– Eighteen Questions on the Paschal Triduum
A Celebration of the Paschal Mystery
Some religions celebrate “high holy days.” The Jewish people observe Rosh Hashanah
and Yom Kippur. Muslims mark Ramadan. Particular prayers and rituals identify these
special days. Time is spent differently. The regular routine is changed. For the Christian,
the Easter Triduum is truly the holiest time of the entire year. During these most sacred
days, we observe in a solemn way the greatest mystery of our redemption: The Paschal
Mystery – the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The word Triduum is Latin for “three days.” However, the marking of an extraordinary
liturgical day is different from the way we mark an ordinary day. Instead of the normal
sunrise to sunset, the days of the Easter Triduum are from sunset to sunset. The Easter
Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, continues to the evening of
Good Friday, then to the Great Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday night through Easter
morning, and then concludes with Evening Prayer (Vespers) on Easter Sunday. Hence,
three days are observed.
Even though it takes place over three days, the Easter Triduum is really a single
celebration of the Paschal Mystery presented over three days. On these three days, we
gather a number of times. Together we hear some of the Church’s most beautiful prayers
and music. At the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Church is drawn into
the whole event of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. This Mass focuses on the institution
of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and the call to charity. We do in
memory of Jesus and we do as Jesus did. Feet are washed by the priest who is configured
to Christ in a unique way. Bread and wine are changed into the real presence of our Lord.
We stay with Christ after Mass in adoration, called to watch in prayer like the disciples in
the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Good Friday celebration of the Lord’s Passion is austere but without a sense of
defeat. The Church fasts because her spouse has been taken away.
We proclaim the account of his Passion and Death. With detailed intercessions we pray
for the whole world because Christ died for all. We venerate the cross as sign of love for
the instrument of death through which Christ manifested his love for us. Finally, we are
nourished with the Eucharist consecrated the evening before. We leave without song or
words, reflecting the solemn quiet and starkness this day demands.
On Holy Saturday, the Church waits in silence for the celebration of Christ’s
Resurrection. The Easter Vigil begins by creating a blazing fire from which the Paschal
candle is lit. This light illumines the night, reminding us that there is no darkness, no sin,
no death that Christ cannot conquer. We listen to the words of the Easter Proclamation
(the Exsultet) reminding us how special and powerful this night is. Readings from the
Sacred Scripture retrace salvation history and culminate with the account of the
Resurrection. The Holy Spirit is called down upon the water of the font and new
members of the Church are baptized and confirmed. Then the Sacrifice of the Cross is
offered again. Christ’s Body and Blood are given to us again and we are fed.
On Easter Sunday, the church bells ring and we sing, for the entire world to hear,
“Alleluia!” Water from the font is sprinkled and we renew the promises of our baptism.
Again we are fed with Christ’s Body and Blood, the pledge of Eternal life won for us by
his Death and Resurrection. The Easter Sunday Mass is celebrated with great joy and
solemnity, for Christ has conquered sin and death. He is risen and he reigns.
The Easter Triduum is more than retracing our Lord’s steps during his last days in
Jerusalem. It is not a Passion Play in three or four acts. Rather, it is an encounter with
Christ. During the Easter Triduum, we not only celebrate the Paschal Mystery, but we
enter into this mystery through the Church’s liturgy, sacraments, and sacramentals so that
we express our being united to Christ in his dying and rising. Christ’s mystery has
become our mystery. The dying and rising of our lives, no matter how big or small, only
make sense in his dying and rising. We truly must enter into and be caught up in this
How will we spend the Easter Triduum this year? Let us set these three days aside. Let
us mark them by prayer and devotion. May the ordinary give way to the extraordinary.
Let us gather together in our churches to honor, to commemorate, and to encounter. Let
us enter into the mystery.
By Father Neil Sullivan