The time to shave, among other things, is upon us

By | March 28, 2010

Names for days of Holy Week tell us a lot about religious practices

The last days are upon us.

We are about to enter Holy Week and Lent is about to end. We all know the days: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday.

But have you heard of Spy Wednesday?

Wednesday of Holy Week has been called Spy Wednesday for centuries. The name derives from the Gospel of Matthew and highlights the fact that Judas Iscariot turned away from Christ and betrayed him.

It happened after a woman anointed Jesus prior to his Passion and death: “Then one of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?’ They paid him 30 pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over” (Mt 26:14-16).

In the various traditions of Christianity, there are different names for different days of Holy Week — all leading us to the greatest feast of all: Easter.

Saturday before Holy Week: In the Eastern Church, this Saturday is called Lazarus Saturday. It is paired with Palm Sunday to emphasize the fact that Jesus is Lord, with both power over death and the glory of a king. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that, as far back as the fourth century, Mass was celebrated on this Saturday at the Lazarium (now the Church of St. Lazarus) at Bethany.

Sunday before Holy Week: We know this as Palm Sunday, more correctly as “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion,” when we have two Gospels: the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and his Passion. In the Holy Land, the journey of Jesus from Bethany down to Jerusalem is reenacted. Before the reforms after Vatican II, the Sunday before Palm Sunday was known as Passion Sunday.

Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week: In the Eastern church, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week are called Great Monday, Great Tuesday and Great Wednesday or Great and Holy Monday, Great and Holy Tuesday, and Great and Holy Wednesday. They are the last days of Lent.

Wednesday: In ancient Christianity, this day was called Holy Wednesday, as well as Spy Wednesday. The Tenebrae service, the service of shadows commemorating the death of Jesus, was traditionally held on this day. Now it is more commonly held on Good Friday evening.

Thursday: Lent ends on Holy Thursday, which is also called Maundy Thursday. This name is more common in the Protestant churches, but is also part of Catholic tradition. “Maundy” comes from the Latin verb mandere, which means “to make a commitment.” It traditionally comes from John’s Gospel, when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and says, “Mandatum novum do vobis…” or “A new commandment I give you, love one another” (13:34).

On Holy Thursday, the washing of the feet is a central rite of the Mass. We also celebrate the institution of the Holy Eucharist and of the priesthood. The liturgy is called the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

This Thursday is also known as Green Thursday, especially to those of German background. This comes from Grundonnerstag, which can mean “green” or “mourning” Thursday. In the German Lutheran church, it was common to give green branches to penitents, and the tradition developed of eating green vegetables that day.

Among the English, Thursday is also called Shire Thursday, which appears to have come from the word “shear” because farmers would shear their sheep and cut their own hair on this day in preparation for Easter. For Maronite Catholics, based in Lebanon, Holy Thursday is the “Thursday of Mysteries.”

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper begins the Triduum, “the Three Days,” which end with the Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday night.

Friday: Good Friday is also called, for obvious reasons, Black Friday. This is because of grief, as well as the black vestments that used to be worn this day. Now the church color for Good Friday is red, for the Lord’s Passion. Also, black reminded us of the Gospel recount of the sky turning black at noon as Jesus hung upon the cross (Lk 23:44-45). This is the one day of the year when the church does not celebrate the Mass.

Saturday: Among the Greek Orthodox, this Saturday is called Great Sabbath, and is a day of rest, commemorating the time the Lord rested in the tomb. In the early church, this was a day of fast — the only Saturday observed as a day of fast. Today, especially in churches of Polish heritage, there is the blessing of the Easter foods.

Holy Saturday ends with the Vigil Mass, the greatest feast of the church year. In the darkness, the light of Christ bursts forth and Easter — traditionally called “the Eighth Day,” the day that fulfills all creation — breaks forth. It is the first, and eternal, Day of the Lord.

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, at; Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America at;

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