Once again, we are about to approach this most solemn celebration of the Church – the sacred Triduum. We are invited into a time that the Church calendar calls “the culmination of the entire liturgical year.” It begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and ends with Vespers on Easter Sunday evening. Here we encounter the entire Paschal Mystery – movement from death to life, from betrayal to the cross, the dying and rising of the Lord, and within all of that, our own death and rising. With the Elect we dare to stand once more before the death-dealing yet life-giving waters of Baptism that define us as Christian and as Church.
Because this event is spread over three days, many do not realize that the celebration of the Triduum is really one single liturgy, one solemn journey that we make with one another. It is one grand movement that begins on Holy Thursday with the presentation of the oils that have been blessed by the Bishop at the Chrism Mass and then with the proclamation of the entrance antiphon: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered.” It continues with the washing of the feet, collection for the poor, communion, and the solemn procession of the Eucharist to the altar of repose where the faithful spend time in adoration and prayer.
The second stage of this journey is the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion. The service itself begins where we left off the day before – in silent prayer. Next is the liturgy of the Word – Scripture, homily, and intercession. We are deeply moved by the listening to the passion of the Lord, and by the homily which should draw us right into the passion of our own lives. Our response is to join with the crucified Christ in prayer for the whole world. I have heard people refer to these intercessions as “those long prayers.” They are certainly more extended than the usual universal prayer we pray on Sundays, but this is a time to focus on redemption and reconciliation in a way that we do not make time for in the usual Sunday Eucharist. It might be a good practice to use these prayers in our personal prayer during the week so when we hear them again on Good Friday, we can resonate with the real needs of the Church and the world.
Next there is more procession. We are called to come forward and adore the wood of the cross, that profound instrument of our redemption. This is expressed in bodily posture which may take many forms: removing one’s shoes, a kiss, a touch, a genuflection. Even observing the reverence and piety with which people are drawn to the cross is itself a meditation. We contemplate this tree by which evil was defeated once and for all. Within the context of the reading of John’s Gospel, especially, the cross points to God’s reign and our salvation. It does not stop at death.
Finally, we participate in the simplest of communion services – another procession – and leave in silence.
On Holy Saturday night, in silence and in darkness, we enter into the Easter Vigil. The Easter fire is burning, the Paschal Candle is lit. Yet another procession! Light of Christ! Thanks be to God! is proclaimed as we light our candles from the Easter candle. Then follows the ecstatic singing of the Exultet – a song of great blessing and thanksgiving, much like the Eucharistic Prayer.
Then we tell our story. We remind one another where we came from and where we are going – we relate the great sweep of our salvation history with scripture, psalm, silence, prayer, and finally ask the question with St. Paul: “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” And at last we stand trembling with the women before the empty tomb: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He has been raised.”
Now comes the procession to the font as we sing the litany of the saints, calling on that cloud of witnesses, whose ranks we hope to join, to walk with us and pray for us. Next, we baptize, anoint and clothe the neophytes in white garments, handing them the light of Christ, as we remember our own Baptism. Finally, we process to the Eucharistic table to be nourished with the Body and Blood of the Lord and enter into the 50 Day celebration of Eastertime.
This year try to participate in the Triduum in its completeness. If you participate every year, you understand the richness and the spiritual depth of this three-day liturgy. If you have never done so, you are in for a spiritual treat, perhaps even conversion and transformation. You are invited. Come to the water. Come to the feast.
Sister Jeremy Gallet is a Sister of Providence and Director of the Diocesan Office of Worship.