The Story of Holy Week through Scripture and Song

A Service After the Tradition of Lessons and Carols

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was developed by the King’s College, Cambridge, in 1918 and has been the annual Christmas Eve service held in King’s College Chapel ever since. Its stunning beauty, simplicity, and opportunity for congregational participation has made it a popular service implemented by other churches all over the world for the past century. Through nine strategically chosen Scripture readings, choral anthems, and congregational carols, the story of Christ’s birth is told, from creation to his arrival in Bethlehem. Worshipers gain a panoramic view of this part of God’s glorious story unfolding throughout the centuries.

As I was preparing a recent Passion Sunday worship service for our local church, I decided to adapt the Lessons and Carols model to give a panoramic view of God’s glorious story of the last week of Jesus’ life, from his entrance to Jerusalem through the sealing of the tomb. I chose this approach for both pastoral and liturgical reasons.

Pastorally, I have three concerns. First, our congregation, like many others, rarely hears this part of God’s story as a whole. Sermons, church school lessons, and personal devotional material divide the story into segments that roll out over a period of weeks. It’s easy to lose sight of the sequence of events—to encounter them out of order or even to miss entire episodes. There is real value in experiencing the progression of the action from beginning to end in one sitting, for each event plays a profound role in understanding the larger narrative.

Second, this service was designed for a small church without the benefit of Holy Week services leading up to Easter morning. Members are encouraged to avail themselves of worship services offered by other churches in the area, but without doing so they will hear only a few highlights of the story year after year and miss much of the internal drama so critical to fully understanding and appreciating the culminating resurrection event.

Third, this is a story to experience, not watch. Worshipers are expected to engage from beginning to end through involvement in various acts of worship.

Liturgically, the Passion Sunday service is challenging because it covers quite a bit of territory. It begins with calling worshipers to join the celebration of God’s chosen people as they shouted their hosannas in anticipation of Jesus’ kingly reign. The service gradually progresses toward the sorrow of Jesus’ suffering and death—quite a different “kingly reign” than the crowd had in mind. The storyline takes the worshiper on a virtual roller coaster of emotion in a short period of time. Situated within the Christian year as the climax of Lent, it is important to gather up the Lenten themes as they culminate in the crucifixion and to set up the unbounded joy of Easter morning one week later—the “big reveal,” the high point of the story. Using the Lessons and Carols model addressed all my concerns beautifully.

The Service Design

Our service used a combination of Scripture readings, songs, prayers, Holy Week symbols, and regular liturgical actions (confession, the offering, etc.). But there is no sermon or homily. The Scripture is the Word; responses are woven throughout. The Scripture readings were taken entirely from the gospel of Matthew in sequence with no alterations—simply the Word read aloud. At various points items representing the action of the story—Pilate’s bowl for hand washing, a sword, a bag of coins—are placed on a large table draped in black at the front of the worship space. The items are not explained. They are simply put in place to help people experience the story symbolically.

Our service was about an hour long. You will need to find individuals to serve as readers and to bring various items to the table.

Easy Adaptations

This service is extremely flexible!

Song choices. Congregational song choices are adaptable to any and all contexts. Because our small church’s repertoire is largely hymns, I drew exclusively from songs in our denominational hymnal, but a vast list of songs drawn from a myriad of song types is possible wherever congregational singing occurs.

Scripture readings. The traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols includes readings from Genesis, Isaiah, and the gospels. If you desire to include Old Testament readings along with the gospels, the choices are many. (Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 come readily to mind.) There is precedence for using a wide swath of Scripture; after all, on the day of Jesus’ resurrection he reminded his disciples that the “Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” spoke of Holy Week events (Luke 24:44).

Prepared presentational music or other art forms. Lessons and Carols includes choral anthems and organ pieces. However, any appropriate prepared music (choir, soloist, ensemble), dance, or visual art may be easily inserted throughout the service in addition to or in place of some of the congregational songs.

Creeds. A well-chosen and well-placed creed can be powerful in this service. Look for the best spot in the storyline in which to place it.

The Lord’s Supper. This communal act may be included organically according to the storyline.

Readers’ theater. Expressive and dynamic readings can add impact to the storyline as long as they are consistent with the action and not overdone. Remember, hearing the straightforward account of Holy Week is the goal. I do not recommend dramatizing the storyline beyond minimal readers’ theater because it would be a significant departure from the Lessons and Carols format and because truly hearing the story via the gospel narrative is enough in this instance.

Symbols. Feel free to add to, subtract from, or exchange the symbols placed on the table throughout the story.

Intergenerational. Not only is this service engaging for young worshipers, but it offers children and youth opportunity to easily lead portions of the service.

Church size. The service is readily adaptable to any and all church sizes.

The flexibility that this service affords makes it a service well-suited for almost any context.

Leading the Service

Here are a few tips for leading this service:

  • Speak very little. Once the service begins, offer little to no instruction. Instead, think through what to tell the congregation in pre-service moments, and then just let it roll. Giving instructions within the service (other than minimal invitations, such as “Let us pray”) should be avoided completely. Talking too much as the leader will detract from the service.
  • Prepare well. Have several walkthroughs for all participants. Notify the accompanists as to when to begin the introductions to songs and how long the introductions should be. (Other than the opening song, I recommend abbreviated introductions—just enough to get the people started securely.)
  • Time the service. Know how long the entire service should be, and adapt by adding or deleting worship elements.
  • Give a pre-service orientation. Think through everything participants need to know to feel comfortable. Offer succinct and inviting instructions without overexplaining. This lets them know what to expect and how to participate, thereby entering in more fully. Tell worshipers all they need to know, but not more than that.
  • Omit Scripture references, even in the printed order of worship. If they are printed, some people will naturally be tempted to read the texts themselves. The point of this service is to hear the story, not to study it. During the pre-service orientation I let worshipers know that the lessons were taken entirely from the gospel of Matthew and that nothing was added.

Pre-Service Orientation for Full Participation

Today is known as Passion Sunday, sometimes called Palm Sunday. It is a very significant day in the Christian year, marking the climax of the Lenten season and the beginning of Holy Week—the week culminating in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

As we worship, you will hear the entire story of the week before Jesus’ death, told from the gospel of Matthew. The storyline will begin with shouts of “Hosanna!” and leave us silent at the sealing of the tomb. We will finish the story next Sunday morning right here in our sanctuary.

It is our hope that you will not only hear the story, but experience it. There are parts for you to play in the drama.

  • Near the end of the first reading (before the first hymn), there’s a place for you to shout “Hosanna!” Go ahead—shout it out loud several times. Make some noise!
  • During the opening hymn, wave the palms. (It wasn’t only children who waved palm branches that day; adults did too!)
  • Follow the order of the service throughout. Note that you are invited to read aloud the parts in bold.
  • The service will end in silence.
  • You are invited to stay in the quiet sanctuary to pray if you so desire. When you leave the sanctuary, please leave in silence.
  • The pastor(s) will remain in the sanctuary until all have left. They are available to pray with anyone who wishes. Simply let them know you would like prayer.

Order of Worship


Invitation to Participate

Prelude: “Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley” American folk hymn, arr. Schrader

Call to Worship

The Sunday Before Jesus Died

Reader 1: Matthew 21:1–11

Song: “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” Threlfall, LUYH 145, GtG 197, PsH 378

[Wave your palm branches and, if you desire, bring them forward to lay on the table].

A Pre-Burial Anointing of Jesus’ Body

Reader 2: Matthew 26:6–13

[Alabaster jar placed on table]

Song: “Marvelous Grace” Johnston, LUYH 696


Offertory: “The Wonderful Cross” Tomlin, arr. Shackley

Offertory Prayer

Dear God, we remember Israel’s King David, who insisted on paying for a threshing floor as a place of worship even though it was offered at no cost. We remember his response: “I will not offer to God that which cost me nothing.” Like David, and like the woman who poured costly perfume on Jesus, may we too give sacrificially and out of love for our Savior. Amen.

—Constance M. Cherry, © 2018. Used by permission. Churches are given permission to reprint or reproduce this prayer for noncommercial use in worship services only.

Judas Betrays Jesus

Reader 3: Matthew 26:14–16

[Bag of coins placed on table]

Song: “Just As I Am” Elliott, LUYH 627, GtG 442, PsH 263 (vs. 1, 3)

Jesus Keeps the Jewish Feast of Passover

Reader 3: Matthew 26:17–25

[Small wooden bowl placed on table]

Prayer of Confession

We are hard on Judas, but we too are guilty of betrayal.

Is it I, Lord?

Like the disciples, we often listen to Jesus’ words but don’t really hear what he is saying.

Is it I, Lord?

Like the disciples, we follow him, but sometimes at a distance.

Is it I, Lord?

Like the disciples, Jesus has given us all authority under heaven;

      yet we lack the faith to take action in his name.

Is it I, Lord?

Like the disciples, when Jesus asks us to spend time with him, we fall asleep.

Is it I, Lord?

Like the disciples, we have heard the Good News;

      yet we hide in fear of what it will cost us to tell God’s story.

Is it I, Lord?

[Silent Confession]

Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, we have failed you. We are sorry. Forgive our faithlessness, our self-protection, and our laziness. Give us strength to follow you with boldness. Fill us with your Spirit that we may be disciples who follow you in true devotion. Amen.

—Constance M. Cherry, © 2018. Used by permission. Churches are given permission to reprint or reproduce this prayer for noncommercial use in worship services only.

Assurance of Pardon

Song: “Amazing Grace” Newton, LUYH 691, GtG 649, PsH 462 (vs. 1, 3)

Jesus Assigns New Meaning to the Meal

Reader 4: Matthew 26:26–30

[Chalice and plate placed on table]

Song: “Let Us Break Bread Together” African-American Spiritual, LUYH 837, GtG 525, PsH 304 (vs. 1–2)

Jesus Predicts the Disciples’ Response to His Betrayal

Reader 1: Matthew 26:31–32

[Shepherd’s crook placed on table]

Song: “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” Thrupp, LUYH 330, GtG 187, PsH 591 (vs. 1, 3)

Peter Swears Allegiance to Jesus

Reader 2: Matthew 26:33–35

Jesus Begs God for His Life in the Garden

Reader 3: Matthew: 26:36–41

Song: “Go to Dark Gethsemane” Montgomery, LUYH 161, GtG 220, PsH 381 (v. 1)

Jesus Continues in Prayer

Reader 3: Matthew 26:42–46

Jesus Is Arrested

Reader 4: Matthew 26:47–56

[Sword placed on table]

Jesus Endures Kangaroo Court

Reader 1: Matthew 26:57–68

Song: “Go to Dark Gethsemane” Montgomery, LUYH 161, GtG 220, PsH 381 (v. 2)

Peter Swears He Doesn’t Know Jesus

Reader 2: Matthew 26:69–75

[Rooster placed on table]

Judas and the Priests Turn on Each Other

Reader 3: Matthew 27:1–10

[Coin bag thrown on the floor]

Song: “Depth of Mercy” Wesley, LUYH 702 (vs. 1–3)

The Jews Obtain Permission from Rome to Crucify Jesus

Reader 4: Matthew 27:11–26

[Plain white washbasin placed on table]

Jesus Is Ridiculed and Beaten

Reader 1: Matthew 27:27–32

[Whip placed on table]

Song: “Where He Leads Me” Blandly, African American Heritage Hymnal‎ 550 (vs. 1, 3)

Jesus Is Murdered

Reader 2: Matthew 27:33–44

Song: “Were You There” African-American Spiritual, LUYH 166, GtG 228, PsH 377 (vs. 1, 2)

Jesus Draws His Last Breath

Reader 3: Matthew 27:45–54


Jesus’ Lifeless Body Is Buried

Reader 4: Matthew 27:55–61

[White linen cloth placed on altar or communion table and candles extinguished]

Song: “Were You There” African-American Spiritual, LUYH 166, GtG 228, PsH 377 (v. 5)

The Tomb Is Secured

[All readers stand]

Reader 1: Matthew 27:62

Reader 2: Matthew 27:63–64

Reader 3: Matthew 27:65

Reader 4: Matthew 27:66

Invitation to Self-Examination and Prayer

Closing Hymn

“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” Watts, LUYH 175, GtG 223, PsH 384

Stay for Quiet Prayer or Leave in Silence

Rev. Dr. Constance Cherry is professor of worship and pastoral ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University, where she directs three distinct worship programs: Worship Arts, Worship Studies, and Worship Ministries. She is also a founding faculty member of The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies.

Reformed Worship 134 © December 2019, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.