Holy Week: A ritual of transformation

by Gillian Hugo


Christians worldwide are observing Holy Week, a ritual commemorating Jesus’ journey to crucifixion and resurrection.


According to Wikipedia, “a ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed according to a set sequence.” Rituals are usually prescribed by the traditions of communities and also have a connection with reverence; in this case, reverence for Jesus. Rituals can be everyday occurrences like having tea and reading the newspaper in the morning or a daily quiet time.


I am always fascinated by Holy Week, Easter and Christmas. These celebrations move to the forefront of most people’s minds, and there is lots of activity and planning around these times. However, I wonder how these rituals and celebrations have become commercially exploited events and money-makers for retailers. Perhaps not so much Holy Week but the other two, definitely; the reverence for these special times is lost. Forgive me for generalising, but my observations lead me to such conclusions.


Easter and Christmas see church pews full, and the need for more seating and standing room abounds. It is a beautiful time of fellowship and sharing our common faith, praying and singing together. However, on the Sundays following these big celebrations, it is easy to find parking and a seat in church.


What is it about these special rituals and traditions that we mark that brings people flocking back to their church communities? Fr. Richard Rohr OFM says, “Mindless repetition of any practice, with no clear intention, can keep us unconscious. We need rituals that keep breaking us into new insight, desire, compassion, and an ever-larger notion of God and ourselves.” Rituals are a way of grounding our intention to seek out God and the divine, to encounter God in a new way.


Rituals can take on various forms like a pilgrimage, rites of passage, and special practices around events. The importance is not the actions, words, or symbolism but rather about uncovering the divine mystery of the present moment and the transformation that brings.


A ritual can be “an ancient religious practice that creates space for awakening, healing and discernment,” according to Jon Huckins, co-founding director of Global Immersion. Huckins guides “vision-quest” type pilgrimages on the Camino de Santiago. He says, “the ritual of pilgrimage is not about the destination, but about the transformation that happens along the way. One day as the rain-soaked path felt like too much to bear, a fellow pilgrim whispered to me, ‘Walk with your heart, not with your feet. Otherwise, you’ll quit when the blisters get too bad.’ He was inviting me to move from my mind to my heart. To feel. To hurt. To listen. To be present. To experience a joy. To anticipate transformation in the darkness. The destination wasn’t a city in Spain, but the home that is in my heart.”


What does this say about Holy Week? How can this ritual of prayer, fasting, confession and processions draw us into transformation? The humanity of Jesus and his suffering during these dark days resonate with us on many levels. But Jesus surrenders, giving himself to the authorities and his father. He empties himself to be filled with love; he is transformed. We are invited to do the same, and perhaps the rituals of Holy Week will allow for this transformation in us so that we, too, may experience being filled with God’s love.

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