What exactly is the tradition we Catholics call the Easter Triduum? The Paschal Triduum is at the core of Christianity, as we celebrate the Paschal Mystery: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Triduum allows the faithful to enter deep within the traditions and mysteries of the Church.
The Triduum begins on Holy Thursday with a Chrism Mass, where the holy oils used for the year are blessed, and the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. During the latter Mass, we hear in the readings the story from Exodus where the Lord saves the Israelites during the Passover, Paul’s recounting of the Last Supper where Jesus instituted the Eucharist, and the passage from the Gospel of John where Jesus says to his apostles, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me 'teacher' and 'master,' and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do." (cf John 13: 12-15).
Holy Thursday celebrates the creation of two Sacraments that Jesus handed down to the Apostles: Holy Eucharist and the Priesthood. During Holy Thursday, we celebrate the gift that Jesus entrusted us to receive Him in the form of bread and wine as His Body and Blood and to continue His ministry through priests. A popular hymn during Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper is “As I Have Done for You.” Its lyrics read “I, your Lord and Master, now become your servant. I who made the moon and stars will kneel to wash your feet. This is My commandment: to love as I have loved you. Kneel to wash each other's feet as I have done for you.” The ceremony of the washing of the feet usually accompanies this song. The priest washes the feet of lay people, just as Jesus did. At the end of the liturgy, the priest says a final prayer, and then carries the Blessed Sacrament out of the Church until Good Friday, with Thomas Aquinas’ “Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium” chanted. The congregation is never dismissed or blessed, thus ensuring continuity into Good Friday.
Usually to begin Mass, there is a procession accompanied with a song and an opening prayer. Not for Good Friday. The priest processes in and lays prostrate in front of a bare sanctuary. Good Friday is the only day throughout the liturgical year where there is no Mass. Each year, the Passion according to John is read, sometimes chanted, keeping with the solemnity of the day. The most poignant moment of Good Friday celebration is veneration of the Cross, where everyone is called to come adore the cross of Jesus by kissing it. Often “Behold the Wood” is played, and its lyrics are “Behold, behold the wood of the Cross, on which on hung our salvation. O come, let us adore.” We are called to venerate the Cross upon which He who saves us from sin and death was hung. Since there is no Mass, the Eucharist is not consecrated, and a communion service takes place instead. Keeping with the continuity of Holy Week, there is no closing prayer, as we prepare our hearts for the Resurrection from the tomb.
The third day of the Triduum is Holy Saturday, which culminates in the Easter Vigil. We spend the day preparing our hearts for the Lord to rise from the dead. The Easter Vigil begins in darkness, with only the Paschal candle providing light in the pitch-black church. The congregation processes in with the Paschal Candle hailed as “The Light of Christ.” The Exsultet prayer is then chanted. This poetic hymn’s words praise and thank God for the light, which represents God’s saving hand throughout Salvation History, culminating in Christ’s victory over death and resurrection from the dead: "Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.” We then move on to the Liturgy of the Word, which walks through the story of Salvation History through a series of Old Testament readings and psalms. After seven readings, the lights of the church come on and we proclaim the Gloria. One of the trademarks of the Easter Vigil is the celebration of Baptism and Confirmation. Catechumens and candidates from RCIA are baptized and confirmed as necessary. At the end of the Vigil, the priest dismisses everyone with the Easter Blessing: “Go in peace Alleluia, Alleluia!” to which we respond, “Thanks be to God. Alleluia, Alleluia!” For the first time in the celebration of the Paschal Triduum, we have been dismissed to go out and proclaim the resurrection.
The Easter Triduum is essentially one long prayer. Holy Week services often appeals to our senses, from the smell of incense, the sight of a bare altar, to the sound of the Exsultet. The Paschal Mystery is central to our faith. To borrow from a homily from a priest at my home parish, “The Author of Life has calmed the chaotic waters of death.” We can hope in the resurrection of Jesus this Easter season. He gives life to us. He is the innocent Lamb who took the place in the tomb that was ours, and died so that we may not have to.
Alleluia, Jesus is risen!