Catholicism 101: The Easter Triduum

by Margo Borders


The Catholic celebration of the Easter Triduum starts with Holy Thursday. The traditional name for this day is “Maundy Thursday,” which comes from the phrase “a new command,” referring to Christ’s 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” (John 13:34). The Holy Thursday Mass commemorates the institution of the Eucharist by Christ at the Last Supper as well as the institution of the priesthood. During the Mass, the priest traditionally washes the feet of a number of parishioners, usually 12, in order to imitate Christ when He washed the feet of His 12 apostles before the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. This act emphasizes the ideas of service and self-sacrifice that were exemplified by Christ in His Passion and death. In cathedrals, the bishop blesses the Oil of Chrism that will be used for future Baptism and Confirmation. Because no Mass will be celebrated until the Easter Vigil, the priest carries the consecrated Host in a procession to the altar of repose, where it will stay until the Good Friday service. Often, people will stay for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament during the night.

Good Friday commemorates the Passion and death of Jesus Christ. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are required to fast on Good Friday, which means eating one full meal and two small meals that together do not equal a full meal. All Catholics above the age of 14 must abstain from meat on this day. During the Good Friday liturgy, there are readings, a reception of the Eucharist, and the congregation participates in the veneration of the cross. Because of the mournful spirit of the day, the Eucharist is not consecrated during the actual service, which means the liturgy is not a Mass. After the readings, which include a reading of the Passion according to John, the congregation comes forward to venerate the cross by touching or kissing it. The liturgy ends in silence.


The Easter Vigil is celebrated after sundown on Holy Saturday. It is the longest and most solemn Mass in the Catholic tradition, often lasting up to three hours. The Mass begins outdoors where a fire is lit and blessed, and the fire is used to light the Paschal candle. The Paschal candle, symbolizing the Light of Christ, is kept burning on the altar during the entire season of Easter, and is also used on special occasions throughout the year, such as baptisms and funerals. This candle is then brought into the church and the candles of the congregation are lit, lighting the entire church. The Liturgy of the Word is extended, including seven readings from the Old and New Testaments, which give an account of salvation history. During this Mass, catechumens, who have never been baptized, and candidates, who have been baptized in another Christian denomination, are initiated into the Church through Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist.


Easter Sunday is the culmination of the Easter Triduum, celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The liturgical season of Easter lasts 50 days from Easter Sunday until Pentecost Sunday. Because every Sunday is a holy day of obligation and Easter is always celebrated on a Sunday, Catholics are obliged to go to Mass this day.


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