The liturgies of the Easter triduum invite us to take our place in the story of Christ’s dying and rising
At the end of the 40 days of Lent, the church moves into a new liturgical season, the shortest and the most important of the entire year: the sacred paschal triduum. The triduum (from the Latin for “three days”) stretches from the evening of Holy Thursday until the evening of Easter Sunday. Through the liturgies of the triduum, we walk with Christ from the upper room of the Last Supper, to the place of crucifixion, to the garden where he was buried and raised from the dead.
The triduum is not a Passion play or a historical reenactment. Rather, these liturgies are a solemn act of remembrance of the central mystery of our faith: that Jesus lived, suffered, died and rose again for us. Liturgical remembering is not like ordinary remembering. When the church remembers, God makes something happen here and now, because the One whom we remember is always present in our midst.
The three major liturgies of the triduum — the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Passion of the Lord on Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night on Holy Saturday — are really like one great liturgy, spread over three days. They show us the face of Christ and invite us to take our place in the story of his dying and rising. They lead us to the heart of our faith and prepare us to celebrate Easter.
In the words of Pope Francis, “We cannot live Easter without entering into the mystery. It is not something intellectual, something we only know or read about. … It is more, much more! ‘To enter into the mystery’ means the ability to wonder, to contemplate; the ability to listen to the silence and to hear the tiny whisper amid great silence by which God speaks to us.”
The three days are the church’s annual invitation to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ.
Archbishop J. Peter Sartain washes the feet of parishioners at St. James Cathedral. The Holy Thursday tradition shows us what Eucharist means and what priesthood is all about: humble service. Photo: M. Laughlin
Holy Thursday: ‘Do this in memory of me’
The triduum begins with the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. “On the day before he was to suffer, he took bread.” We hear the words so often, but on this night, the familiar takes on special urgency. Jesus is about to be handed over to trial and crucifixion — and he knows it. He knows his disciples will be scattered. He knows one of them will betray him and one will deny him. And yet his concern is not for himself, but for them. He reassures and consoles them and promises them his abiding presence. And he puts his love into action: He takes the bread and wine of the Passover table and offers them to his disciples as his own body and blood. Through the Eucharist, which the church has never failed to celebrate in his memory, Jesus continues to reassure, to console, to be present, and to sustain us. As the church remembers the institution of the Eucharist, we also mark the inauguration of the priesthood, which exists so that the church may “do this in memory of me.”
Given the focus of the liturgy on the Eucharist and the priesthood, is it surprising that the Gospel reading is the washing of the feet from John 13? Jesus kneels down before his disciples, one by one, and washes their feet. Then he asks them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?” In washing their feet, Jesus shows us what Eucharist means and what priesthood is all about: humble service. Each year, as the priest repeats Jesus’ gesture and washes the feet of members of the parish community, the church places the image of servant leadership squarely before our eyes.
The Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper ends with the transfer of the holy Eucharist. The ciborium (a vessel containing consecrated hosts) is carried to the “altar of repose,” sometimes in a separate building, sometimes in another part of the church. There, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament continues, usually until midnight. This time of adoration has many layers of meaning. Traditionally, it recalls Jesus’ hours of agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. By our prayer and presence, we respond to Jesus’ invitation to “remain here and keep watch.” (Matthew 26:38) It is a time for adoration of the living presence of Christ in our midst. The passion of Jesus is not something remote from us. Through the Eucharist, we share daily in the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial life, death and resurrection.
"So when we as one are gathered all together, let us strive to keep our minds free of division; may there be an end to malice, strife, and quarrels, and let Christ our God be dwelling here among us." - Ubi Caritas, chant for Holy Thursday
Good Friday: ‘All the world is Calvary’
Veneration of the Cross is at the heart of the Good Friday liturgy, the only day of the year when the church does not celebrate the Eucharist. Photo: M. Laughlin
In the afternoon or early evening of Good Friday, the church gathers again for the solemn liturgy of the Passion of the Lord. This liturgy is different from any other in the entire year. It is not a Mass: Good Friday is the only day of the year when the church does not celebrate the Eucharist. “There is no sacrifice on this day, for all is sacrifice,” wrote the English priest Robert Hugh Benson in a wonderful 1904 essay on Holy Week. “There is no need for the Holy Ghost to come down, to make the Body of the Son, and touch the Father’s Heart, for today all the world is Calvary.”
The liturgy of Good Friday begins starkly and unforgettably with the prostration of the clergy before the altar. As the priest and deacon prostrate themselves in silence, the entire assembly kneels in prayer. Contemplating the death of Jesus, we kneel in humility, prayer and adoration. We touch the dust from which we came.
And yet, even on Good Friday, joy is never far away. The first reading — one of the “Servant Songs” from Isaiah — takes us from sorrow to joy. God’s servant is “stricken … smitten … afflicted … pierced,” and yet the reading leads us to a place of hope: “He shall see the light in fullness of days.” (Isaiah 53:11) Good Friday is about death and life, about sorrow and hope.
All of this becomes visible in the Veneration of the Cross, which is at the heart of the Good Friday liturgy. As the cross is shown to the assembly, the deacon chants, “Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.” As we come forward as a community for veneration, we touch the cross, contemplating the sorrows of Christ, and recognizing in the cross our source of life, our only hope. “Because of the wood of a tree joy has come to the whole world,” says an ancient chant in the Roman Missal. The Good Friday liturgy ends with the Communion rite: Even on this day, we receive the risen body of Christ.
"We adore your Cross, O Lord, we praise and glorify your holy Resurrection, for behold, because of the wood of a tree joy has come to the whole world." - Roman Missal, chant for Adoration of the Holy Cross
Holy Saturday: ‘This is the night!’
The Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday is the most ancient and the most important of the church’s liturgies. As we keep vigil for the resurrection of Christ from death, the liturgy takes us to the heart of what it means to be human. The essentials of life — fire, water, oil, bread, wine — are taken up, transformed and made holy.
The Easter Vigil begins with the blessing of fire, which is used to light the paschal or Easter candle, the sign of Christ’s resurrection. On the candle, the priest traces a cross, within which he marks the numerals of the current year. This rite is a powerful expression of the church’s faith that Christ’s resurrection does not recede in time like other historical events. These mysteries are present among us. That is why the great Easter proclamation, the Exsultet, reminds us again and again that “This is the night!”
At the beginning of the Easter Vigil, left, the priest marks a cross on the new paschal candle with the numerals of the current year. Photo: M. Laughlin
“This is the joy of the Easter Vigil,” as Pope Benedict XVI said. “The Resurrection is not a thing of the past, the Resurrection has reached us and seized us. We grasp hold of it, we grasp hold of the risen Lord, and we know that he holds us firmly even when our hands grow weak.”
The Scripture readings at the Easter Vigil take us from the creation account in Genesis through the whole story of God’s love relationship with humanity. The readings remind us that from the beginning, we were made in the divine image. Through all our struggles, wanderings and sins, God has loved us and drawn us toward life in his Son. The readings culminate in the proclamation of the ultimate good news, the Gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection. After our 40-day Lenten fast, the “Alleluia” returns, our Christian song of rejoicing and praise.
The Easter Vigil is the time for the initiation of new members into the church. As we celebrate Easter, it is fitting that we also celebrate baptism, which is our own entry into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Tonight, catechumens who have been preparing for many months receive the sacraments of initiation — baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. (Sometimes candidates for full communion are received as well.) We do not need to be family members, friends or sponsors to participate and rejoice in this moment. In the baptism of new members, the body of Christ grows; the Resurrection is made visible.
After their baptism, the new Christians are sealed with the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of confirmation. Whether we were baptized as infants or as adults, we renew our baptismal covenant, and rejoice in the freely given gifts of God. And then, once again, the table is prepared and we celebrate the Eucharist. The risen body of Christ is food for our journey — daily bread.
Later in the Mass, catechumens are initiated into the church through baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. Photo: M. Laughlin
The Easter Vigil is the first and most important of our Easter celebrations, which continue throughout the day on Easter Sunday. Easter is nothing less than an invitation to start fresh. “Clear out the old yeast,” says St. Paul in the second reading for Easter Sunday. “Let us celebrate the feast!” (1 Corinthians 5:7, 8)
"Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. All time belongs to him and all the ages. To him be glory and power through every age and for ever. Amen." - Prayer for the blessing of the paschal candle
An invitation: Enter into the mystery
Participating in the journey of the triduum brings us face to face with the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising. We are not mere spectators. By our baptism, we have a place in this mystery. We are sharers in the living, dying and rising of Jesus, called to wash one another’s feet, to lay down our egos and even our lives for others, to rise from the tomb of our sins to new life in God.
There’s no doubt about it: Participating in the triduum is a commitment. It means sacrificing our time and rearranging our schedules. It means letting other things go. In the words of Pope Francis, “To enter into the mystery means going beyond our own comfort zone.” But there is no better way to prepare for Easter Sunday, and no better way to enter into the mystery that guides our lives and gives them meaning.
After blessing the fire at the beginning of the Easter Vigil, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain lights the new Easter candle. Its flame will be passed, candle to candle, among the congregation. Photo: M. Laughlin
Other triduum devotions
The three major triduum liturgies are the best way to observe these holy days. Over the centuries, many other devotions for these days have developed. They can also add depth and richness to our observance of the holiest time of the year, but they should supplement, not replace, participation in the church’s liturgies.
Holy Thursday Visits
In many countries, it is the custom to visit several churches to pray during the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament following the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. In the Archdiocese of Seattle, this tradition continues with a young adult pilgrimage following the Mass at St. James Cathedral. Young adults walk to several Seattle churches for prayer, concluding at midnight (see page 29).
Good Friday Stations
The Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) is one of the most beloved Catholic devotions, tracing the journey of Jesus from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate to his burial, with 14 stations or “stops” to reflect on moments along the way — mostly scriptural, some traditional. In many countries, an hour of prayer before the Pietà, the image of Mary cradling her dead Son, is observed; in Italy, it is called the Ora della Desolata, and in the Americas, the Pésame a la Virgen.
Holy Saturday and Easter
In many countries, including the Philippines, Easter Sunday begins with an early-morning procession. While one group carries an image of the Sorrowful Mother, another carries an image of the Risen Christ. The two processions meet at the church. The blessing of food and homes is also especially associated with the Easter season.
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