With the celebration of Palm Sunday this weekend, we set off into the holiest week of the Church year. This is a week that culminates with those events that make our faith what they are: Jesus’ suffering, death, and His resurrection. These events are marked by a three part celebration we call the Triduum – 3 days – which take place on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday (with the Easter Vigil late Saturday night.) I strongly encourage you to get to all three celebrations – because each one brings to light a little about who we are as Christians and what we believe about our faith.
This will be a bit of a longer post – trying help you see the beauty of each of these days – but hopefully it will help bring them to life for you.
We call the Mass on Holy Thursday the “Mass of the Lord’s Supper.” Jesus’ disciples gathered with him to celebrate the Passover meal – a holiday which would have been full of meaning already, as they recalled God’s miraculous liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt at the time of Moses. On that first Passover, each Israelite household had taken a lamb, killed it, spread its blood around their door frames, and then they ate the lamb. It was the sacrifice and blood of the lamb which had protected them from death and bought their freedom. And every year to this day, when Jewish families gather to celebrate the Passover, they remember the sacrifice which bought their freedom.
But on this particular Passover, Jesus did something unexpected: “He took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood'” (Luke 22:19-20). What He did here – establishing the Mass (instituting the Eucharist) – made sense to them. Jesus, the Lamb of God would die – and it would be his death and His blood that would save us and liberate us from our slavery to sin.
We frame our celebration of Holy Thursday with the washing of the feet and adoration until about midnight. You can’t overstate the importance of Jesus’ action here – getting down to wash dirty feet (even those of His betrayer) – as the model for anyone in Christian leadership. So it’s no coincidence that our priests, bishops, and even the Pope will do the same. At the end of Mass, the Eucharist is taken to an altar of repose and the Church left a little emptier than usual… and we are invited to take time to pray with Jesus, just as the disciples followed Him into Gethsemane where He prayed.
Further Reading: Meditation for Holy Thursday
[Good Friday is a day of fasting and abstinence -fasting means that we are meant to eat no more than one simple meal and two small snacks (whose total amount are less than the meal), and we are to asked to abstain from meat on this day.]
Arriving at Church on Good Friday, I’m always struck by the barrenness of the place. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been fortunate enough to be in Church’s which are usually so beautifully decorated… walking into a Church where the tabernacle is empty, the altar bare, and the lack of flowers/decorations in the sanctuary proper always seems striking to me. Not only that, the music is more sombre – ideally, sung with no instruments at all, and there is no consecration or Eucharistic prayer (the Communion we receive was consecrated at Mass the night before.) Finally, during the Good Friday service we take some time to venerate (honor) the cross as the instrument by which we have been saved.
All of this is meant to bring to life one of the most dramatic realities in our faith: that Jesus, the Son of God died. The manner in which He died was brutal and purposeful: brutal, as crucifixion is one of the most awful forms of execution humanity has ever concocted; and purposeful, because He died to do what we couldn’t do on our own… saving us from our sins and reconciling us with God. I think perhaps Mark Hart puts it best when he says that God loves us so much “He would rather die than risk spending eternity without us.“
Easter Saturday is a strange day. After the busyness of Holy Thursday & Good Friday, it feels like nothing is happening. One year when I was on retreat for Holy Week, I remember going for a long walk down a country road on Saturday, trying to imagine the despair the apostles would have felt on this day. But in the silence of Holy Saturday, something amazing is happening. I’ve never heard better explained than in a homily from the first century: Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday
Easter Sunday (The Easter Vigil)
It’s hard to find words to do the reality of Easter justice. This is the night that changes everything – and an excerpt of the Easter proclamation (exultet) perhaps expresses this best:
It is truly right and just, with ardent love of mind and heart and with devoted service of our voice, to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father, and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.
Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father, and, pouring out his own dear Blood, wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.
These, then, are the feasts of Passover, in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb, whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.
This is the night, when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin.
This is the night that even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.
This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.
Easter Sunday Mass is a glorious celebration, certainly, but the Easter Vigil is the most amazing liturgy we celebrate all year. This liturgy is loaded – and includes many children and adults celebrating their sacraments of initiation. But my favorite part is the liturgy of the word. The Church begins in complete darkness – and we begin out on the Church step, surrounding a small fire from which a new Easter (Paschal) candle is lit. As that candle is processed into the Church – representing the light of Christ – each of us lights a small tapered candle which will illuminate the Church for the bulk of the readings, which tell us the story of our salvation… from creation right up until the resurrection of Christ.
Shortly before we read the Gospel – we sing the gloria (as the Church bells ring), the lights in the Church come on, and the stark barrenness of Good Friday has been replaced by beauty and light. Things are different now – the penitential purple has given way to white, and the songs of “alleluia” ring out once again in the Church. These simple external changes are meant to bring to life a much deeper truths: Jesus has conquered the power of sin, changed the meaning of death, and opened the gates to Heaven. And for all of this, we rejoice for the fifty days of Easter – in thanks for the love of God which knows no limits.