The season of Lent ends at sunset on Holy Thursday. As Lent comes to an end, the Paschal Triduum begins. These “three days” (the literal meaning of Triduum), extending from sunset on Holy Thursday through sunset on Easter Sunday, are the heart and culmination of the entire liturgical year. In these days, we remember and celebrate ever more intensely Christ’s Paschal Mystery.
The first liturgy of the Sacred Triduum is the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, celebrated on the evening of Holy Thursday. This Mass celebrates the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and Christ’s giving of the new commandment (“Love one another as I have loved you” [Jn 13:34]). After the homily, the celebrant may follow the example of Jesus and wash the feet of a small representative group of the faithful. After the people have received Holy Communion, the Mass does not conclude with the usual Blessing and Dismissal. Instead, the celebrant, ministers, and all the faithful join in processing the reserved Eucharist to an Altar of Reposition where the faithful may watch prayerfully until midnight.
On Good Friday, Mass may not be celebrated in accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church. No sacraments may be celebrated except Penance and Anointing of the Sick. Instead, the liturgy of the day is the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion. This liturgy begins with the ministers’ silent entrance and prostration before the altar. The celebration has three parts. First, the Liturgy of the Word centers on the proclamation of the Passion according to John, followed by an extended form of the Intercessions. The second part of the celebration is the Veneration of the Cross, giving all due honor to the instrument of our salvation while remembering Jesus’ sacrificial love. In the final part of the celebration, Holy Communion is distributed to the faithful. Because Mass may not be celebrated on Good Friday, Communion is distributed from the hosts reserved from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
Holy Saturday is spent in silence, prayer, and vigil. After night falls, the Easter Vigil begins. The Roman Missal, which spells out specifics of how the vigil is to be celebrated, describes it as the “mother of all vigils” (attributed to sermon from St. Augustine) and says it is the “greatest and most noble of all solemnities and it is to be unique in every single church.”
The liturgy of the vigil begins outside the church with the blessing of the new fire and the preparation of the Paschal Candle. This candle will burn during all Masses throughout the Easter season as well as at Baptisms and funerals throughout the year. The faithful enter the church behind the Paschal Candle hailing Christ, the true light. This first part of the vigil ends with the proclamation of the Exsultet, an ancient hymn of thanksgiving for the candle and a reflection on the gift of salvation.
The second part of the Easter Vigil is an extended Liturgy of the Word. Nine readings are assigned, each with its own Psalm and prayer. The first seven readings, taken from the Old Testament, trace salvation history from the creation of the world to the time of the prophets. The Epistle is taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans and reflects on the mystery of Baptism and our incorporation into Christ. After the joyful proclamation of the Easter Alleluia, the Gospel recounts the Resurrection. While the number of readings from the Old Testament may be reduced for serious pastoral reasons, at least three, including the crossing of the Red Sea, should be used and their Responsorial Psalms sung.
In the third part of the Easter Vigil, the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are celebrated. A parish that is not celebrating Baptisms may simply bless the baptismal font and invite all present to renew their baptismal vows. Typically, adults baptized at the Easter Vigil are confirmed at the vigil as well. In addition, the vigil provides an opportunity for many parishes to receive candidates into the full communion of the Church. Such candidates renew their baptismal promises, make a profession of faith, and, usually, are confirmed. The Easter Vigil concludes with the celebration of the Eucharist where the newly baptized and received are welcomed to the Eucharistic table for the first time.
Easter Sunday is the final day of the Triduum. Mass is to be celebrated with great solemnity. A full complement of ministers and the use of liturgical music is usually evident in all celebrations. On Easter Sunday in the dioceses of the United States, the rite of the renewal of baptismal promises may take place after the homily, followed by the sprinkling with water blessed at the Vigil.
The Triduum concludes with Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday.
(Content courtesy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C.)
For more information on the Easter Triduum, visit the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops website.