The Sacred Triduum

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The Sacred Triduum


Introduction.   The Church offers us an abundance of liturgical richness as we celebrate the climax of the history of salvation.  If the liturgies are not cluttered and not rushed, the rich symbols of these days will speak.  It is important that these days be kept in proper focus.  So a brief historical background of the Triduum will be helpful.


Easter was originally an evening vigil of watchfulness, a celebration of the Death and Resurrection of the Lord.  Over a period of time this vigil was extended to include the preparatory days of Holy Thursday and Good Friday.  Eventually the fast of Easter became more and more filled with a sense of Christian initiation which included a greater awareness of the need for the Church to renew itself.  This was emphasized through the admission of new members.  In this development we can find the unifying principle which will provide us with the necessary Focus.


The origins of the Triduum as a single celebration of the Lord's Death and R3esurrection clearly suggests a unity in these three days.  The days are not meant to be looked at in isolation from each other.  Unfortunately most Christians still see these days in which specific moments in the life of Jesus are historically re-presented.  This most definitely is not the sense of these celebrations.  They focus on one celebration of the Resurrected Christ, alive and present to us today.  We must not think of journeying with Jesus through each of the days of his suffering, dying and rising.  We celebrate the one event over a number of days only because of the richness of the event, thus helping us to feast on the various facets of the one mystery.


Many small communities find it helpful to prepare for the Triduum by celebrating the Jewish Passover (Seder) to better understand our Jewish roots.  It is again important to note that the Jewish Passover does not only look to events of long ago but sees meaning and God's presence no active in the lives of the Jewish community.  You will note, as well, that the observance of this celebration centers around a call and an election, reminding the Jews and reminding us today that we have very specific obligations because of our covenantal relationship with God.


The recital of the Haggadah which begins with the "Ha Lakhma Anya" (The Bread of Affliction) is a symbol of the poverty and a call to minister to the poor and hungry of the world today.  The Seder Meal not only thinks of the past but stresses God's action and presence within the actuality of oppression today.  The theme of exile and return is strikingly present in the singing of "Let My People Go" - not just from Egypt, not just from Babylonia, but from anything and everything which prevents the living our of our convenantal relationship with God, the Messianic hope expressed in the Cup of Elijah.


Just as the early Church learned from the Passover experience of their Jewish roots to see that what had happened to Jesus had meaning for them, so we too must understand the same active and present God with us in Jesus during these our holy days.


HOLY THURSDAY:  Opening of the Paschal Feast


Keeping in mind our liturgical principle, i.e. not as an attempt to celebrate an historical event, the liturgy of Holy Thursday is not a re-presentation of the Last Supper, nor does it focus on the institution of the Eucharist.  Rather the Gospel and the liturgical action focus on the washing of the feet.  Despite the emphasis in the past, this feast is not a celebration of the unity of the ordained priesthood.  That is the purpose of the Chrism Mass celebrated in all the cathedrals of the world, with the bishop gathered with his priests in consecrating the holy oils and celebrating community to experience our passing over from death to life as a Church.  Here we are met by the glorified Christ who feeds us in Word and Eucharist, thus strengthening us and enabling us to live out the further implications of our communion, our covenant with Him.  Like Jesus, we are called to put aside our "outer selves", to accept his humility by stooping down to wash the feet of those in our midst.  In other words, our Eucharist is validated only in our loving service to others.  To guard us from a purely ritualistic interpretation of the meaning of the Lord's command to celebrate Eucharist, John narrates the washing of the feet as an event with the same meaning as the breaking of the bread.  After each of these actions Jesus exhorts his followers "Do this in memory of me... I have you an example so that you may do what I have done."


GOOD FRIDAY:  The Paschal Fast


The history of this day gives us a clue how to approach Good Friday.  The origin of this day is traced back to Jerusalem and the veneration of the relic of the true cross.  This act of veneration stressed the cross as a symbol of victory.  Note it is not the veneration of a crucifix, which would narrow it down to the historical moment of Jesus' suffering and death.  Rather the cross is a sign that we celebrate Easter even on Good Friday.  The suffering of Jesus on Good Friday already speaks of his glorification on Easter.


It is not accidental that the Passion according to John is always read on this day.  This account shows Jesus always in charge, in total command of his situation.  John's Passion is an extended commentary on an earlier statement of Jesus found in John 10:17-18:  "I lay down my life that I may take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord."  The focus of the liturgy of Good Friday, therefore, is not primarily a meditation on Jesus' pain, nor on our sinfulness, nor on our imitation of Jesus' humility.  Rather the focus is to remind us that we are beneficiaries of this event, and so we call the Friday "Good" by praising God for what God has done for us in Jesus.  The final words of Jesus from the cross say it all for us, "Is is accomplished!"  Jesus in not overcome.  On the contrary!  He has overcome!


The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council declares:  "Let the Paschal Fast be kept sacred.  It should be observed everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, on Holy Saturday, so that the joys of the Sunday of the Resurrection may be visited on uplifted and responsive spirits" (n 110).  We have become so accustomed to concern with the juridical aspects of the fast that we have lost the essential meaning of the Paschal Fast.  It must no be understood as penitential discipline but rather as a joyful exercise for the preparation of "uplifted and responsive spirits".  In other words, through fasting things not ordinarily available can be attained.  This becomes evident, for example, in the fasts of Moses, Daniel, Elijah, John the Baptist and Jesus himself.


In observing the Paschal Fast we look forward to the eschatological fast.  We are not doing penance or engaging in public mourning.  We are clearing space in our lives for what matters most.  Through the experience of physical hunger we are plunged into a greater awareness of ourselves and our world, and we are again confronted with our own feebleness and utter dependence on God.  By the Paschal Fast we are preparing ourselves for the self-revelation of God in his Son, the Risen One.  Without the Paschal Fast it simply will not be the same Paschal Feast.


Unfortunately, for most Christians the Paschal Fast is not extended through to the end of the Vigil.  To break the fast before the Vigil is to lessen the experience of preparation for the day of the Lord.  These is a time in everyone's life when we turn from food because we are so filled with something else.  The Paschal Fast is feeling so filled with God that nothing else counts.  In this sense, fasting is not an act of sorrow but leads to joy.  It is not an act of penance but a waiting for God, a seeking of his presence, a readiness for his revelation, a revelation of the deepest love we can ever know.


THE EASTER VIGIL:  Signs of Life from Death


Recalling again the unifying principle of the Tr8iduum, the Easter Liturgy is not the re-enactment of an historical event, nor a memorial service recalling something that happened to Jesus after his death and burial.  On the surface, the Vigil appears to be a complex ceremony, filled with all sorts of detail.  Yet the basics become evident when we take time and quiet for reflection.  What we have come to do this night is to share in the Passover of Jesus.  If we can keep this basic unity we will not need to think it necessary to explain all the readings and the ceremonies.


The basic symbols of life from death are Light, Word.  Bath and Meal.


LIGHT.   The Ester celebration must not begin before nightfall and it must end before daybreak.  Why?  Because each of us must experience for ourselves the gentle power of light and its transforming effect upon our darkness.  Only after we've dwelt in our own darkness can we truly welcome the light.  Otherwise the light of the Risen Christ is only a matter of historical interest.  And so in the darkness of night we begin:  "May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our minds and hearts."


WORD.   The reading of the BIgil, in a subtle but marvelous unity, reveal a pattern of divine activity and human response which leads to the Easter experience.  Throughout these stories, prophecies and meditations, the same pattern emerges:  God simply desires to give us all good things - life, light, peace, harmony, deliverance, liberation, lengh of days.  This blessed state is our if only we remain obedient to God.  Sooner or later this obedience will lead us into death - death to our own selfishness, to our own pursuits of happiness, a death to will leave us utterly forsaken.  But this is not the end.  Paul and Luke show us the Living One who is no longer among the dead.  And this is our destiny too:  deliverance into life through obedience in death.


BATH.  Through our own baptism and our experience as Christians we share intimately the Exodus Story of deliverance from slavery to freedom.  With Jesus we have passed through suffering and death, leaving sin and death behind.  When we do no celebrate the ritual act of baptism during the Vigil Liturgy, we are nonetheless reminded of our own baptism in which we have died and been brought to liberation and victory over sin and death.  We do this by recognizing our own nothingness and sinfulness before Him who is the only source of being and of purity.  We renounce our self-sufficiency and sin, thus consenting to be saved and loved by Love, so powerfully manifested in the dying of Jesus.


MEAL.   The central theme of the Paschal Feast is the Lord giving himself for our salvation.  The meal is a sacrifice, a prophetic gesture with which the Lord, in obedience to his Father and for the love of us all, commits himself unto death.  Like the other three signs of life from death, the meal is a sacramental act whereby we are united in the death of the Lord until he comes.  The sacrificial aspect of the meal is a clear reflection of the Exodus story of the eating of the paschal lamb whose blood saves the people of Israel from the angel of death.  Here we celebrate the Blood of the New and Everlasting Covenant in perfect communion with Jesus and with the Faster, fulfilling entirely the promise:  "I will be their God and they shall be my people" (Jer. 31:33; Rev. 21:3).




The Paschal Triduum is a single three-day Christian Passover Feast, beginning after sunset on Thursday and concluding with the Easter Eucharist at the end of the Great Vigil.  The great feast of the Christian Pasch is no simple commemoration of the Lord's death and resurrection but a great celebration of our own salvation through our engagement in the event of that death and resurrection.  It celebrates the very foundation of our existence before God and in God.  That is why the liturgy of the Triduum claims our full lives for these three days.  All else should be set aside so that we might come to terms again with the basics of life, with first and last things, with what alone really counts in the end:  our relationship with God and with one another in Christ.


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