Procession in liturgy is, in theory, solemn movement from here to there. It is purposeful and pragmatic, though also solemn and ceremonious. Sometimes, of course, it is movement from here to here — as, for instance, the Lesser and Greater Entrances in the Byzantine Liturgy, or solemn procession at the beginning of a high-church Anglo-Catholic liturgy. Even then, however, the attenuated here-to-here procession has a foundation in here-to-there: stational procession through the city of Constantinople, entering the Great Church of Holy Wisdom (ʽAgia Sophia) or bearing the eucharistic oblations from the external skeuophylakion to the chancel; movement from the chapter house through the cloister of Salisbury Cathedral to the choir.
For above all, procession is movement. It is journey, trek, pilgrimage. Holy Week has a number of processions, all too often taken for granted as part of the routine movement of ministers as on other occasions. Processions are a key feature setting the liturgies of Holy Week apart.
On Palm Sunday, the Entrance Procession is elaborated in commemoration of the Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem. Catholics, Anglicans, many Lutherans, and an increasing number of Christians from other denominations often do this procession “up right,” taking it from a parish house, prayer garden, atrium or columbarium into the church. Missing from this day’s liturgy is the usual gospel procession, giving way to a simplified taking-of-places for the deacons or other ministers who will sing the Passion.
On one of the Weekdays of Holy Week, perhaps Holy/Maundy Thursday but likely another day, the Chrism Mass includes a procession for the presentation of the oils, in which the oil and balm to be consecrated as Chrism may be accompanied with incense and lights. This procession may be incorporated with the procession for the preparation of the altar and gifts, or may take place before it, depending on when in the liturgy the oils are to be blessed and the Chrism consecrated.
Holy/Maundy Thursday includes an elaborated procession for the preparation of the altar and gifts, during which alms, food and clothing items may be collected for the poor. Also, at some point in this day’s liturgy, usually at the preparation of the altar and gifts, but at the beginning of the liturgy in some places, the oils from the Chrism Mass may be received for use in the pastoral life of the parish. Depending on how the Mandatum (Footwashing) is conducted, people may find themselves filing in procession to a station where they will encounter the basin and the towel. And finally, procession will take the Blessed Sacrament out of the chancel to a chapel, chantry or other space for reservation during the rest of the Triduum.
Procession on Good Friday brings the Cross into the assembly for veneration: it may be unveiled during the pauses in the procession — or carried in bare — to be hailed three times as “the Wood. . . on which hung the Savior of the World.” Accompanied with lights (and incense in some places), this procession gives way to another procession, that of the faithful coming to venerate the holy cross.
The Great Paschal Vigil includes the entrance procession with the Paschal Candle, perhaps stopping at the same places that the previous day’s procession stopped, this time to hail the light of Christ arisen. In procession we herald the Word about to be proclaimed, and restore the singing of “Alleluia” in praise for the wonders that God has done. Procession takes candidates for holy baptism to the font and brings them back into the assembly as Christians. Procession may bring water to the assembly, with which they will remember their own baptism in gratitude — or, procession may take one and all to the font for the same purpose.
And on each of these days, procession brings the assembly to the altar, there to receive the sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord of life.
The purpose of the various processions in the Holy Week liturgies is not simply to commemorate past events by creative reenactment. It is, rather, to help us experience ourselves and our here-and-now as being inserted into the Saving Mystery that transcends space and time. In many places, most or all of the above-named processions — and perhaps a few more — are times when the whole assembly is invited to join in, walking, journeying, trekking on pilgrimage from here-to-there — into the heart of the Paschal Mystery.