Here is your Guide to the Holy Triduum
In imitation of Our Lord, our Lenten pilgrimage is converging towards Jerusalem. Holy Week approaches, and we must prepare ourselves to enter into the sacred events at the end of Jesus’s public ministry. Jesus tried to prepare the apostles of what was coming during their time in Jerusalem, and they had a hard time understanding him.
Let us do our best to prepare ourselves for what is coming. Whether it is our first Holy Week or our seventy-fifth Holy Week, may he grant us a week resplendent, mysterious, and deeply meditative on the Paschal Mystery – his death, burial, and resurrection. The entirety of Holy Week is meant to be a time of intense reflection and prayer in liturgy and in life, but the three days of the Triduum are set apart as the holiest days of the entire liturgical year.
Through three distinct liturgical celebrations completed over three days, we are truly a unified celebration of the Lord’s Paschal Mystery. What can we look for during these special liturgies?
The Mass celebrated on Holy Thursday is widely known as the Mass of the Lord’s Supper as it is the liturgy during which we specifically celebrate the institution of the priesthood and the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.
The readings are potent with imagery.
The first reading comes from the Book of Exodus and reminds us of the instructions for the celebration of Passover. This makes present to us what the apostles were celebrating with Christ, a Passover feast in Jerusalem.
The responsorial psalm comes from Psalm 116, a psalm of thanksgiving that proclaims, “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The cup of salvation I will take up, and I will call upon the name of the Lord.” This should call to mind for us the greatness of what is made present every time we celebrate the Eucharist – Jesus’s sacrifice of his own body and blood for our own sake. Every time we gather for Mass, his sacrifice is made present to us, and we call upon his name for mercy and in thanksgiving.
It is only the second reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that actually describes the institution of the Eucharist. St. Paul’s language conveys the power of his apostolic position and the importance of passing on the stories of Jesus’s life from Christian to Christian, “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you….For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”
Finally, the gospel from St. John tells of Jesus washing the feet of the apostles before the beginning of the Last Supper and instituting the priesthood.
Following the homily, you will typically see the washing of the feet take place. The priest, in imitation of Christ, will wash the feet of parishioners. This is a fairly new addition to the Triduum celebration, but many people find it a powerful image of the humility of Christ and the humility of the priest’s call to imitate Christ in service and love.
Towards the end of the liturgy, the normal pattern is disrupted. There will be no final blessing. There will be no words from the mouth of the priest or deacon, “The mass is ended.” The consecrated hosts are taken out of the tabernacle and a procession of priest(s), deacon(s), altar server(s), and lay people will follow towards an altar of repose and the normal tabernacle door is left open. Hymns are usually sung during this solemn procession in imitation of Christ and apostles as they left the upper room to go to the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:26).
During this time, the faithful are invited to “keep watch” with Christ as Peter, James, and John were supposed to keep watch within the garden that night. This concludes the liturgical celebration of Holy Thursday.
Good Friday is the only day of the year on which Mass is not said.
The liturgical celebrations which take place on Good Friday are not a Mass because the Sacrifice of the Eucharist is not allowed to take place. Any Holy Communion distributed on Good Friday had to be consecrated at least the night before.
In many churches, the statues and paintings in the church will be covered today. All focus is placed on the crucifixion of the Lord.
The first reading comes from Isaiah and speaks of the Suffering Servant to come – Jesus Christ, “It was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured.”
The responsorial psalm – Psalm 31 – is a psalm of placing trust in the Lord and is followed by the letter to the Hebrews meditating on Christ as the true high priest offering himself as the sacrifice on the cross and offering prayers to the Father.
The gospel comes from St. John’s account of the Passion narrative.
Following the Liturgy of the Word are special Solemn Intercessions. These are the most essential prayer requests for the Church and the world. The faithful are asked to kneel and stand at intervals during the invocation of these intercessory prayers.
After the Solemn Intercessions, the Adoration of the Cross takes place. The veiled cross is brought in procession to the center of the sanctuary and the priest unveils the cross a piece at a time singing, “Behold the wood of the cross.”
Once the cross is completely unveiled at the center of the sanctuary, the clergy, servers, and faithful come up in turn to venerate the cross. People usually touch their hand to the cross or kiss the cross in veneration.
Once all have venerated the cross, the priest or deacon will bring the Blessed Sacrament out from the altar of repose and the priest will proclaim, “Behold the Lamb of God…” and the faithful will go forward to receive Holy Communion. After Holy Communion, any remaining consecrated hosts will be returned to the altar of repose and the altar will be totally stripped bare. After a blessing, all will depart in solemn silence.
The Easter Vigil celebrated on the evening of Holy Saturday is the greatest feast of the entire year. The traditions associated with Holy Saturday go back to the earliest days of the Church’s history.
The celebration begins around a blazing fire (preferably outside the church, but it is permitted within the church), the priest begins with the sign of the cross and the Paschal Candle is brought forward. The Paschal Candle represents the rising light of Christ in the resurrection. The candle is prepared and then lit from the blazing fire. It then is typically used to light candles the faithful are all holding, and they all share the flame with one another.
Then the clergy and the faithful process towards the doors of the church if they are outside.
The Exsultet is then proclaimed by a deacon, priest, or suitable lay person. The Exsultet is a poetic proclamation of the glory of Christ’s resurrection from the dead while meditating on the Paschal Candle as a symbol of the risen Christ.
After the proclamation of the Exsultet the Liturgy of the Word begins. There are seven readings from the Old Testament in total, though parishes are allowed to opt out of reading all of them for legitimate pastoral concerns. But these seven readings tell the overarching story of salvation history from creation to the longing for the Messiah found in the prophets. In between each Old Testament reading is a psalm, rather than having only one between an Old Testament and a New Testament reading.
After the last psalm is sung, the Gloria is finally proclaimed once again and the organ (or piano) which has been silent since Holy Thursday sounds once again, and traditionally bells are also rung throughout the Gloria.
After the Gloria, a reading from the letters from St. Paul is read with the Alleluia and proclamation of the gospel following.
After the homily, the liturgy transitions to the initiation of the catechumens. First, those who have not been baptized are baptized. Confirmation follows baptism for those who require it. Then the faithful are sprinkled with holy water and renew their baptismal promises.
After the prayers of the faithful, the Liturgy of the Eucharist follows as usual and the new initiates and those now in full communion with the Church receive the Blessed Sacrament for the first time.
Mass usually concludes with a joyful, triumphant hymn proclaiming Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
There is nothing like celebrating the Triduum. It helps the faithful enter into the Paschal Mystery, unlike any other experience. It is an opportunity to enter into the depths of the beauty, sorrow, and joy of those days in Our Lord’s life. May we strive in what remains of the Lenten season to prepare ourselves to celebrate these great mysteries. May we be guided by the Church in her wisdom and the Lord in his love to celebrate them worthily and well.