The Christians of Jerusalem in Egeria’s day were far more devout than we—Holy Week was an almost continuous single prayer with the faithful gathering from before cockcrow in the morning until after dark at night for the singing of psalms and attentive listening to readings, but the noted elements of our Holy Week—the procession with palms, the evening Eucharist on Holy Thursday, The veneration of the Cross on the Friday of the Lord’s Passion, the baptisms at the Great Vigil—are all there in the last decades of the fourth century at Jerusalem. There is also a somewhat primitive sense of the Stations of the Cross—admittedly not a liturgical service for us but it was for them—on the Friday of the Lord’s Passion, when the faithful gather at the various sites such as the column of the scourging for prayers. Egeria (I prefer the more classic spelling Aegeria but no one else seems to) spent three years in the Jerusalem and wrote her sisters back in Galicia a fervent and detailed account of the Church practices.
Reading Egeria’s account I cannot but wonder what we can do to deepen our appreciation of the mysteries of Our Lord’s death and Resurrection during Holy Week. I think an increased use of the daily offices and in particular the re-introduction of Tenebrae, would be a good step. Modern adaptations of the singing of psalms and prayers such as Taizé prayer also can be deeply moving. Night time processions with guided meditations and hymns at various stations would recapture the way the Church moved from the Garden of Olives to Golgotha and the tomb. Even reviving the medieval tradition of the “watch at the tomb” could deepen the experience.
From a historical point of view, Egeria’s journal is particularly fascinating not only because she shows us the basic development of the Holy Week Liturgy as it had evolved by the end of the fourth century, but because we have a woman who is free to travel as extensively as Egeria did on her pilgrimage that lasted over a period of years; we have a woman who can comment insightfully on the Liturgy and on the practices of the Church, and we have a woman who is—unlike other women in the Romano-Christian world, in charge of her own destiny and not subject to the oversight of a male superior, familial or ecclesiastical. Today she would be on the leadership team of the LCWR or one of the “Nuns On The Bus.”
A careful reading of her account permits us to see the fissures that were already developing between the Liturgical approaches of the Eastern and Western Rites. Some of the ceremonies she describes survive only in the West, many more only in the East. In both the East and West the liturgies would become more and more elaborate over the centuries but the central core would remain. In the Middle Ages, both East and West began to play around with the clock giving the ceremonies of Holy Week a surrealism. Matins and Lauds gradually get shifted from the earliest hours of the pre-dawn (say 2 am until 4:30) to the evening before so as not to discourage the sleepy from prayerful vigil. And thus prayers and hymns written for the morning are being celebrated at night. To balance this out, Vespers—the evening prayer—is being said at midday and often even in the morning. The Good Friday Liturgy is moved from the Hour of the Lord’s Death into the morning and the Easter Vigil is now on Holy Saturday morning. The Liturgy had become, as the Irish say, “a dog’s dinner”—a mashup of all sorts of things that are totally out of step with the mysteries being celebrated.
During the Second World War the German and Austrian clergy, and especially the monks, restricted from so much of their pastoral work by the Third Reich undertook extensive research in the history of the Liturgical development. The Abbey of Maria Laach in Germany was particularly ambitious in reconstructing the older forms of the Triduum liturgies. Their work paid off when in 1955 Pius XII decreed the first reforms in centuries of the Holy Week Liturgies, stripping away much of the bells and whistles that had been added over the years and restoring the Liturgies to their proper hours. These reforms of the Holy Week Liturgies were the precursors of the far more widespread Liturgical Reforms mandated by the Council and carried out by Paul VI in the Missal of 1970.