Holy Week: Itinerarium Egeriae

Holy Week: Itinerarium Egeriae

by Michael Redmond.

In the late fourth century, according to most theological scholars, a woman known by the name of Egeria — from Spain or perhaps southern France — undertook a lengthy pilgrimage to the East that included a three-year stay in Jerusalem. She wrote an account of this experience for her sisters back home (her friends, possibly nuns). Itinerarium Egeriae (The Travels of Egeria) is considered to be the earliest existing first-hand account of a Christian pilgrimage.

It was an exciting time. Not long before, Christianity had been legalized and then quickly elevated to the status of the Roman Empire’s official religion. Emperor Constantine convened the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD to establish consensus on doctrine and practice by all churches throughout the Empire. It was important  for the early church to establish a uniform date for observing Easter to demonstrate its unity of faith and devotion.  Disputes about the date of Easter went on for a very long time. For instance, the issue was still on the table in the late seventh century, when the English church finally entered into full compliance with Roman usage.

Among Constantine’s numerous and ambitious projects was the construction of Christian churches and shrines at major holy sites, including a substantial rebuilding of Jerusalem. Approximately 327 AD Constantine’s mother, the Empress Helena, visited Jerusalem. According to tradition, she had a pagan temple on the site of Calvary torn down, thereby discovering what was believed to be the True Cross, i.e., the actual cross upon which Jesus died. Constantine then ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be built there.

By the time Egeria arrived in Jerusalem, the city had a flourishing Christian culture that was attracting pilgrims from all over the Empire. The local church, whose bishop was the important theologian Cyril of Jerusalem, had codified its traditions for commemorating the culmination of Jesus’s ministry. These became the pattern for what Christians worldwide celebrate as Holy Week, the turning point of the church year.

In his classic study The Shape of the Liturgy (1945), Dom Gregory Dix condensed Egeria’s lengthy and detailed account of Jerusalem’s Holy Week liturgies as follows:

“It begins on Passion Sunday with a procession to Bethany, where the gospel of the raising of Lazarus is read. On the afternoon of Palm Sunday, the whole church goes out to the Mount of Olives and returns in solemn procession to the city, bearing branches of palm. There are evening visits to the Mount of Olives on each of the first three days of Holy Week, in commemoration of our Lord’s nightly withdrawal from the city during that week. On Maundy Thursday morning the Eucharist is celebrated … and all make their communion. In the evening, after another Eucharist, the whole church keeps vigil at Constantine’s church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives, visiting Gethsemane after midnight and returning to the city in the morning for the reading of the gospel of the trial of Jesus. In the course of the morning of Good Friday, all venerate the relics of the Cross, and then from noon to three p.m. all keep watch on the actual site of Golgotha (still left by Constantine’s architects open to the sky in the midst of a great colonnaded courtyard) with lections and prayers, amid deep emotion. In the evening there is a final visit by the whole church to the Holy Sepulchre, where the gospel of the entombment is read. On Holy Saturday evening, the paschal vigil still takes place much as in other churches, with its lections and prayers and baptisms …”

Nor was all of this new at the time of Egeria’s visit. Holy Week observances about fasting norms are described in Syrian and Egyptian writings dating from the latter half of the third century, usually having to do with preparation for adult baptism. It’s possible this tradition in some rudimentary form goes back as far as apostolic times. After all, although the first Christians hardly needed any reminding about the importance of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they had a calendar marker for these events that came by every year without fail — the Jewish Passover. The messianic community of the early Jerusalem church would still have felt a close connection with Judaism’s sacred calendar. We see this connection everywhere in the Gospels.

Thus, on Good Friday, Egeria writes,

“… from the sixth to the ninth hours the lessons are so read and the hymns said, that it may be shown to all the people that whatsoever the prophets foretold of the Lord’s Passion is proved from the Gospels and from the writings of the Apostles to have been fulfilled. And so through all those three hours the people are taught that nothing was done which had not been foretold, and that nothing was foretold which was not wholly fulfilled. Prayers also suitable to the day are interspersed throughout. The emotion shown and the mourning by all the people at every lesson and prayer are wonderful; for there is none, either great or small, who, on that day during those three hours, does not lament, more than can be conceived, that the Lord had suffered those things for us.” (trans. Louis Duchesme).

Now, Holy Week begins with the blessing and procession of the palms. The tempo quickens, with some church communities observing Spy Wednesday when they recall Judas entering into the plot to betray Jesus.

The heart of Holy Week arrives with the Paschal Triduum, the three great days, rich in symbolism.

On Maundy Thursday we commemorate the Last Supper, including the washing of the apostles’ feet. Maundy is believed to be a popular version of the Latin mandatum (commandment,) heard in Jesus saying to the apostles, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn. 13:34.) At the conclusion of the service, the altar is stripped, crosses are veiled or removed, and the chancel is emptied of furnishings and appointments. In many churches, the reserved Sacrament is moved to an altar of repose elsewhere in the building. The church falls silent. No Eucharist will be celebrated, no bells will be rung, and no music aside from chant will be played until the Easter Vigil.

The Veneration of the Cross is traditional on Good Friday. In Jerusalem, this was the True Cross itself. Egeria writes:

“Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood … they touch the Cross first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it.”

The Great Vigil of Easter moves from mourning to joy, from darkness to light, from winter to spring, from death to life. We kindle the new fire, light the paschal candle, and hear the resurrection proclaimed in the triumphant words of the Exsultet, dating to the fifth century. In the early church, the Vigil was the preferred occasion for baptisms, so we renew our baptismal covenant.

“This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave,” Alleluia!

Michael Redmond is a regular contributor to the Delaware Communion magazine. mr@michaelredmond.net

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