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The many symbols of Holy Week, Easter

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

The following story appeared in the March 24 Idaho Catholic Register.

Photo Credit USCCB

By George P. Matysek Jr.

No time of the liturgical calendar is more filled with religious symbolism than Holy Week. What’s the meaning behind these holy signs and gestures that stretch back across generations?

Palm branches

Holy Week begins on the Sunday before Easter on Palm Sunday, known as “Passion Sunday.” Catholics hold blessed palm branches during liturgies this day to commemorate Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

Holy oils

During Holy Week – usually on Holy Thursday or sometimes on Monday –

bishops across the world celebrate the Chrism Mass. (In the Diocese of Boise, the

Chrism Mass is scheduled for Thursday, March 30, at 10:30 a.m. at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.)

At the Chrism Mass, priests renew their priestly vows and show unity with their bishop.

During the liturgy, the bishop blesses the Oils of Catechumens, which will be used at the baptisms of those pre-paring for the sacrament, and the Oils of the Sick, which will be used in the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

The bishop also consecrates Holy Chrism, a mixture of olive oil and balsam fragrance, that will be used to anoint the newly baptized, to seal candidates for Confirmation and to anoint the hands of priests and the heads of bishops at their ordination.

The Holy Chrism will also be used in the rites of anointing at the dedication of churches and altars.

As part of the consecration rite, the bishop breathes over special containers filled with chrism. The act calls down the Holy Spirit.

Foot washing

During the Holy Thursday liturgy, priests pour water over the feet of up to 12 volunteers before drying them with a towel. The action is a recreation of Christ’s washing of the Apostles’ feet at the Last Supper.


On Good Friday, no Mass is celebrated. Instead, parishes offer a liturgy that commemorates the passion and death of Jesus. During that liturgy, worshippers are invited to venerate a cross by kissing the object or showing some other sign of veneration.


At the Easter Vigil, fire is very prominent. Mass-goers gather around a fire outside the church at the start of the liturgy. From that fire, the Easter Candle – the Paschal Candle – is lit and then hand-held candles are lit from the Paschal Candle – brightening darkened churches with the light of Christ, symbolizing His triumph over death.


At the Easter vigil, the deacon chants the liturgy’s first proclamation of the Resurrection. The joyful chant, called the “Exsultet” takes its name from the Latin word in the opening line, “Rejoice, heavenly powers!”

In many African-American parishes, spirituals and other songs special to the community are often sung. These include “Were You There?” on Good Friday and “Take Me to the Water” as new members of the community are baptized during the Easter Vigil.


Churches are usually adorned with a variety of spring flowers during the Easter season. Easter lilies are especially associated with the season as a symbol of purity and new

life. There are a variety of legends associated with the Easter lily, including one that says the flower sprung up on the spots of land where drops of Jesus’ blood fell at the crucifixion.


George P. Matysek Jr. wrote this for the “Angelus,” a magazine published by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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