For many Episcopalians celebrating Holy Week—the seven-day period preceding Easter—it’s hard to imagine Palm Sunday without a procession of palms or Good Friday without the adoration of the cross, and for many, the first celebration of Jesus’ resurrection at the Easter Vigil, celebrated after sunset on the eve of Easter Day.
Who is responsible for conveying to the early Church what we know about the celebrations of Holy Week, celebrations that date back fourth and/or early fifth century in ancient Christendom? Egeria.
Egeria, one of a handful of upper-class Roman female converts whose support was critical in the development of early Christianity. A woman’s voice from the fourth century.
Egeria’s legacy: a glimpse into the fourth century
Many consider it likely that Egeria was a nun. Her “postcards” – sent to her fellow sisters in northwestern Spain from a three-year pilgrimage through modern-day Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and Syria—offer detailed descriptions of biblical sites, monastic communities, and worship practice in late fourth-century antiquity. Egeria traveled across much of the known world to Jerusalem, Mount Sinai, Constantinople, and Edessa.
Egeria’s travel diaries also served as primary source material for the modern Holy Week liturgies. Her letters were collected in monasteries and copied, then copied again. They were housed in the library of Monte Cassino, and the oldest surviving copies were made there in the eleventh century and discovered in 1884. Two independently prepared English translations provide us with a narrative of the significance of this pilgrimage for early Christian history and liturgy. It is the first major account of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and the most outstanding work written by a woman in the early Church.
Egeria recorded everything: she stayed in Jerusalem to witness an entire liturgical year and wrote down the liturgical practices of the local Christians. Egeria described the Sunday before Easter, now known as Palm Sunday as it was celebrated in Jerusalem at the end of the fourth century. For anyone who has received a palm in church, heard the story of the Passion recited by clergy and members of the congregation, and processed around the pew benches on Palm Sunday morning, her account should be familiar.
She described the holy sites on the Mount of Olives and the rituals around Holy Week. She told of the ritual of the Eucharist as practiced in Jerusalem and applauded the practice of reading from the Old and New Testaments as well as passages from the gospels. She described the process by which catechumens were taught the faith and baptized, and the lighting of the first fire of Easter in what we know as the Easter Vigil or the Great Vigil of Easter.
She described liturgical practice at a time when Christian beliefs were just becoming unified across the known world. Egeria was traveling and writing about liturgical practice before the formalization of the Nicene Creed, much less other traditions of the Church. One suspects, as some scholars have, that Egeria must have been very well connected to travel as widely and freely as she did and to be received as cordially as she was at every stop by bishops, ascetics, and others she encountered. Egeria worshipped at the appropriate moment at each shrine and church she visited, but she was always the observer.
Through her meticulous eye for detail, Egeria connects our liturgical practice with that of our earliest sisters and brothers in Christ.
CLICK HERE for an artist’s depiction of Egeria
Collect for Egeria
Jesus, our brother, as we, like Egeria, dare to follow in the steps you trod, be our companion on the way. May our eyes see not only the stones that saw you but the people who walk with you now; may our feet tread not only the path of your pain but the streets of a living city; may our prayers embrace not only the memory of your presence but the flesh and blood who jostle us today. Bless us, with them, and make us long to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Amen.
 This account, which survives in only one manuscript, of the llth century and discovered in 1884, has been edited in two independently prepared English translations with extensive scholarly annotation: 1) by George Gingras, New York 1970, and 2) by John Wilkinson, London 1971 and subsequent editions.