The Symbols and Rituals of Holy Week

By Sr. Phyllis McMurray, OSB

Holy Week is full of symbolism and ritual:

Palms are blessed with holy water and incense before the procession symbolizing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

We use the symbols of bread, wine and bitter herbs during the ritual of the Seder Meal.

The washing of feet epitomizes Jesus’ message that we are to serve one another.

The cross is venerated on Good Friday as we commemorate the death of Jesus.

The Easter Vigil is immersed in symbolism and ritual in the blessing of the fire, preparation of the Paschal candle, the Easter proclamation, the readings, the blessing of the water, and the renewal of our baptism promises.

One of the most poignant symbols is water. Water is necessary for life. It quenches our thirst. It can be cool and refreshing; it can be warm and revitalizing. It is graceful and resilient. It cleanses and rejuvenates. Water is life-giving, but it can also be destructive. Rain and snow water the earth, but excessive water can create floods. Hurricanes and tsunamis cause loss of life and destruction.

Water is also a fitting image for God’s word. When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, he described his teachings as “living water.” This living water is what we yearn for as we participate in these days of the Paschal Mystery. We sing the refrain: Like a deer that longs for running streams, my soul longs for you, my God.

We speak of being cleansed in the waters of baptism, of dying and rising with Christ. During the blessing of the water, we sing: Springs of Water, bless the Lord, sing the glory due God’s name. Into the water, buried in death, we are risen to new life.

May all the symbols and rituals of this Holy Week gift you with a deeper sense of the meaning of the great mystery we celebrate.

2 thoughts on “The Symbols and Rituals of Holy Week

  1. As I was reflecting on the Gospel for Holy Thursday this morning, I added the water Christ used to wash the feet of his disciples to the many images of water that abound in the liturgy of this time of year. Perhaps we are called to see that water of service, too, as living water, essential for our growth as truly human beings and for our growth in intimacy with God.


  2. Vocation_admin

    What a lovely reflection on water of service. Thanks for sharing, Kathy. Blessings. Sr. Phyllis


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