Understanding the Easter Triduum
...The unity of the Triduum is maintained and enhanced by a careful and prudent preparation of the liturgies. We do not aim to be didactic or historicist or inventive...
THE EASTER TRIDUUM, which begins with the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, reaches its high point in the Easter Vigil, and closes with evening prayer on Easter Sunday is the culmination of the entire liturgical year (GNLY 18-19).
At the heart of the Triduum lies the solemn commemoration of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord, that awesome mystery which is made present at every celebration of the sacraments, every Sunday celebration of the
Eucharist, and in a heightened way over the three days of the sacred Triduum.
The specific character of this most sacred time comes to the fore when we consider that Christ’s Paschal Mystery whole and entire (his birth, ministry, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, the sending of the Spirit and his return in glory) is celebrated as one single mystery over three days. The Paschal Triduum celebrates the entire Christ-event over three distinct yet closely related liturgical celebrations on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, liturgical moments which are triumphantly affirmed in the celebration of Eucharist on Easter Sunday. This is the very heart of the liturgical year when Christ is most powerfully present.
Lent, marked by its baptismal and penitential themes, serves as preparation for the intense annual commemoration of the Triduum. The scriptural and liturgical texts of Lent call the Church to conversion in the light of the reconciliation Christ has established by his suffering, dying and rising. A serious and profound observance of Lent will lead to a more
fruitful and abundant celebration of the Easter mysteries. Although Lent is a time of preparation, it is not as though the Paschal Mystery were put ‘on hold’. Every time we celebrate Eucharist, we share in the sacrifice and triumph of the cross. In the Triduum, the reality is painted more clearly and vividly. In the Prayer over the Offerings from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, we pray that we may participate worthily in these mysteries, for whenever
the memorial of this sacrifice is celebrated the work of our redemption is accomplished.
The unity of the saving Christ-event which we experience in every Eucharist is true also of the great Easter Triduum. By keeping such a focus we can guard against the literalist tendency that can sometimes govern our approach to the celebration of Holy Week and the Triduum. Events are commemorated one at a time and one by one! But the liturgies of Holy Week are not pageantry or pantomime, much less a re-enactment of discrete historical events. It is one single liturgy of the entire Paschal Mystery unfolded over three days.
The sense of progression over these consecutive days is intentional. One liturgy leads in to the other. Note that there is no dismissal at the conclusion of the liturgy of Holy Thursday and no sign of the cross or greeting at the beginning of the liturgy on Good Friday. Nor is there a dismissal at the end of the Passion liturgy on Good Friday: following the Prayer over the People the faithful depart in silence. Further, the holy communion people receive on Good Friday comes from what was consecrated on Holy Thursday, a clear sign of the unity of cross and altar. It is the only time in the whole year that the Church’s liturgy requires the assembly to receive communion from the reserved Sacrament, signifying that the Celebration of the Passion of the Lord and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper are actually parts of the same liturgical event. We celebrate the one saving Easter Mystery from the different points of view provided by the Lord’s Supper, the crucifixion and the resurrection.
The unity of the Triduum is maintained and enhanced by a careful and prudent preparation of the liturgies. We do not aim to be didactic or historicist or inventive. The liturgical books provide a set of stable prayers and readings which give shape to the Church’s ritual/sacramental participation in the saving mysteries of Christ. The true value of our Triduum experience is found in a yearly return to things that are familiar so as to discover again and again their inner meaning and significance for our spiritual lives and ultimately for our eternal salvation. The ritual speaks for itself. There is much wisdom in simply trusting the rites to do what they need to do. We embellish the rites not by changing them or reinterpreting them but by coming to them spiritually aware and prepared to celebrate them in faith.
Preparation of the rites of the Paschal Triduum will need to articulate their fundamental unity as three distinct yet closely related liturgical celebrations. Ideally, one parish community gathers across the three days in the same parish church with the one parish priest. The priest will conceive his preaching over the three days as a unit. Holy communion on Good Friday is taken from the chapel where it was put on Holy Thursday. Visual elements such as the large wooden cross used for adoration on Good Friday can also figure on Holy Thursday and Easter, perhaps suitably decorated with flowers or the white drape of resurrection. Common musical themes can recur throughout the Triduum. Some parishes make a single parish participation booklet containing all three liturgies within one cover.
However the pastoral reality in many places is not always so neat. A parish may have more than one priest and perhaps a deacon. A parish may encompass multiple churches and communities, sometimes across large distances. The challenge to implement the linkage across the Triduum will become acute in these situations. Perhaps the main parish church is too distant or too small to accommodate the gathering of all the communities in the parish for a common Triduum. Such situations will require careful discernment.
Unity (of both Church and of Triduum) needs to be a key element in the discernment. The liturgies are not automatically divided up between the parish priest and the assistant priest. The liturgies are not rotated automatically through several locations. There is real power in drawing together the whole parish community to put their efforts into one celebration of the Lord’s mysteries, thereby ensuring that the liturgy will be celebrated as well as possible: a fulsome assembly of the faithful, with the best readers and musicians, and the participation of the parish clergy.
I am worried by the decision in some places to have a deacon or lay person preside at the Good Friday Celebration of the Passion of the Lord on the grounds that it is not a Mass. It is more than a Liturgy of the Word with Communion and a few added extras. It is an integral part of the ritual order of the Triduum, intimately linked with the Eucharist of Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil. Like the Eucharist itself, Good Friday also celebrates the sacrifice of Christ – using the cross in place of the altar. In fact historically the liturgy was called the ‘Mass of the Pre-sanctified’ (that is, a ‘Mass’ with an already consecrated host, a particle of which was placed into the chalice of unconsecrated wine for the priest’s communion). The prescribed vesture for the priest on Good Friday is the chasuble, and the rubrics of the Missal presume a priest is presiding. I would argue that the nature of Good Friday requires the presence of the priest to lead the liturgy, preferably the priest who celebrates the whole Triduum.
The liturgical texts constantly remind us of the unity of the Triduum. In the Entrance Antiphon for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper we sing: 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. Good Friday is not a day of mourning, for we sing: 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. The Exsultet sung in the Holy Night proclaims: O truly necessary sin of Adam destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!... O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour when Christ rose from the underworld!
At every hour of every day, people who glory in the name ‘Christian’ are living the Paschal Mystery. The celebration of the central mysteries of our faith at Easter requires a real commitment on the part of all in order to ensure that the liturgy is integrated with the baptismal life. There is no other time in the course of the year which will ask more of us as a worshipping people. In their return year after year to ancient and well-worn practices, the People of God celebrate over three ritual-filled days Christ’s passage through death to life. Returning yearly to what is familiar, they commit themselves more and more to the Paschal Mystery into which they were first immersed at their Christian baptism.
This article first appeared in Liturgy News under the title 'The Easter Triduum' by Brian Nichols.