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The Meaning of Holy Week

SAN DIEGO (KOGO) - Holy Week is upon us and many San Diego residents will be marking the observance through gatherings or worship, prayer and devotion. But Holy Week is not exclusively a Roman Catholic tradition.

"It goes back historically to far before there was a Roman Catholic Church, back to the fifth century in fact," says the Very Rev. Penny Bridges, Dean (or Senior Pastor) of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral. "People started to gather in Jerusalem to remember the last week of Jesus' life and started observing certain devotions, following the way of cross."

Rev. Bridges says as Christianity spread across the world, it became difficult for some believers to make the trek to Jerusalem, which gave rise to local holy week celebrations, many of which are still observed to this day.

In this archive photo, people gather for Easter Vigil at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral.Photo: Susan Forsburg / St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral

"We have our roots in that ancient tradition, we being the Episcopal Church, the Anglican tradition, and the other liturgical churches, the Lutherans and the Methodists," Rev. Bridges said.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, which falls on April 10th this year, and recounts the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Some churches sing traditional Hosanna songs hailing Jesus as the Messiah, with church members waving palm fronds. But the mood changes as the week goes on, especially on Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday.

"The first eucharist (communion) is remembered and we wash each other's feet," Rev. Bridges said.

Most Maundy Thursday worship gatherings conclude with the stripping of the altar, where colored linens, banners, and other elements are removed from the front of the church, leaving an almost barren space for the observance of Good Friday, where Christians remember Jesus on the cross. But perhaps the most unique and powerful experience in Holy Week is Easter Vigil, held on Saturday night.

Bishop celebrates Easter Vigil

In this archive photo, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Assisting Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, spreads incense around a ceremonial fire for Easter Vigil at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral.Photo: Susan Forsburg / St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral

"We hear a series of the stories of God's promises to God's people," said Rev. Bridges.

The gathering is by candlelight in the darkened worship space, and sometimes includes baptisms and other professions of faith.

"Then the lights come on, the organ is switched on, and it's Easter and we celebrate," added Rev. Bridges.

The celebrations continue, with some churches opting for an outdoor sunrise service early Easter morning to commemorate the arrival of Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb and, as the scriptures say, her subsequent encounter with the risen Jesus. Others, like St. Paul's Cathedral, will hold a traditional Easter Sunday morning worship with special music.

You can listen to our full interview with the Very Rev. Penny Bridges on KOGO News Weekend Edition here.

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