The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the bedrock fact of our faith. It is the heart of the good news about Jesus. The Easter triduum, which marks the end of Lent, begins at the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper and spans three days – Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.
Although it spans three days, it is one event. The triduum is not really three liturgies, it is one long liturgy, with some rest breaks. One celebrates the three days not just by attending Holy Thursday’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or by attending Good Friday’s liturgy (which is not a Mass) or by simply going to the Easter Vigil liturgy. No, one celebrates the triduum by attending all three of those services. It’s all one liturgy!
Everything in the Old Testament flows toward these three days, and everything in the New Testament flows from them. They are the core matrix of all that is Christian. The Christian Bible comes from them — the Church, the sacraments, the Mass and the priesthood.
Let’s take a closer look at the Easter triduum liturgy:
During the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples in a powerful way, re-enacting even the washing of feet. Did you ever notice that Holy Thursday’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper does not really end? There’s no conclusion to it. Without a blessing and dismissal, we process the Blessed Sacrament to a chapel of repose and stay there in prayer and adoration, just as the apostles were asked to do in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The doors of the tabernacle in the church stand open, so everyone can see that it is empty. The sanctuary lamp is extinguished.
On Good Friday, there is no Mass anywhere in the universal Church. We can participate in a variety of services by which we remember Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Churches offer the Stations of the Cross, the liturgy of Good Friday and sometimes a Tenebrae service.
During the Good Friday liturgy, we listen to a dramatic reading of the Passion, venerate the cross with a touch or kiss and receive Communion from reserved consecrated hosts. Again, we depart in silence. If the parish has a Tenebrae “darkness” service, it is held at night. The seven last words of Jesus are spoken, with a candle extinguished at each one. It is a powerful and moving experience of the need for the light.
The most beautiful Mass of the entire year occurs on Holy Saturday night, at the Easter Vigil. The Mass begins after dark with the blessing of new fire, the lighting of the paschal candle and a candle-lit procession into the darkened church. The Exsultet, a history of salvation, is chanted and we listen to readings from the Old and New Testaments that reflect our history. There may be as many as nine readings, followed by the first singing of the Gloria since the beginning of Lent.
The Easter Vigil includes the baptism, confirmation and first Communion of catechumens who have been preparing for this day for months. We welcome them into our community and celebrate their presence among us.
Although the Easter Vigil can be quite long, it is truly worth spending the time — it is a rich experience of the resurrection of the Lord. And for the first time since Ash Wednesday, we sing Alleluia! Light has triumphed over darkness, God has brought life out of death and we are enabled to overcome evil with good. God is victorious over all that would tear us away from him.
The paschal mystery
These three great days are grounded in the paschal mystery. Our word “paschal” comes from the Jewish word Pesach, the “passing over,” or Passover. God is faithful to his covenant and, as Christians, we believe he has fulfilled his promises. Christ, the mystical lamb, joined us into himself and brings us with him in his triumph over death into eternal life. He now takes us back to our Father in heaven. Finally, having over these three days entered into Christ’s Passover, we are sent forth to bring its power into our world.
Water (baptism) and blood (the Eucharist) flowed from Christ’s pierced side when he was sacrificed on the altar of the cross. His life flows out into us now in his Church’s sacraments. God “passes over” our sins because we are justified in Christ’s merciful and sacrificial “Passover.” Truly, we are saved by the blood of the Lamb of God. For our Jewish brothers and sisters, the Passover is a celebration of freedom. In the Passover, God freed them from slavery, their bondage under Pharaoh, and brought them out of the desert to Mount Sinai.
Through Moses, he gave them, in the Ten Commandments, the freedom to do good — no longer held in the bondage of evil. He thereupon led them into the Promised Land. God is always faithful to his covenant. Christians believe he has fulfilled his promises in Christ’s coming — joining us all into Christ, overcoming death — and bringing us through him, with him and in him into eternal life.
Every celebration of the Mass is a recapitulation of all that Christ accomplished in the paschal mystery, which is why we refer to it as the holy sacrifice of the Mass.