This week in the Catholic Church, we celebrate the Triduum.
The term Triduum refers to the three days of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. These days correspond to three services: Holy Thursday Mass, Good Friday Veneration, and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. While each of these is a beautiful celebration of the Lord individually, together they tell an incredible story of no greater love.
Holy Thursday is the night of the Last Supper, the institution of the Holy Eucharist, Christ’s agony in the garden, the betrayal of Judas, the judgment of the Sanhedrin, and the denial of Peter.
Mass on Holy Thursday often includes the priest disrobing from his vestments and washing the feet of twelve members of the congregation. Uniquely, there is no closing prayer. Instead, after communion, the priest and altar servers remove their outer vestments and process out of the church with the Eucharist, often to a chapel or parish hall. There they place the body of Christ in the tabernacle to be adored throughout the night.
On this day alone, no church in the world celebrates Mass. This is because during Mass, we continue Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in an un-bloody manner through the consecration of bread and wine into His body and blood. The priest, acting as a successor of Christ, offers the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross again, at the altar, by giving his congregation the redemptive body and blood of Christ.
On Good Friday we remember and honor Christ’s death on the cross. Instead of Mass, churches host a Veneration of the Holy Cross. It is a communion service (meaning that we still receive the body and blood) but not a Mass (no consecration takes place). The priest and altar servers hold up a large crucifix or cross—whatever the church has available—and every member of the congregation approaches the altar to kiss it.
On this day of the Triduum, the Catholic Church mourns. It is traditionally a day of fasting and abstinence. This is the day that Jesus was in the tomb—the day that death had won, and hope was lost.
On Holy Saturday Night, we celebrate the Easter Vigil. If you’ve never been, it is a far cry from an ordinary Mass. The entire church is darkened, with only enough light for the congregation to find their seats. The priest and altar servers remain in the narthex or even outside to say an opening prayer. Some churches invite the congregation to come join them. At the conclusion of the prayer, the priest lights an incredible flame on a fire-safe podium. Each member of the congregation lights a small candle from this flame, and as the flames pass from candle to candle, the glow begins to illuminate the church. Then Mass begins. It’s the first Mass since Holy Thursday.
The Vigil has seven readings instead of three. These readings relate the creation story throughout the Old Testament, all the way to the resurrection of Christ. At this Mass, older children and adults in RCIA are baptized into the Catholic Church, receive their first communion, and are confirmed in the Holy Spirit. Thus we celebrate Easter by welcoming new members into the mystical body of Christ.
Relevance of the Triduum
So, what do all these unique traditions during the Triduum have to do with Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection?
At the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of His apostles. The last lesson He taught them before His sacrifice was to be humble servants of one another. To demonstrate this humility, the priest serves twelve members of the congregation at Holy Thursday Mass by removing his outer garments and washing their feet at the foot of the altar.
Christ then went to the Garden of Gethsemane, where He asked Peter, James, and John to stay awake with Him. When we process to the tabernacle alongside the body of Christ to the tabernacle, when we participate in all-night adoration, we are in the Garden with Him. We stay awake and pray, keeping watch with Jesus before His arrest.
On Good Friday, we kiss the foot of the cross so that we can be at Jesus’ side as He dies. When Christ was executed, only the Beloved Disciple remained with Him. Jesus tells John to behold his mother, Mary, and bestows the gift of her, our Heavenly Queen, upon humanity. When we kneel at the foot of the cross on Good Friday, we remain with Christ as His Beloved Disciple, and also with Mary as her children.
On Holy Saturday, the world was in darkness. Christ had died. Death had won. Hope was lost. But His resurrection on Easter morning set the world ablaze with new life and hope. And so we, the Church, light our flame and carry it throughout Mass to signify that Christ is the source of our light, and we are His candles in the world.
No Greater Love
I am certain that we all have someone in our lives we would die for: our spouse, our child, our mother, our father. But I know I personally have people I definitely would not die for. There are far more people in the world for whom I could not have the courage to trade my life than those for whom I would be brave enough to give my life.
So think about this. Christ gave His life for everyone. For Michelle, for Joshua, for Peter, for Elizabeth, for Dalton, for the crabby old man at the grocery store, for the rude driver who wouldn’t let us over on the highway, for the neighbor making our kitchen smell like weed. He had no exclusions, no reservations, no naughty or nice list. There is no greater love than the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. We get to walk through it all with Him 2,000 years later during the Triduum.