Holy Week Timeline Explained from Palm Sunday to Easter Resurrection Sunday
Christians worldwide celebrate Holy Week every spring, commemorating the last eight days of Jesus’ life on earth. The time is a sacred one—an opportunity to reflect on and express gratitude to God for the most important events in the history of the world. The week begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday, each day set apart by various special services, readings, songs, and events.
What Days Comprise the Holy Week Timeline?
Palm Sunday honors the day when Jesus humbly rode into Israel’s capital city, cheered as the new King of the Jews—and as the Son of God who would usher in an eternal kingdom. A handful of days later, many who misinterpreted His mission called for His death. Jesus was sent to die by crucifixion on Friday and, through His sacrificial death, paid the price for the sins of humanity. On Sunday, He resurrected to new life, proving His claim as the Savior of the world who had the power to defeat death. Since that day, those who believe He came for that purpose are welcomed as children of God into eternal life.
The following lists the days of the Holy Week timeline and the events that took place on those days. While most churches have special programming for Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, others devote each day of Holy Week to special meals, songs, and prayers.
Jesus had been teaching about the kingdom of God and His identity as the Jewish Messiah for about three years when the time came for Him to formally and publicly make that claim in Israel’s capital of Jerusalem (John 12:12-15). When He arrived, people greeted Him with a famous ancient symbol of victory—palm branches. The thousands of Jews carrying the branches had heard Jesus’s teaching about God’s kingdom and had been beneficiaries of his miracles. Many believed that He came to usher in the new kingdom promised in the Old Testament. They had waited 400 years to hear from God. Now, here was who seemed to be God's Son, claiming He was the king of Israel.
But even Jesus’ mode of transportation into the city—a lowly donkey rather than a majestic warhorse—revealed the Jews’ misaligned expectations. Centuries of prophecies had suggested the Messiah would come and overthrow the Roman government and bring Israel back to the glory it enjoyed under King David (Psalm 110, Isaiah 2:2, Isaiah 11:12, Ezekiel 37:24). But the kingdom God was introducing was an eternal, universal kingdom, not a local, political movement. Just as Jesus’ birth was marked by unadorned humility, so would be the rest of His short time on earth.
During Palm Sunday services, churches across the world gather to wave palm branches as a nod to Jesus’ triumphal entry. The leaves can also be dried and woven into small, handheld crosses. More traditional churches might sing noted Palm Sunday hymns such as “All Glory Laud and Honor.”
Jesus had spent the evening of Palm Sunday out of the city, and upon return the next day, he taught in the temple of Jerusalem. He shared parables that used simple imagery to explain the kingdom of God. The Jewish leaders thought he was being blasphemous by doing so and questioned him (Matthew 21:23). Later, as he walked through the temple, Jesus became angry that the holy place of worship had become a place for buying and selling—and taking advantage of the poor. In his zeal, he overturned tables, enraging the vendors (Matthew 21:12-16). Then he spent the evening with his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha (Matthew 21:17).
It is here, at the beginning of the week, that Jesus increases and intensifies His public messages. The Gospels record the outrage of the leaders of the day, and we are meant to recognize that Jesus’ death on Good Friday will not be accidental or unexpected. Instead, Jesus deliberately stirs up the anger of those who wish to kill Him because He fully understands His mission as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
The magnitude of Jesus’ messages contrasts with His decision to reconnect with several close friends. This was doubtless an encouragement to the three siblings in question and Jesus Himself as He processed what lay ahead of Him. Jesus had declared Himself to be “the resurrection and the life” shortly before raising Lazarus from the dead—a clear foreshadowing of His own death and resurrection.
The Eastern Orthodox Church observes Holy Monday with Bible readings and special hymns recounting the day’s events.
Gospel accounts suggest that on Tuesday, Jesus continued to publicize His message by teaching parables in the temple. The parable of the tenants in particular (Matthew 21:33-44) depicts a dramatic and even violent reflection of Jesus’ eventual sacrifice—an assignment from His Heavenly Father. Jesus also addresses the end times, the kingdom of God, the hypocrisy of those who claim to fear God, and what to expect when the Son of Man comes. In each parable, He speaks with certainty and gravity. Once again, Jesus’ authority to teach in such a way is questioned. This time, the chief priests seek to arrest Jesus after sensing He is speaking against them (Matthew 21:45). At this point, the crowd still reveres Jesus, so these plans are put on hold.
Each of these events is designed to show the reader that Jesus was the Son of God and that He knew it. No one could accuse Jesus of being a humble teacher indignant at the thought of being worshiped. Instead, Jesus invites this recognition of His deity (Matthew 24:25, Matthew 26:1).
Though not as highly celebrated as some of the other weekdays, the Catholic Church observes Holy Tuesday with relevant Scripture readings and hymns. In Mexico and Spain, Tuesday marks another day of Semana Santa (“Holy Week”), in which schools and many businesses are closed to allow for an extended celebration.
Jesus’ popularity had reached an apex with His entry into Jerusalem (John 12:19), and the Jewish religious leaders ramped up their efforts to rid themselves of Him. Between (alleged) blasphemy, public miracles, and blatant attacks on the religious establishment, they had now compiled what they believed was sufficient reason to take action. On Wednesday, plans were set in motion to capture Jesus—and kill Him. In the words of Caiaphas, who was the high priest that year, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:49-53). Later, Jesus is anointed by Mary at Bethany, with an expensive jar of perfume that Jesus later suggests is a preparation for His burial.
Understandably, Jewish leaders were angered at Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God and may have feared that they would lose power and authority if Jesus were to “come to power.” Yet Jesus was very popular with many people, and his miracles were hard to explain away. They needed to find and arrest him, but how? Their question was answered when Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ disciples, approached them with an offer to hand over Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Judas’ possible motives have been debated throughout the centuries. One thing is for certain: his involvement meant the chief priests didn’t require any extended searches for Jesus the next evening.
This day is also sometimes referred to as Good Wednesday, or Great and Holy Wednesday, by Eastern Christian churches. In the West, it's sometimes called Spy Wednesday. In countries such as the Czech Republic, Wednesday is used to give homes a thorough cleaning in preparation for Easter Sunday.
To some, Maundy Thursday may seem like an archaic, mysterious name. Is it a noun? An adjective? What does it have to do with Jesus? It turns out that maundy comes from the Latin mandatum, where we get the word “mandate” (a word much more familiar to us). The mandate, or command, in question is Jesus’ command that His followers love one another (John 13:34). How fascinating that while other moments from this historical day often get more attention—the Last Supper, the washing of the disciples’ feet, Judas’ swift exit from the table—the early church made Jesus’ new command the namesake for Maundy Thursday.
Many Christians reenact the Last Supper with a traditional seder meal similar to the one Jesus would have shared with His disciples; in this scenario, the words of Jesus are uttered by the priest or pastor. (Foods eaten can include a lamb shank bone, bitter herbs, and salted vegetables.) This special service can also include a foot-washing ceremony.
Some churches (particularly Lutherans and Catholics) will choose to offer a Tenebrae service (Tenebrae means “Shadow”). Here, the sanctuary’s candles or lights are gradually extinguished as clergy strip the altar of its linens. This can be accompanied by a loud noise at the end, meant to encourage meditation on the sufferings of Christ. Tenebrae may also start three days of special services, known as triduum.
The Gospel writers create a stark contrast between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, between the crowds shouting “Hosanna!” and “Crucify him!”
After Judas betrays Jesus (identifying Him to Roman guards with a kiss), Jesus is quickly carted through one ordeal after another. First, He is taken to the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, who is joined by other elders and religious leaders (Matthew 26:57, 59-60). It is here that Jesus is physically assaulted for the first time (Matthew 26:67-68).
The Jewish leaders realize that their own laws prohibit them from killing Jesus themselves, so they hand Him over to the Roman governor. Pontius Pilate tells the Jews that he “finds no fault in” Jesus (John 18:28-38). Their rabid response sends him back inside to speak with Jesus once more, eventually relenting to Jesus’ death sentence. Jesus is whipped with various sharp, maiming implements, then mocked by soldiers (John 19:1-3). Betrayed by His friends and His nation, He now endures increasing physical and social agony.
Tucked within the three-hour ordeal of Jesus’ death are many significant fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies (Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, etc.) These contain details about the manner of His physical death (being nailed to a cross), ridicule from onlookers, and separation from God due to taking on the sins of humanity.
Many churches hold special Good Friday services that feature “Stations of the Cross,” interspersing special prayers with passages from the accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death. Similarly, “passion plays” feature multiple church members reenacting the words and actions of Jesus, Peter, Pontius Pilate, and others. In the Philippines, more graphic commemorations involve flagellation (whipping) and crucifixion reenactments. Periods of fasting and total silence are also common.
The Gospels are somewhat silent about what happened on Holy Saturday. In fact, only Matthew gives explicit details about the day’s events (Matthew 26:62-66). The details about the guard at the tomb are imperative when reflecting on the numerous alternative explanations for the empty tomb that have circulated for centuries. Matthew’s account makes it plain that no one could have overtaken both the Roman guard and the stone that took several men to move in the first place. Moreover, archaeology and Jewish history reveal that to enter a traditional tomb of that time, one had to stoop down and essentially crawl in—not walk in and out upright.
We know from the disciples’ that they likely remained in hiding, fearing punishment from the Romans or the Jewish elite. Like anyone who buries a beloved friend, they would’ve been in a state of mourning, likely too shocked to go about their business. The fact that it was the Sabbath meant that the rest of the community would’ve been somewhat quiet, even after the harrowing events of Friday.
Holy Saturday is also sometimes known as Easter Vigil. Some churches will hold prayer vigils and light commemorative candles. However, since Holy Saturday technically marks the end of Lent, certain churches take a more joyous approach with the celebratory ringing of bells. At home, some will prepare for the next day’s Easter celebration.
Finally, we come to one of the most important days on the Christian calendar and the culmination of the Holy Week timeline. The first Easter morning began quietly, not with the fanfare now associated with the holiday. Like Jesus’ birth, the day involved several unlikely witnesses to a miracle and an appearance and message from an angel. In one Gospel account, two of Jesus’ female followers arrive at the tomb to pay their respects. Suddenly, an earthquake rattles the ground, and an angel arrives on the scene to calm their fears, remind them of Jesus’ promise to rise again on the third day, and to tell the other disciples of the good news. Later, Jesus appears to the remaining disciples, further proving His status as the Son of God. Though He suffered from unspeakable wounds on Friday, His body only shows signs of three nail piercings and a spear wound.
Easter’s overwhelming worldwide popularity (even among nominal Christians or non-Christians) means there’s no shortage of Sunday festivities—or beloved foods. Here are several international favorites:
- Hot cross buns (New Zealand, United Kingdom, etc.)
- Babka, or bread with raisins (Poland)
- Colomba de pasqua, a dove-shaped sweet bread (Italy)
The Holy Week Timeline that holds events from the end of Jesus’ life changed the course of history, offering hope to those who now, through faith in His sacrifice, are called children of God.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Coompia77
Anna Oelerich is a Chicago-area church youth director, freelance writer, and graduate of Taylor University. She received her B.S. in Professional Writing in 2018, but has loved words—reading, storytelling, list-making, and even handwriting—for as long as she can remember. Previously, she served as the marketing and communications coordinator for a community foundation, where she shared powerful stories of generosity, and encouraged others to give. When writing an article, or developing programming for her students, Anna enjoys highlighting the historical and cultural contexts of familiar Bible passages so others feel they are living the stories for themselves.