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The Easter Triduum: Three Days' Journey into Light

Lent is a desert season of simplicity, silence and fasting, meant to call us to repentance of our sins and detachment from the things of this world. Easter, by contrast, is an explosion of fire and flowers and feasting—eight straight days of solemnities in the Easter Octave, followed by six more weeks of celebration that Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death. Tucked between these two contrasting seasons are the three holiest days of the year, which recall the culmination of Christ’s saving mission: His passion, death and resurrection.

The Easter Triduum is easy to miss. We are encouraged to come to church on Holy Thursday, Good Friday or Holy Saturday—but attend all three just once, and the experience is impossible to forget.

Holy Thursday: The Lord’s Supper

Mass on Holy Thursday commemorates the Lord’s Supper—Jesus’ Passover meal with His apostles—at which He institutes three key elements of our Catholic faith:

  • The Holy Eucharist: Jesus blesses and shares the bread and the cup of wine, saying This is my body and This is my blood (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
  • The Priesthood: With Jesus’ words to His apostles, “Do this in memory of me,” He is ordaining them to celebrate the Eucharist in the future as His first priests. Jesus also gives them a model of service to follow by condescending to wash their feet (John 13:1-15).
  • The New Commandment: Jesus shares the mandatum, elevating God’s Law of Love from love your neighbor as yourself to love one another as I have loved you (John 13:1-15, c.f. John 13:34).

“At the last supper, Jesus is really elevating the bar,” says Fr. Brian Park. “The standard is no longer human love, but divine love. In the Roman missal, Holy Thursday is the only day for which there are specific instructions that the homily should shed light on these three things. We had two entire courses in the seminary on the Eucharist and on the Priesthood, and we’re asked to instruct the faithful about them in a 12-minute homily!”

Holy Thursday Mass often includes a ceremonial washing of feet, traditionally of 12 men, though more recently it has been expanded to include women and youth. Meant as a profound example of discipleship and service, this ritual will be continued this year with a variety of parishioners active in ministry and service.

At the end of the Mass, the Eucharist is processed to a side altar for Adoration until midnight, at which point it is reposed and all the lights in the nave of the church are extinguished.

Good Friday: The Passion and the Cross

Good Friday is the only day of the year in which the Mass is not celebrated. The Good Friday Liturgy is not a Mass, because there is no Liturgy of the Eucharist and no consecration of bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ. The liturgy has four parts:

  • The Liturgy of the Word, which includes a reading of the Passion similar to that which happens on Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter).
  • The Solemn Intercessions, in which the deacon and priest leads worshippers through specific Prayers of the Faithful, announcing the intentions and inviting all to kneel and stand.
  • Veneration of the Cross, a tradition dating back to St. Helena’s retrieval of the true Cross from Jerusalem, in which the clergy and the faithful come forward to kiss or otherwise honor a large wooden cross placed at the foot of the altar. Clergy often remove their shoes as they approach the cross as a sign of reverence.
  • Holy Communion, in which the faithful receive hosts that were consecrated on Holy Thursday.

“The most solemn feasts in the Church return to the most ancient traditions,” Fr. Park says. “We begin the Good Friday liturgy in silence, and when the clergy process in, they lay prostrate in front of the altar because that is the way Mass used to begin. Similarly, the Prayers of the Faithful at regular Masses recall the Solemn Intercessions, which is the ancient form.”

Good Friday services begin at 3 PM, the hour of Jesus’ death. The liturgy begins and ends in silence, and the faithful are encouraged to maintain that sense of quiet waiting until the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening.

Holy Saturday: From Darkness to Light

“During the day on Holy Saturday, we remember Jesus’ descent in Hell (Sheol,  the Abode of the Dead) to free the souls of the righteous who had died and were awaiting the Messiah,” Fr. Park says. “The Easter Vigil Mass begins at sunset, always with the Easter fire. The new Easter Candle is blessed and lit from the fire and we process into a darkened church with the light of Christ.”

The Easter Vigil is a four-part Mass:

  • The Lucenarium, or Liturgy of Light, which includes the fire, the blessing and lighting of the Easter candle, and the Exultet—a hymn of praise to the pillar of fire and of thanksgiving for so great a savior as Jesus—chanted by the deacon.
  • The Liturgy of the Word, comprising at least three, and as many as seven, Old Testament readings tracing the history of salvation beginning with Creation, plus a New Testament reading and the Gospel proclamation of Christ’s resurrection.
  • The Liturgy of Baptism, in which the catechumens (unbaptized persons joining the Catholic Church) and candidates (baptized Christians completing their initiation into the Catholic Church) receive sanctifying grace and the Holy Spirit through Baptism and/or Confirmation.
  • The Liturgy of the Eucharist, in which the faithful, beginning with the newly baptized and confirmed, receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

At all Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday Masses, the recitation of the Creed is replaced by a renewal of baptismal promises by all the faithful—an annual opportunity to reiterate our belief in God’s revelation, teaching and Church and our rejection of all Satan offers. And whether you celebrate the Resurrection on Saturday night or Sunday morning, it begins eight straight solemnities (the highest category of feasts in the Church) called the Octave of Easter, ending the following Sunday, on the Feast of Divine Mercy.

“During Lent, we are in the desert, fasting from much of the beauty of the Mass, so that on Easter we can worship with great joy and extra beauty—in the music, the flowers and decorations, the bells and the prayers,” Fr. Park says.

Preparing for the Resurrection

Liturgist Steve Long and ministry coordinator Cindy Woitalla engage close to 100 people to prepare for and serve during the Triduum—from the priests and deacons to servers and seminarians; from liturgical ministers to musicians to the behind-the-scenes volunteers who redecorate the nave of the church for each of the three liturgies.

“The Altar and Environment Committee meets six times a year and handles everything from flowers and decorations to making sure the worship space is clean and ready for the next liturgy,” says Woitalla. “Purifying, washing and ironing the linens from week to week is also a huge job, not to mention the server albs, cassocks and surplices.”

“For the Triduum, the colors change between the liturgies, from white on Holy Thursday to red on Good Friday and back to white on Saturday night,” Long says. “The corpus [body] on the crucifix is traditionally covered along with all the statues, and after Adoration on Holy Thursday, all the candles in the church—including all the vigil lights by the statues—are extinguished.”

Long used to wrestle the vigil light stands out of the sanctuary late at night to avoid the candles being relit, but a parish volunteer has now made covers for them.

For Woitalla, the goal leading up to Holy Week is to involve as many different ministers and families in the Triduum as she can, always balancing an experienced team of volunteers with new people so more ministers learn the ropes of these three liturgies.

But when sun sets on Holy Saturday, the little things take on bigger significance: “There are a lot of details for Father to manage—we just want to be sure he has what he needs, when and where he needs it,” Long says.

For more on the Triduum, as well as a wonderful Catholic Schools Week photo spread, a new ministry bringing hope and freedom to men, and more, check out the Lent 2021 issue of our DISCIPLE newsletter, in the mail, at the parish office and online now!