Paschal mystery has three distinct parts

By Editor

The church gives us plenty of time to contemplate God’s saving work during the Triduum and Easter season

While we call this holy season the Easter season, early Christians called it the Pasch. The word came from the Greek word pascha, which derived from the Hebrew word (pesach) for the Passover.

Just as the Israelites had passed over from slavery to freedom in the Promised Land, early Christians saw the risen Christ as the one who had passed over from death to new life. And he had, in turn, given that gift to all of us — freedom from the slavery of death into new life with him.

From the word pascha, we get “paschal,” as in the paschal mystery.


While Christ’s paschal mystery is just that — a mystery — we can gain some understanding by exploring the three parts that make up the complete whole of this great event.

The Nicene Creed that we say at Mass — and which dates from the fourth century — lists these three parts of the paschal mystery:

  • “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died and was buried.
  • “On the third day, he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures;
  • “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

There we have it; three distinct parts in the one mystery of our salvation:

  • Jesus’ Passion and death;
  • his Resurrection;
  • his Ascension into heaven.

Most of us are used to understanding that Christ’s sufferings and death are inseparably linked to his resurrection. We might be less likely to remember that the Ascension is part of the same event.

Don’t forget

But something is missing in our understanding if we forget about the Ascension. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “Christ’s Ascension into heaven signifies his participation, in his humanity, in God’s power and authority. Jesus Christ is Lord: he possesses all power in heaven and on earth (n. 668).

As we can see, the Ascension is a very significant event for us — because it happened to Christ “in his humanity.” Because he ascended, we have a place in heaven. As St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Christ by once ascending into heaven acquired for himself and for us in perpetuity the right and worthiness of a heavenly dwelling-place” (Q 57, art. 6).

Three parts

Because there are three distinct parts to this paschal mystery, the church gives us so much time to experience it — “bask in the moment,” if you will. To do this, we have 40 days, plus 10, plus three.

  • The Triduum. These three days mark the most dramatic parts of this paschal mystery. Their celebration begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and concludes on the evening of Easter Sunday. It is truly one complete and glorious event, lasting three days.
  • The 40 days from Easter until the Ascension. Even though many dioceses, including our own, mark the Ascension on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the feast is traditionally celebrated on the 40th day after Easter. On this day, we recall how the risen Jesus, after spending 40 days with his disciples, “was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). We are in the midst of these 40 days now. They are like a shining mirror that reveals what was dimly seen in the 40 days of Lent. The Ascension of the Lord opens the gateway to the coming of the Spirit as promised by Jesus when he said, “For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7).
  • The 50 days of the Easter season are fulfilled on Pentecost. “Pentecost” means the 50th day in Greek. Ancient Israel celebrated Pentecost — what is still called Shavu’ot — on the 50th day after Passover. Shavu’ot was a day to celebrate the first harvest reaped after Israel arrived in the Promised Land. The feast also celebrates the giving of the Torah (the Law) on Mount Sinai. It is still the second of the three major Jewish holiday feasts.

Time of the church

For Christians, Pentecost marks the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the church. Pope John Paul II called Pentecost “the time of the church” and added that, “from that time the wind of the Spirit would carry Christ’s disciples to the very ends of the earth” (Pentecost, 1998).

In this way — travelling the days from the Triduum to Easter to Pentecost — the Lord prepared his followers, and now prepares us, to share in the power of his paschal mystery. That power — given to us fully in the Holy Spirit — sends us out on a mission that leads onward from Easter: to witness, reveal and proclaim.

So mystery of the paschal mystery — something we cannot fully understand on this side of eternity — has nonetheless become our mystery: ours to reveal, ours to share and ours to celebrate.

Sources: Vatican Web site at; the “Summa Theologica” of Thomas Aquinas; Catechism of the Catholic Church; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”