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The Easter Triduum: Entering into the Paschal Mystery | Carl E. Olson
The liturgical year is a great and ongoing proclamation by the Church of
the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a celebration of the Mystery of the Word.
Through this yearly cycle, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains,
"the various aspects of the one Paschal mystery unfold"(CCC 1171). The Easter
Triduum holds a special place in the liturgical year because it marks the
culmination of the yearly celebration in proclaiming the Passion and Resurrection
of Jesus Christ.
The Latin word triduum refers to a period of three days and has long
been used to describe various three-day observances that prepared for a
feast day through liturgy, prayer, and fasting. But it is most often used
to describe the three days prior to the great feast of Easter: Holy Thursday,
Good Friday, and Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil. The General Norms for
the Liturgical Year state that the Easter Triduum begins with the evening
Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday, "reaches its high point in the
Easter Vigil, and closes with evening prayer on Easter Sunday" (par 19).
Just as Sunday is the high point of the week, Easter is the high point of
the year. The meaning of the great feast is revealed and anticipated throughout
the Triduum, which brings the people of God into contact through
liturgy, symbol, and sacrament with the central events of the life
of Christ: the Last Supper, His trial and crucifixion, His time in the tomb,
and His Resurrection from the dead. In this way, "the mystery of the
Resurrection, in which Christ crushed death, permeates with its powerful
energy our old time, until all is subjected to him" (CCC 1169). During
these three days of contemplation and anticipation the liturgies emphasize
the sacrificial death of Christ on the Cross, and the sacraments of baptism
and the Eucharist, by which the faithful enter into the life-giving Passion
of Christ and grow in hope of eternal life in Him.
Holy Thursday | The Lord's Supper
The Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lords Supper on
Holy Thursday, which commemorates when the Eucharist was instituted at the
Last Supper by Jesus. The traditional English name for this day, "Maundy
Thursday", comes from the Latin phrase Mandatum novum
"a new command" (or mandate) which comes from Christs
words: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another;
even as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (Jn 13:34).
The Gospel reading for the liturgy is from the first part of the same chapter
and depicts Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, an act of servitude
(commonly done by slaves or servants in ancient cultures) and great humility.
Earlier on Holy Thursday (or earlier in the week) the bishop celebrates
the Chrism Mass, which focuses on the ordained priesthood and the public
renewal by priests of their promises to faithfully fulfill their office.
In the evening liturgy, the priest, who is persona Christi, will
wash the feet of several parishioners, oftentimes catechumens and candidates
who will be entering into full communion with the Church at Easter Vigil.
In this way the many connections between the Eucharist, salvation, self-sacrifice,
and service to others are brought together.
These realities are further anticipated in Jesus remark about the
approaching betrayal by Judas: "Whoever has bathed has no need except
to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but
not all." The sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is brought out in
the Old Testament reading, from Exodus 12, which recounts the first Passover
and Gods command for the people of Israel, enslaved in Egypt, to kill
a perfect lamb, eat it, and then spread its blood over the door as a sign
of fidelity to the one, true God. Likewise, the reading from Pauls
epistle to the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor 11) repeats the words given
by the Son of God to His apostles at the Last Supper: "This is my body
that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me" and "This
cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it,
in remembrance of me."
Thus, in this memorial of Jesus last meal with His disciples, the
faithful are reminded of the everlasting value of that meal, the gift of
the priesthood, the grave dangers of turning away from God, the necessity
of the approaching Cross, and the abiding love that the Lord has for His
Good Friday | Veneration of the Cross
This is the first full day of the Easter Triduum, a day commemorating the
Passion, Cross, and death of Jesus Christ, and therefore a day of strict
fasting. The liturgy is profoundly austere, perhaps the most simple and
stark liturgy of the entire year. The liturgy of the Lords Passion
consists of three parts: the liturgy of the Word, the veneration of the
Cross, and the reception of Communion. Although Communion is given and received,
this liturgy is not a Mass; this practice dates back to the earliest years
of the Church and is meant to emphasize the somber, mournful character of
the day. The Body of Christ that is received by the faithful on Good Friday
was consecrated the prior evening at the Mass of the Lords Supper
and, in most cases, was adored until midnight or another late hour.
The liturgy of the Word begins with silence. After a prayer, there are readings
from Isaiah 52 and 53 (about the suffering Servant), Psalm 31 (a great Messianic
psalm), and the epistle to the Hebrews (about Christ the new and eternal
high priest). Each of these readings draws out the mystery of the suffering
Messiah who conquers through death and who is revealed through what seemingly
destroys Him. Then the Passion from the Gospel of John (18:1-19:42) is proclaimed,
often by several different lectors reading respective parts (Jesus, the
guards, Peter, Caiaphas the high priest, Pilate, the soldiers). In this
reading the great drama of the Passion unfolds, with Jew and Gentile, male
and female, and the powerful and the weak all revealed for who they are
and how their choices to follow or deny Christ will affect their lives and
the lives of others.
The simple, direct form of the Good Friday liturgy and readings brings the
faithful face to face with the cross, the great scandal and paradox of Christianity.
The cross is solemnly venerated after intercessory prayers are offered for
the world and for all people. The deacon (or another minister) brings out
the veiled cross in procession. The priest takes the cross, stands with
it in front of the altar and faces the people, then uncovers the upper part
of the cross, the right arm of the cross, and then the entire cross. As
he unveils each part, he sings, "This is the wood of the cross."
He places the cross and then venerates it; other clergy, lay ministers,
and the faithful then approach and venerate the cross by touching or kissing
it. In this way each person acknowledges the instrument of Christs
death and publicly demonstrates their willingness to take up their cross
and follow Christ, regardless of what trials and sufferings it might involve.
Afterward, the faithful receive Communion and then depart silently. In the
Byzantine rite, Communion is not even offered on this day. At Vespers a
"shroud" bearing a painting of the lifeless Christ is carried
in a burial procession, and the faithful keep vigil before it through the
Holy Saturday and Easter Vigil | The Mother of All Vigils
The ancient Church celebrated Holy Saturday with strict fasting in preparation
of the celebration of Easter. After sundown the Christians would hold an
all-night vigil, which concluded with baptism and Eucharist at the break
of dawn. The same idea (if not the identical timeline) is found in the Easter
Vigil today, which is the high point of the Easter Triduum and is filled
with an abundance of readings, symbols, ceremony, and sacraments.
The Easter Vigil, the Church states, ranks "the mother of all vigils"
(General Norms, 21). Being a vigil a time of anticipation and preparation
it takes place at night, starting after nightfall and finishing before
daybreak on Easter, thus beginning and ending in darkness. It consists of
four general parts: the Service of Light, the Liturgy of the Word, Christian
Initiation, and Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The Service of Light begins outdoors (or in a space outside of the main
sanctuary) and in darkness. A fire is lit and blessed, and then the Paschal
candle, which symbolizes the light of Christ, is lit from the fire by the
priest, who proclaims: "May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel
the darkness of our hearts and minds." The biblical themes of light
removing darkness and life overcoming death suffuse the entire Vigil. The
Paschal candle will be placed in the sanctuary (usually by the altar) for
the Easter season, then will be kept in the baptistery so that when the
sacrament of baptism is administered the candles of the baptized can be
lit from it.
The faithful then join in procession back to the main sanctuary. The deacon
(or priest, if no deacon is present), carries the Paschal Candle, lifting
it three different times and chanting: "Christ our Light!" The
people respond by singing, "Thanks be to God!" Everyones
candles are lit from the Paschal candle and the faithful return in procession
into the sanctuary. Then the Exultet is sung by the deacon (or priest
or cantor). This is an ancient and beautiful poetic hymn of praise to God
for the light of the Paschal candle. It may be as old as Saint Ambrose (d.
397) and has been part of the Roman tradition since the ninth century. In
the darkness of the church, lit only by candles, the faithful listen to
the song of light and glory:
Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes for ever!
May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all mankind,
your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
The Liturgy of the Word follows, consisting of seven readings from the Old
Testament and two from the New Testament. These readings include the story
of creation (Genesis 1 and 2), Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22), the crossing
of the Red Sea (Exodus 14 and 15), the prophet Isaiah proclaiming Gods
love (Isaiah 54), Isaiahs exhortation to seek God (Isaiah 55), a passage
from Baruch about the glory of God (Baruch 3 and 4), a prophecy of Ezekiel
(Ezekiel 36), Saint Paul on being baptized into Jesus Christ (Rom 6), and
the Gospel of Luke about the empty tomb discovered on Easter morning (Luke 24:1-21).
These readings constitute an overview of salvation history and Gods
various interventions into time and space, beginning with Creation and concluding
with the angel telling Mary Magdalene and others that Jesus is no longer
dead; "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised;
he is not here." Through these readings "the Lord beginning
with Moses and all the prophets (Lk 24.27, 44-45) meets us once again
on our journey and, opening up our minds and hearts, prepares us to share
in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup" (General
Some of the readings are focused on baptism, that sacrament which brings
man into saving communion with Gods divine life. Consider, for example,
Saint Pauls remarks in Romans 6: "We were indeed buried with
him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from
the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life."
Easter is in many ways the season of baptism, the sacrament of Christian
initiation, in which those who formally lived in darkness and death are
buried and baptized in Christ, emerging filled with light and life.
From the early days of the ancient Church the Easter Vigil has been the
time for adult converts to be baptized and enter the Church. After the conclusion
of the Liturgy of the Word, catechumens (those who have never been baptized)
and candidates (those who have been baptized in a non-Catholic Christian
denomination) are initiated into the Church by (respectively) baptism and
confirmation. The faithful are sprinkled with holy water and renew their
baptismal vows. Then all adult candidates are confirmed and general intercessions
are stated. The Easter Vigil concludes with the Liturgy of the Eucharist
and the reception of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the Crucified
and Risen Lord. For as Eastern Catholics sing hundreds of times during the
Paschal season, "Christ is risen from the dead; by death He conquered
death, and to those in the graves, He granted life!"
(This article was originally published in a slightly different form in the April 9, 2006, edition
of Our Sunday Visitor
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The Truth of the Resurrection | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Easter: The Defiant Feast | Fr. James V.
Us From Evil | Carl E. Olson
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous
Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic
Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland,
Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, and two children.
Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com.
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