Three days: from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper to Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday, the Paschal Triduum is a single celebration that highlights different aspects of the Lord’s saving death and resurrection. If the Triduum were only about liturgy in church, it might seem like a marathon. However, it is not only at the centre of the liturgical year but the meaning of the Triduum forms the core of our lives as Christians. In our society not everyone is guaranteed time off from work or from other responsibilities to attend these liturgies. Attendance is a privilege. How do we make the most of the privilege of the Triduum both inside the church and outside? The central meaning and symbols of the three main celebrations teach us how to experience the Triduum as a single celebration that defines who we are as Christians in the church and in the world.
Holy Thursday: Mass of the Lord’s Supper
The liturgical colour for this celebration is white, which symbolizes its festive character in the midst of Lent. On this day we also sing the Gloria while ringing bells. There are three major movements that characterize this liturgy and invite us into the paschal mystery:
- The mandatum: We recognize this ritual by the washing of the feet. In particular, Jesus tells Peter: “If I do not wash you, you will have no part in me.” Taking this ritual to heart means making room in our lives for Jesus and allowing him to form us, to heal us, to wash us. Mandatum refers to the new commandment Jesus gives to us this evening: “love one another as I have loved you.” First we receive humbly from God, and then we give.
- Institution of the Lord’s Supper: The preparation of the gifts is accompanied by the antiphon Ubi caritas, which means, where true charity is dwelling, God is present there. It is customary to present gifts for the poor along with the bread and wine. This Mass commemorates the first Eucharist. Situated after the mandatum and before Good Friday, this Eucharist draws us deeply into the connection between service and sacrifice.
- Reposition of the Blessed Sacrament: The liturgy concludes by leading us in procession to the sorrow of the crucifixion as we remain in adoration with the Blessed Sacrament at the chapel of repose, singing the Eucharistic hymn of St. Thomas Aquinas, Pange lingua. All should leave the church in silence. Even if you do not remain long in adoration, consider extending the spirit of silent adoration throughout the trip home and for the rest of the evening as Good Friday has already begun.
Good Friday: The Passion of the Lord
The liturgical colour for this liturgy is red, which symbolises the triumph of Christ’s death. Even though it is not a Mass, the priest wears a chasuble to show the connection to the Eucharist. Good Friday is a day of fasting and abstinence. The bare altar should inspire all areas of the church including the entryway to be cleared of all decoration and clutter so that the mystery of Christ’s death is prominent. Traditionally the celebration takes place at 3pm to recall the biblical hour of Christ’s death. Whether you have the day off from work or not, cultivate an interior disposition of prayer, perhaps avoiding frivolous conversation, and otherwise honouring the death of the Lord throughout the day. The Good Friday liturgy begins as the Mass of the Lord’s Supper ended, in silence and with the prostration of the ministers and kneeling of the people. Then the liturgy has three movements:
- The Liturgy of the Word: Without candles, incense or the usual gestures and reverences, the focus is entirely on the Passion narrative. All kneel at the moment of Christ’s death. The solemn intercessions follow an ancient ritual form unique to Good Friday and allow us to offer our petitions with the Lord’s offering on the cross.
- Adoration of the Cross: This ritual explains what we heard in the Passion. The cross is shown, adored, acclaimed, and reverenced amidst traditional songs that take us to the heart of sorrow and grief.
- Communion Rite: Although the Eucharist is not celebrated, we receive, at the altar, the mystery that was announced in the Gospel and adored in the Cross. Then we leave again in silence. For now, we wait.
Holy Saturday is a continuation of Good Friday. We may be busy preparing for Easter but this day it feels as though we have a lump in our throats as we wait by the tomb. We are invited to pray, fast, and meditate upon the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Descent into Hell. Suspense and anticipation for the Lord’s Resurrection builds throughout the day:
- Darkness to light: The Vigil begins in total darkness evoking death, death that is conquered this evening. The spark of life then enters our community and our heart as the Easter candle is lit and heaven and earth meet in the Easter proclamation.
- Liturgy of the Word: In a Vigil, time is suspended and we linger to hear the Word of God. There are nine readings, which should be heard whenever possible. Through these readings our ancestors tell us the salvation story of which we are a part.
- Baptism: Here those who have been purified and enlightened are led to the waters of life. We who are baptised are claimed anew for Christ as we renew our own baptismal promises and feel the saving waters once again. For the first time the newly baptised participate in the prayer of the faithful.
- Eucharist: Finally, we gather around the altar, those of us long baptised and those just born anew this same evening. The barrenness of Lent gives way to a carefully prepared altar, fragrant flowers, and the fullness of the community’s song. Communion is an especially sumptuous feast when received under both species of bread and wine. Then we are sent forth with a blessing and the great Easter Alleluia. Many participants gather for a meal and to further welcome the newly initiated. Some families return home to eat and drink. The day of Christ’s Resurrection is here. The feast continues all day and the Triduum ends with evening prayer on Sunday night.
It is this Paschal Mystery as a whole that we celebrate every day for the eight days of Easter and every Sunday throughout the year. It is this Paschal Mystery that we carry in our hearts when we live in the world as people who are washed, who serve, who carry our Cross, who die with Christ, and who rise again to live in the glory of the Resurrection.