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I love Easter.

As an adult, this holiday has moved up the ladder to become one of my favorites. Not because I can stash Easter candy weeks ahead of time in hiding spots to which only I am privy. And not because I love the cute dinnerware at Williams and Sonoma, which I always pause over in the catalog but never purchase.

Easter has become so much more to me than baskets and chocolate. It has become so sacred. So holy. So beloved. It is no longer a one-day holiday, but a series of days we celebrate. Particularly the week leading up to Easter Sunday.

When my children were small, I longed to teach them the real meaning of Easter in tangible ways. I began showing them pictures and telling them the stories of the Savior’s final days, beginning with Palm Sunday. In time, our Holy Week traditions grew and strengthened. Now, each day we focus on the specific events that took place the last week of the Savior’s life. These stories fill our Holy Week. Our Passion Week. A week when we celebrate the greatest events ever to occur in human history.

While studying in Jerusalem, over twenty years ago, a group of us went to St. Ann’s Church for an Easter Vigil service. It was the night before Easter Sunday. I didn’t realize then how lucky we were to be in that Holy City during Passover and the Christian holy days.

At the end of the service, candles were passed out. From one candle by the altar, every candle in the chapel was eventually lit. We passed that single flame around the room until there were dozens of tiny flames flickering in the dark. Then to an Easter hymn, we participated in the recessional and reverently walked out into the quiet Jerusalem night. Up to that point in my life I had never attended a Christian service beyond LDS doors. I felt God’s spirit so strongly. I realized that anytime, anywhere someone speaks of Christ with love and adoration, the Holy Spirit will witness and testify of Jesus’ divine role.

Years later we lived in Washington DC, and I attended an Easter Vigil service with a Catholic friend at Trinity Church. The recessional had the same affect on me. I was so moved by the symbolism of lighting a candle on that eve of waiting. Watching and waiting for the Light of the World to rise. Our small lights were silent shouts into the dark that we knew Christ lived. That His light, like the morning sun, would break into our lives and splinter any darkness. 

When we moved to Utah with our young family, I began looking for an Easter Vigil service. I rather envied the attention other churches gave to the liturgical calendar. It seemed no one even mentioned Palm Sunday in our church meetings so I decided to create my own kind of vigil tradition. (I have since learned you can attend an Easter Vigil service at the Cathedral of the Madeline, downtown Salt Lake City.)

I made some lanterns out of mason jars, colored ribbon, dry beans, and votive candles, then on Easter Eve, we lit the candles and hung them from a tree in our front yard. That night the flames danced in the evening breeze and I sat in our front room after my kids had gone to bed and watched our tree with the lights in it. Our small declaration to the world that we believed.

This was how we started building holy week traditions into our family life. For seven years now, we’ve been putting up our lanterns and adding new practices. I have listed all of our activities and traditions below, along with a synopsis of what happened each day according to scripture, a list of my favorite readings, and the Bible videos you can watch. PDF at the end of the article.

Let me say one thing about our Easter traditions (and this goes for all traditions). Things never go as well as I envision them. Some child usually has a meltdown, two kids begin punching or tussling, unkind things are said, and sometimes I’m left sitting at our passover meal all by myself because the kids downed their food then ran off and my husband is at work. But it’s okay. The key is flexibility and managed expectations. I often shuffle things around, simply do them when we can (rather than on the specific day) or leave some traditions out if it’s too hard to fit them in.

Over the years, some of the most sweet and powerful teaching moments with our children have happened during Holy Week. It has become something they look forward to — because of what we do, in part, but mostly, because of what they feel. We have tried to help them understand the events that happened, what Christ’s sacrifice means for them, and prayed they would feel His Love.

The Come, Follow Me manual encourages families to “spend some time each day during holy week, reading about the last week of the Savior’s life.” There is a good reading schedule in the manual. Or for a little more in depth reading, you can read the selections I included.

Below the study guide are a few of my favorite thoughts and writings about Easter. Last year I taught a lesson on the events that took place during Holy Week for a women’s scripture class. You can access the audio here.

Happy Easter! I hope it is meaningful, uplifting, unifying, and saturated with glorious light.

Holy Week Study Guide and Traditions
by Catherine Arveseth

Palm Sunday — Triumphal Entry

After spending the Sabbath in Bethany with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, Jesus journeyed up the hill to Bethphage where His disciples obtained a donkey, so He could enter Jerusalem “riding upon an ass” – fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy and indication that He would come in peace. Believers spread their garments before him and waved palm branches, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David, Hosanna in the highest.”

  • Read Matthew 21: 1-11 and Luke 19: 35-38
  • Watch the Triumphal Entry
  • Create an Easter Tree – Cut branches to bloom inside and decorate your Easter Tree with ribbons, eggs, and small images of the Savior’s life.

Monday — Second cleansing of the Temple

This was three years from the first cleansing in which Jesus referred to the temple as “My Father’s house.” This time He called the temple, “My house.” Then He healed the blind and lame, and blighted the fig tree – symbolic of Christ’s detest for hypocrisy and proof that He had power over life and death. Then He returned to Bethany.

  • Read Matthew 21: 12-16, Mark 11:17, and Matthew 21: 17-22
  • Watch Cleansing of the Temple
  • Easter Walk – go on a nature treasure hunt for items that represent parts of the Easter story (see Deborah Rowley’s picture book, Easter Walk.)

Tuesday and Wednesday — Questioning at the Temple/Teachings and Parables

Jesus was questioned at the temple mount by the temple hierarchy (Scribes and Sanhedrin), by the Herodians (who sought to bring down any other religious leadership), the Sadducees (faction of the Jews that disagreed with the Pharisees – particularly on the doctrine of Resurrection, believed only in the written law – not the oral law), and finally by the Pharisees (self-assumed teachers – practiced strict observance of the written and oral law). Jesus taught many parables, instructed His disciples, gave the Olivet Discourse, and lamented over Jerusalem. Then He returned to Bethany to prepare for the events ahead. While staying with Simon the leper, Mary of Bethany anointed His head.

Maundy Thursday — Last Supper and Gethsemane

This meal was held in a large upper room in Jerusalem. The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was instituted. The Savior washed the feet of His disciples. Judas was revealed as betrayer. Jesus offered the high priestly or intercessory prayer (John 17). They sang a hymn then He left the upper room for the Mount of Olives, and entered the Garden of Gethsemane where He took upon himself the sins of all mankind, bled from every pore, and began the “awful Atonement.” He was arrested and taken for trial.

  • Read Mark 14: 12-26 note JST, Luke 22: 19-39, John 13 – 17 / Matthew 26: 36-56, Mark 14:    32-50, Luke 22: 41-46
  • Watch The Last Supper, Intercessory Prayer, and Gethsemane
  • Prepare and eat a Passover Meal (modified or traditional versions of Seder available online),    sing a hymn at the table, offer some kind of selfless service reminiscent of the washing of feet     and the Savior’s great love evidenced through His suffering.

Good Friday Trial and Crucifixion

Jesus endured an illegal trial before Annas Caiaphas (the high priest). He was accused of sedition. Later He was charged with blasphemy, the most serious charge in Jewish law. The cock crowed and the Lord’s prophecy of Peter’s denial was realized. Jesus was delivered to Pilate, the Roman Governor, so an official decree of death could be issued (capital punishment had been taken away from the Sanhedrin.) Pilate, upon finding no fault in Jesus, pawned him off to Herod. (Jesus was a Galilean and Herod was the vassal over the Galilean province.) Both Herod and Pilate were in Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus refused to answer Herod and was returned to Pilate, who was willing to let Him go free, as it was the custom to release one prisoner during Passover, but the people called for Barrabas to be released. “His blood be upon us and our children.” Pilate was convinced to move ahead with the crucifixion. Jesus was scourged. Jesus made the long walk to Golgotha, with aid from Simon of Cyrene (Way of the Cross). Crucifixion — Jesus was crucified and nailed to the cross. About noon there was a great earthquake that rent the veil of the temple. And then there was darkness. Three hours later Jesus said “into thy hands I commend my spirit” and gave up the ghost. Joseph of Arimithea petitioned for Jesus’ body and took it down from the cross before the Sabbath, incompletely prepared it for burial, then laid it in the tomb.

Saturday Sabbath Observance/Day of Waiting

On this day Jesus’ voice came to the Nephites. He did not appear, but they heard His voice (3 Nephi 9:13-17). He preached to the spirits in prison (D&C 138). None of Jesus’ disciples or followers came to the tomb this day. They observed the sabbath and the women anticipated returning at first morning light to finish caring for His body. This was a day of waiting for the risen Lord.

  • Color Easter eggs
  • Easter Vigil – light lanterns at dusk and hang them from a tree or set on porch, a symbol of            waiting for the Light of the World to rise (John 8:12) — gratitude for His gift of    resurrection that will come to all of God’s children, a quiet witness of belief in Christ.

Easter Sunday — Resurrection and Appearances of Jesus

Mary Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James), Joanna and other women, came early to the tomb to complete Jesus’ burial. They found the stone rolled away. Two angels greeted them and declared Jesus had risen. They left to tell the apostles. Mary Magdalene returned to the empty tomb. Jesus appeared to her. She became the first witness of the Resurrection. Additional sightings: Resurrected Jesus appeared to two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. He appeared to His Apostles and dispelled Thomas’ doubt. He appeared to the Apostles in Galilee, then made His Ascension.

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” — Augustine of Hippo 354–430, in Confessions.

“I do not understand the mystery of grace. Only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” — Ann Lamott, Traveling Mercies

“You can’t conceive, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

— Graham Greene

Seven Stanzas at Easter

by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, thee molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb.
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

“How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?” — Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

If Christ be risen, then is the grave of humanity itself empty. We have risen with him, and death has henceforth no dominion over us. Of every dead man and woman it may be said: He–she–is not here, but is risen and gone before us. Ever since the Lord lay down in the tomb, and behold it was but a couch whence he arose refreshed, we may say of every brother: He is not dead but sleepeth. He too is alive and shall arise from his sleep.” — George MacDonald, Miracles of our Lord