Let me tell you about the Easter Triduum. The word means “three days” in Latin, and it means the three days that are, essentially, the High Holy Days of Christianity: Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday in some traditions, from the Latin Mandatum), on which Christ celebrated the Last Supper and was handed over; Good Friday, on which he was crucified and died; and Holy Saturday, the day he was in the tomb and the night of his resurrection.
Here’s the thing about Triduum: it’s all one extended liturgy. I think this is so exciting and so important in understanding what happens at church on these days: it drives me crazy that it’s not taught to all of us as children. It’s not three separate and distinct services, even though we go home in between them; and if you pay close attention to what happens, you’ll see the clues that indicate this is one extended liturgy that is simply suspended at the end of one service, and is resumed at the beginning of the next. During the Easter Triduum, we inhabit a sacred time that brings us into the heart of our faith. The Triduum liturgy unpacks and elaborates what we do at Mass every Sunday: or rather, what we do at Mass every Sunday is a compressed, abridged edition of what we celebrate during Triduum. This was one of the great liturgical renewals of Vatican II, together with the recovery of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), with its extended catechumenate, various Lenten rites, and culmination with the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil on Saturday night.
If you are looking for a way to deepen or enliven your faith, consider participating in the liturgy of the Triduum this year.
Let me tell you about the shape of this extended liturgy:
On Thursday night, we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, remembering the Lord’s command (mandatum) to serve each other with a ritual enactment of his washing the feet of the disciples. We also receive the three sacred oils that were blessed by the bishop in the cathedral earlier this week: these oils will be used for the sacraments of initiation and anointing during the coming year.
After the distribution of communion, the blessed sacrament is processed to an “altar of repose” — a separate altar and tabernacle from where it is usually reserved (if your church is lucky enough to be able to support this; otherwise it is processed away and back again so that we have the ritual sense of movement) accompanied by a song of praise, traditionally Pange Lingua. This is an enactment of what we heard in the Passion reading on Sunday: Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Here, we are invited to keep watch with the Lord on the night before he died, in silent prayer: staying awake with him, as Peter, James, and John did not. So there is no dismissal rite; people just trickle away, after spending as much or as little time in prayer as they can or feel moved to.
On Friday, we gather again at church, and when it’s time to start, there is no opening procession and no normal opening rite: the priest enters in silence, and prostrates himself in silence, followed by a brief collect that opens the Liturgy of the Word. Here, we enter deeply into the story of the Lord’s Passion, followed by the veneration of the cross, and an extended form of the general intercessions (aka petition prayers, but in this form you can see why they are properly called general intercessions).
This is not a Mass. There is no eucharistic prayer. After the Lord’s prayer, communion is distributed from the reserved sacrament. Following the prayer after communion, the priest simply leaves, and then so do the rest of us: again, there is no dismissal rite. (See what I mean about the clues?)
On Saturday night, ideally, we gather at the church but not in the church. Ideally, we gather outside, around a bonfire (or a token substitute for one, if necessary): light in the darkness. The new Easter Candle is blessed, and lit from the fire. It leads the procession into the church, followed by the priest and other ministers, the elect (those about to be baptized and confirmed) and their sponsors, and then the rest of us. Everyone has a candle: the candlelight spreads through the assembly as the fire is shared from the Easter candle and passed along. In candlelight, we hear the Exultet sung, and then settle in for an extended Liturgy of the Word, a storytelling that re-tells some of the significant stories of salvation history, culminating with the singing of the Alleluia for the first time since Ash Wednesday and the reading of the gospel. After the homily, the sacraments of baptism and confirmation are celebrated for the elect, and the celebration of the eucharist that follows completes their initiation as Catholic Christians. Finally, at the end of this service, the Triduum liturgy concludes with a dismissal rite of solemn blessing and a closing hymn.
I attended my first Easter Vigil when I was 17, out of curiosity about the “candlelight vigil” described in the bulletin, and fell in love with this wonderful celebration. If you’ve never been to the Triduum liturgy, I hope I’ve explained why it is worth going, and enlivened a desire to go, if you can.
If you are not Roman Catholic and your tradition celebrates the Easter Triduum, I would love to hear about how it is done in your church.