When three days become one

The triduum offers one long, multifaceted liturgical feast

Welcome to the longest Welcome to the longest day.

No, that’s not a reference to Monday.

A stained glass window of Jesus and the Institution of the Blessed Sacrament at the Last Supper. The window is in the Cathedral of St. Rumbold in Mechelen, Belgium. (Bigstockphoto.com)

We have begun the triduum — triduum is a Latin word, formed from the Latin prefix tri– (meaning “three”) and the Latin word dies (“day”). The triduum is the days between Holy Thursday (at sunset) to Easter Sunday (also at sunset).

As the Vatican noted in 1969, when the post-Vatican II changes in the Mass were being introduced, “Christ redeemed us all and gave perfect glory to God principally through his paschal mystery: dying he destroyed our death and rising he restored our life. Therefore the Easter triduum of the passion and resurrection of Christ is the culmination of the entire liturgical year.”

Commemorating the mystery

In a Holy Week general audience in 2011, Pope Emeritus Benedict noted, “The three holy days in which the church commemorates the mystery of Jesus’ Passion, death and resurrection.”

So we are in the midst of this triduum — three days in one event. You may not have noticed it, but the Mass on Holy Thursday does not end. Oh, we have holy Communion and there is a procession, but the liturgy finishes in silence, not with a hymn. The Blessed Sacrament stays on the altar of repose.

On Friday, the same silence starts the service. The altar is bare and, while we have Communion, it is with hosts that were consecrated the night before. Again, we leave in silence.

At the Easter Vigil, we enter in silence, as if we haven’t really been gone. There is darkness, because it is again night, as it was Thursday. But we still aren’t quite done with the triduum.

Yes, you have three evenings — from Thursday through Friday and Saturday and on into Saturday night with the vigil that begins the Easter celebration.

However, you have to go from sunset to sunset. From Thursday’s dark night through Friday, through Saturday — and then all Easter Sunday until evening prayer on, yes, Easter evening.

Those are the three days. One long day of commemoration, of placing ourselves with Christ and the salvation brought by his Paschal mystery: his Passion, death, resurrection and returning to the Father’s right hand. As the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship explained in a 1988 letter on the Easter feast, “This time is called “the triduum of the crucified, buried and risen … because during it is celebrated the Paschal Mystery, that is, the passing of the Lord from this world to his Father.”

Jesus rises from the dead in a stained glass window from the Basilica of Vysehrad in Prague, Czech Republic. (Bigstockphoto.com)

‘Not Valley Forge’

We also should remember that the triduum is not a celebration of something past. Retired Green Bay Bishop Robert Banks addressed this in a 2002 column in The Compass: “The liturgical celebration is not just a reenactment of what happened 2,000 years ago. It is not like visiting Valley Forge or Gettysburg or the beaches of Normandy. Well, I’ll take that back. To see the washing of the feet, to hear the Passion, to kiss the cross on Good Friday, and to sing ‘Alleluia’ for the first time at the Easter Vigil really is a beautiful way to recall what Jesus did for us. …

“Granting, then, that the liturgies do serve a good purpose as a kind of reenactment, it still has to be insisted upon that they are much more than that,” continued Bishop Banks. “God uses the liturgies to make present for you and me the saving power of the events that took place so long ago. Jesus is present when we celebrate the liturgy — in the Scriptures, prayers, Eucharist and the assembly itself. And if Jesus is present, then the love of the Father is present, as is the life-giving Holy Spirit.”

Three sunsets

We take the time between these three sunsets to live in that revelation of God’s love. As we do so, we will notice that each day of the triduum has special events:

  • The Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening celebrates the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper. It also marks the institution of the priesthood and the mandatum, the washing of the feet. The mandatum is the mandate or the new commandment: ”As I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15).
  • Good Friday recalls the death of Jesus on the cross. The Scripture reading of the Lord’s Passion and the veneration of the cross are highlights. There are also the longer General Intercessions, including 10 petitions for the world, including Christians, non-Christians, those working in government offices, nonbelievers, and those facing suffering and difficulties. As Christ prayed for all on the cross, so we pray also.
  • The Easter Vigil celebrates Jesus’ resurrection and the victory over death that it promises each of us. The liturgy includes the Service of Light, the Exsultet (the Proclamation of Easter), the return of the Gloria and Alleluia, the baptism of catechumens, and the reception into the church of those who have already been baptized into different traditions and have prepared to become Catholic.
  • Easter Sunday continues the celebration of the Resurrection.

Easter vespers

The celebration officially ends with vespers (evening prayer) at sunset. One of the prayers used is often Easter’s Marian antiphon, “Queen of Heaven” (“Regina coeli”): “Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia/ for he whom you merited to bear, alleluia/ has risen, as he said, alleluia./ Pray for us to God, alleluia.” (This prayer is sometimes heard at the Easter Vigil as well.) This is prayed each day during Easter season.

And it’s not over yet, because that Easter season lasts for a while. Easter (when the triduum ends) is only the first day of a celebration lasting 50 days. Easter only ends when we reach Pentecost on May 23 when the Holy Spirit is poured into the heart of the church, which is the body of Christ.


Sources: ewtn.com; catholic.org; usccb.org; sadlier.com; ncregister.com; bustedhalo.com; Paschales Solemnitatis; and the Catechism of the Catholic Church