A Commentary on the Triduum
The Services of the Paschal Triduum
The Paschal Triduum ("three days") constitutes a unified celebration of the Paschal Mystery: God's victory over sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and our participation in that victory through our own death and resurrection in the waters of Baptism.
The Liturgy of the Triduum is not a pageant that recounts the events surrounding our Lord's death in strict chronological order. At every service we contemplate the whole mystery; but each service enables us to behold that mystery from a different perspective.
The liturgy begins on a note of joy in our deliverance through the cross as the choir sings the Introit: "But as for us, it behooves us to glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; in him is our salvation, our life and resurrection; through him we were saved and obtained our freedom." A moment later, at the Gloria in excelsis, the organ is played loudly and all the bells are rung.
Then the organ and bells are silenced. They will not sound again until Easter. Our mood shifts from jubilation to sobriety.
The significant events in our lives elicit a range of emotional responses from us. Seldom do we feel only one way about anything important. We are prey to sudden shifts of mood. Similarly, sudden (and sometimes inexplicable) mood shifts occur in the liturgy during the Triduum, as the church contemplates events of earth- shattering moment.
The First Reading, from Exodus, recounts the institution of the Passover. In the unblemished lamb, whose blood was spread upon the doorposts of the Israelites to drive away the angel of death, we see a figure of the Lamb of God, "who by his death has destroyed death, and by his rising to life again has won for us everlasting life."
The Gradual Psalm recalls how God fed his chosen people with manna when, after deliverance from bondage in Egypt, they were journeying toward the Promised Land. We, who are "strangers and pilgrims" journeying toward our heavenly country, are fed with "the living bread which comes down from heaven."
The Second Reading, from First Corinthians, recounts the institution of the Eucharist. It was in instituting the Eucharist that our Lord imparted significance to his impending death. An execution--even the execution of an innocent person--is a tragedy, but not of itself a sacrifice or an act of expiation. By what he did at the last supper Jesus made his death an act of self-oblation. He also declared that his blood would be shed "for the forgiveness of sins."
St. Paul chides the Corinthians for their contentious behavior. He accuses them of "not discerning the Lord's body." We are accustomed to interpreting his admonition as a warning against irreverent reception of Holy Communion. It is more, however. By "not discerning the Lord's body," Paul meant failing to discern the presence of his Christ in his mystical body, the church.
In the Gospel we hear how, after he had supped with his disciples, Jesus washed their feet and said, "If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another's feet." We who share in the death of Christ sacramentally by dying with him in the waters of Baptism actualize our participation in his death through acts of humble service to others.
Even as we recognize the broad implications of our Lord's command, we also obey it literally. After the homily twelve people take seats near the entrance to the chancel, and the celebrant washes and dries their feet. Among the texts sung by the choir while he does so is the antiphon from which Maundy Thursday derives its name, Mandatum novum, = "I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you."
The celebration of Mass continues as usual, but the silence of the organ introduces a note of austerity. Because the Eucharist is not to be celebrated on Good Friday, additional bread and wine are consecrated and reserved for communion at the Good Friday liturgy. After the celebrant has sung the Postcommunion Prayer, he carries the reserved sacrament to All Saints' Chapel.
The ministers precede him in procession. The choir and people sing the Pange lingua, a hymn composed by St. Thomas Aquinas in honor of the Blessed Sacrament: "Now, my tongue, the mystery telling, Of the glorious Body sing, and the Blood, all price excelling, Which the gentiles' Lord and king, Once on earth among us dwelling, Shed for this world's ransoming."
Here the liturgy officially ends. But everyone remains in the church while the celebrant and servers strip the altar in preparation for Good Friday. Meanwhile the choir sings Psalm 22 with the antiphon, "They divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing."
All leave the church in profound silence.
Mass is not celebrated on Good Friday. An austere form of the Liturgy of the Word is followed by a rite known as the Veneration of the Cross and then by communion from the reserved sacrament.
The custom of daily communion is much older than the custom of daily Mass. Until the fourth century the faithful who participated in the Sunday Eucharist brought the sacrament home with them and communicated themselves every day. From the fourth century onward communion was administered from the reserved sacrament in the churches on certain days when the Eucharist was not celebrated. As more and more feasts were added to the calendar, Mass was celebrated more frequently. General communion from the reserved sacrament became less frequent. Eventually it was restricted to penitential days, and finally, in the West, to Good Friday alone.
On the day when we confront the consequences of human sin in all their horror, the celebration of the Eucharist has never seemed appropriate.
Nevertheless, the Liturgy, unlike many popular Good Friday devotions, does not encourage us to "count his bruises one by one," so much as to contemplate the victory over the power of sin and death which Jesus Christ won on the cross of Calvary. His death was, indeed, a triumph. Of that triumph his resurrection was really only a manifestation.
The Second Adam, who had come to inaugurate a new creation, by his obedience unto death offered to God the homage that the first Adam had idolatrously refused to offer. At the same time he bore the full consequences of sin, so that humankind might be set free from the power of sin and death and reconciled to God.
God created humankind with free will. Free will entails responsibility for one's actions. God, in his regard for our moral integrity, did not choose to take away our free will even when we had misused it and wrought our own damnation. Instead, he sent his only-begotten Son to take our nature upon himself and as man to bear the consequences of sin. "The wages of sin is death." The powers of hell were defeated for all time when Jesus "bowed his head and yielded up his spirit."
For this service the altar is bare, but the celebrant and assisting clergy are vested in red. There is no Introit. The ministers enter in silence. All kneel in silent prayer for a few minutes. Then all stand for the opening collect, which refers to us as the "family for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross."
The First Reading, from the book of Isaiah, concerns the "suffering servant," the prototype of God's chosen people, Israel. The words that describe the suffering servant remind us of our Lord, who was "despised and rejected by men."
As he hung on the cross, Jesus uttered the opening words of Psalm 22, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" This psalm, which is used as the Gradual, gives expression to the desolation which all human beings experience, and which the "high priest who knows our infirmities" experienced in its fullness.
The Second reading, from the Epistle to the Hebrews, boldly asserts the finality of the victory the Christ won at Calvary and in which we share through Baptism.
The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ According to John is sung dramatically. A baritone takes the part of the narrator, a bass takes the part of Jesus, a tenor takes the parts of other individuals, and the choir takes the part of the crowd. When the verse concerning the death of Jesus has been sung, all kneel in silent prayer.
The Solemn Collects constitute the Prayers of the People on this day. The deacon or assisting priest sings a series of biddings. After each bidding, he sings, "Let us bend the knee." We kneel and pray silently. Then he sings "Arise," and we stand as the celebrant sums up our petitions in a collect.
The Veneration of the Cross follows. In its original form this ceremony involved veneration of purported fragments of the true cross. Because it provided an opportunity for outward expression of personal devotion to the crucified savior, it became extremely popular and spread to places where relics were unavailable.
The deacon or assisting priest goes to the west door of the church, and taking up a large crucifix, he enters the nave and sings, "Behold the wood of the cross, whereon was hung the Savior of the world." The people respond, "O come, let us worship." As he pauses in the middle of the nave and again at the chancel step, the versicle and response are repeated.
The choir sings an antiphon: "We glory in your cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue of the cross joy has come to the whole world."
Attention shifts from Christ's triumph to our sin in the Reproaches which follow. The text of the Reproaches is based on a passage from the book of Micah: "For the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. 'O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me.'" The church has placed these words on the lips of Jesus and regards them (in the liturgy) as addressed to the Christian people, who are the new Israel, and not to the people of the Old Covenant.
While the choir sings the Reproaches, the celebrant, the ministers, and the people, one by one, approach the cross. Each person kneels before the cross and kisses it. Consideration of the enormous cost of our redemption arouses in us a profound sense of humility and love, to which we give expression through this simple act, which Christians have performed since the fourth century.
The note of triumph sounds again in the hymn with which the Veneration of the Cross concludes:
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
Of the mighty conflict sing;
Tell the triumph of the victim,
To his cross thy tribute bring.
Jesus Christ, the world's redeemer,
From the cross now reigns as King.
While all remain silent, the deacon or assisting priest now brings the Blessed Sacrament from All Saints' Chapel. A Confession of Sin and the Lord's Prayer follow. Then we receive Holy Communion.
After the Postcommunion Prayer, the ministers leave the church in silence.
THE GREAT VIGIL OF EASTER
This service surveys the mighty acts of God from the beginning of time and focuses on all aspects of the Paschal Mystery, with particular emphasis on our participation in that mystery through Baptism.
It begins with a "Service of Light." Lamp lighting formed a part of the rite from earliest times, since light was needed for reading. Symbolic significance came to be attached to it later. The prologue to St. John's Gospel identifies Christ as "the true light," and so the church came to see in the light by which the lessons were read a symbol of Christ the light.
The service begins with the lighting of the new fire. Light was created at the beginning of creation. The lighting of the fire suggests the dawning of the new creation, which we celebrate at this service.
The Paschal Candle, which leads the procession into the church, is evocative of the fiery pillar that led the Israelites by night through the desert from bondage in Egypt into the promised land. Jesus leads us "by his death and resurrection from the bondage of sin into everlasting life." The minister who carries the Paschal candle into the church follows the same route as the minister who carried the cross into the church on Good Friday, pausing in the same three places and singing, "The Light of Christ," to which we respond, "Thanks be to God." At the second station candles held by the ministers and people are lighted. At the third station the lights in the nave are turned on.
When the Paschal candle has been placed in its stand (beside the ambo from which the lessons are to be read), the deacon, assisting priest, or cantor sings the Exsultet. The text is very ancient. Parts of it may date to the fourth century. "This is the night," it proclaims--in the present tense--"when [God] brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt into the land of promise... when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell..." The creation of life and light, the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the cross, the empty tomb, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost--all these we celebrate as operative realities in this night's liturgy.
Five Old Testament lessons are read. Each is followed by a psalm or canticle and a collect. The choice of lessons varies from year to year. The story of creation is always included. So also is the story of Israel's deliverance at the Red Sea. The story of the Flood, which is sometimes read, reminds us of our salvation through the waters of Baptism. The passage from Ezekiel concerning the valley of Dry Bones reminds us of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our resurrection to new life in him.
At the conclusion of the lessons, which constitute the "vigil" in the narrow sense of the word, the Baptismal liturgy begins. While the ministers, those to be baptized, and their sponsors assemble at the font, the choir sings a Tract: "As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God."
The font is both tomb and womb. "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" we read in Paul's Letter to the Romans. "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life."
The Son of God, having become man, bore the consequences of our sin by dying on the cross. His atoning death was not vicarious, however. We are called upon to share in it by dying with him in the font. From the waters of Baptism we rise incorporated into his risen body. Clothed with his righteousness, we may stand with dignity and confidence before our Father.
The Baptismal rite begins with the presentation of the candidates. Then follows their renunciation of evil and their public acceptance of Jesus as their savior. We join with the candidates in professing our faith, using the words of the Apostles' Creed. A litany for the candidates is then sung.
The Thanksgiving over the Water follows. In it we give thanks for the creative and redeeming work of God throughout history and pray that "those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior."
The burial takes place now. The celebrant (or assisting priest) pours water over each candidate's head and says, "N., I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Raised with Christ, born again in him, made members of his body, the newly-baptized are joined in communion with us and with all the faithful in heaven and on earth. We call upon the saints in heaven to pray for them and for us. The Litany of the Saints is sung while final preparations are made for the first Mass of Easter. The litany concludes with the Kyrie, which the choir sings while the celebrant censes the altar.
"Alleluia. Christ is risen," the celebrant sings. "The Lord is risen indeed," the whole assembly responds. The organ sounds again in an outburst of praise. The bells are rung. We join in singing the Gloria in excelsis.
The Mass continues as usual. The Creed is not sung, because we have made a profession of faith in the Baptismal rite. The Prayers of the People are omitted because we have already offered intercessions in the litany.
Because on the cross Christ offered to the Father perfect sacrifice of praise on behalf of the whole human race and bore the consequences of sin, and because we have been buried and raised with him in Baptism, we have been made worthy to stand before God the Father and to offer him an acceptable sacrifice of praise.
We do not offer the Eucharist to effect our reconciliation with God. We offer it in thanksgiving for the reconciliation he has effected.
We offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, as members of his body, and in union with the whole church.
We offer ourselves in the form of bread and wine--food and drink, the stuff of which we are made.
In the offering of ourselves we include the whole created order, for which we were given responsibility at creation. "Giving voice to every creature under heaven, we acclaim you," the celebrant sings in the preface to Eucharistic Prayer D.
Because the church is the Body of Christ, and the whole church offers itself at every Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ are offered to the Father at every Eucharist. It is because bread and wine through which we offer ourselves are already "a figure" (according to a Eucharistic Prayer quoted by St. Ambrose) of the Body and Blood of Christ when they are placed on the altar that they become for us the true Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
In receiving Holy Communion we actualize the relationship which God establishes with us when we were baptized and for which we give thanks at every Eucharist:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2