyous day of the year, and we work hard at maintaining that Easter joy on our "little Easters" as well.

We need to celebrate the victory that Christ has brought us over sin and death. But we also need to come to terms with sin and evil—with the pain in the way of the cross. We have not yet learned very well how to pray together during hard times, how to lament the evil and injustice that continue to wound Christ, his church, and his world. We have neglected our fast days. We have sometimes forgotten that Christ still prays for us and calls us not only to celebrate his resurrection but also to pray with him and to take up our cross and follow him.

Offering More Opportunities for Worship

Perhaps one way to restore some of the spiritual balance in our liturgical life is to offer more times for worship during Lent and Holy Week—to offer a way to prepare together for a Pascal celebration that "remembers" more fully the path of obedience that Christ walked and that we are all called to follow. I wouldn't go so far as some who have suggested that we not allow people into church on Easter Sunday unless they have also come on Good Friday, but perhaps even that tongue-in-cheek suggestion will get Christians to think about the way they prepare for Easter. Perhaps it will also help them think about the way they prepare to celebrate and live out in their own lives the victory of Christ.

The renewed interested in daily prayer services among Protestants (for example, the Presbyterian resource Daily Prayer, reviewed in RW13) is just one example of a new thirst for more frequent communal worship. In our increasingly fragmented and secular culture, we need to gather more often for worship and encouragement. We need to learn together what it means to walk with Christ. Holy Week is a time to remember communally our relationship to Christ, and the greatest salvation event of all: the death and resurrection of our Lord.


A good part of this issue is devoted to services for Holy Week, with resources for Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter morning, and Easter evening.

Our major offering is a Good Friday service on the Seven Last Words (p. 4)—a single service that could also be stretched into a Lenten series. We are indebted to Robert Busch for designing this rich service, and he, in turn, is indebted to Howard Hageman. Hageman, RW consultant since we began publication, has not been able to attend our biannual council meetings since he underwent brain surgery more than a year ago. But he speaks to us powerfully through these meditations which come through in language just as fresh today as when he wrote them more than thirty years ago.

Although we don't usually print sermons, we made an exception in "Just Before Dawn," by Duane Kelderman (p. 18). I first heard this sermon during the Easter Vigil service at the 1991 Conference on Liturgy and Music at Redeemer College. It was late at night, and we were tired after more than a full day of workshops and seminars. The last thing we thought we were ready for during the already long vigil service was a sermon. But "Just Before Dawn" caught us off guard, and sent us away with a thrill of hope for the resurrection that still gives me chills when I reread it.

Other Holy Week offerings include a Palm Sunday service (which incorporates poetry), an Easter morning service, and, for Easter Evening, a drama of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. That script, especially if included in a service with the Lord's Supper, would be a very appropriate ending to your Holy Week services.

There are many other articles and "pick up and use" resources in this issue. You'll find a feature on celebrating church anniversaries and several articles on using the Revised Common Lectionary and the Heidelberg Catechism in planning worship.

These resources and more should make this issue a useful one to your worship committees and, we trust, to your worshiping congregations.

Emily R. Brink ( is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.


Reformed Worship 26 © December 1992, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.