The Easter Triduum

What is the Easter Triduum and what happens on the three most important days in our Christian calendar? Fleur Dorrell guides us through each day as Jesus prepares for his death and resurrection.

The Empty Tomb with the three crosses at sunrise.

The Easter Triduum

Holy Week is the most solemn and glorious week in the Christian calendar, the pinnacle of the liturgical year. This is because Holy Week commemorates the final week of Christ’s life on this earth, the very purpose for which Christmas happened.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday (when Jesus made his final entrance into Jerusalem) and culminates with Easter Sunday. As Holy Week progresses towards its final days, the tension heightens.

‘Triduum’ is a Latin term (meaning three days) used by the Catholic Church to denote the three days from the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday. The Easter Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper and ends after evening prayers at sunset on Easter Day. 

The Triduum is also known as the “Paschal Mystery” because it is the ultimate fulfilment of the ancient Jewish Passover (or Pasch), which itself was a recollection of how God brought the Jews out of their slavery in Egypt to freedom. A spotless lamb was slaughtered at the Passover meal and eaten, while the angel of death “passed over” the homes marked with the blood of the Passover Lamb that night, and those marked by the blood were saved. 

The Church sees this as the Old Testament pre-figuring of Jesus’ covenant ritual at the Last Supper where he himself became the Paschal Lamb, and at Calvary, where he sacrificed his body to save us from our slavery to sin. So that in every Holy Eucharist since the Lord’s Last Supper, Christ’s sacrifice is re-enacted: the consecrated bread and wine become the presence of the life of the risen Christ to be shared in communion. The Paschal Mystery celebrated in these days is the whole plan of God’s redemption for the world through the passion, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Holy Thursday 

Holy Thursday, also known as Maundy Thursday, opens the celebration of the Triduum which takes place at the evening Mass. This Mass celebrates the last meal Jesus shared with his twelve apostles before his death. (cf. Paul the Apostle’s account in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, as well as the Synoptic Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke.) 

After the homily on Holy Thursday, we imitate Jesus in the washing of feet. This ritual reminds us that our baptismal commitment means we are to be servants to each other. In the time of St. Ambrose of Milan, those who were to be baptised at the Vigil had their feet washed, because of Jesus’ words to Peter: “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet…” (John 13:10). Many scholars have seen a baptismal reference in those words. 

The Mass does not end as it usually does with the dismissal and final blessing. The evening’s celebration concludes with a “stripping of the altar” when all the decorations are removed, and the Blessed Sacrament is taken from the Tabernacle on the Main Altar and processed to an Altar of Repose outside the main body of the church. The sanctuary candle

or Paschal candle is extinguished, and not re-lit until the Easter Vigil. Eucharistic Adoration is common after the Holy Thursday Mass continuing until midnight. It reminds us of Jesus’ fearful vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane, when his first disciples could not stay awake to support him, recounted in Matthew 26:36-39; Mark 14:32-35; Luke 22:39-46. So we watch, and we pray with Christ.

In Catholic Churches, images of saints are covered until the Easter Vigil and votive candles are not lit before these images. Crucifixes that are movable are removed till the Good Friday liturgy.

Hammer, nails and crown of thorns

Good Friday 

On this day, Christians ritually recall the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus. Mass is not celebrated because the sacrifice is already being re-enacted. However, Holy Communion (reserved in the Tabernacle on the Altar of Repose from the previous evening) is distributed at the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion. The celebration traditionally occurs at 3 pm to coincide with the gospel texts that state the hour that Jesus breathed his last on the cross in Matthew 27:46, Luke 23:44.

It consists of three parts: Liturgy of the Word, Veneration of the Cross and Holy Communion. The liturgy begins with the Priest and deacon prostrating themselves in front of the Altar. The first part, the Liturgy of the Word, consists of the reading or chanting of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9, and the Passion account from the Gospel of John. The second part of the Good Friday liturgy is the Veneration of the Cross: a cross which is solemnly processed and then displayed to the congregation, and the priest and the faithful are invited to kneel before the cross and kiss it in reverence.

The third and last part is Holy Communion. The Eucharist, consecrated at the Mass of Holy Thursday is distributed at this service. At the conclusion, the priest and people depart in silence, and the altar cloth is removed, leaving the altar bare. 

The candle by the Tabernacle is blown out, and the Tabernacle doors are left open to show that the Church is empty. This heightens the drama and reminds us of the reality of Jesus’ death. And it reminds us that Good Friday is a solemn time of fasting, mourning and prayer as we contemplate Christ’s death.

Holy Saturday 

Following Good Friday, Holy Saturday is the commemoration of the day that Jesus lay in his tomb. In the Catholic Church, daytime Masses are never offered. It is a time of waiting, praying and meditating before the Easter Vigil begins that evening. We recall, with Mary, and with other male and female disciples, that Jesus was separated from them for the first time as he lay in the tomb.

In the Apostles Creed, we pray, “He descended into hell” (translated hades, referring to the temporary place of the dead rather than the eternal place of fire) which describes what Jesus did in the time between his burial and Resurrection. Jesus descended to the realm of the dead on Holy Saturday to save the righteous souls — the Old Testament patriarchs and all holy people who died before his crucifixion.

Easter Vigil (Saturday after sunset) 

The Easter Vigil is held after nightfall of Holy Saturday, or before dawn on Easter Day, in anticipation of the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus. This is the most glorious, beautiful, and dramatic liturgy for the Church. As the sun rises so does the Son.

The Easter Vigil consists of four parts: 

  1. The Service of Light
  2. The Liturgy of the Word
  3. The Order of Christian Initiation and the Renewal of Baptismal Vows
  4. Holy Eucharist

The Service of Light

The Vigil service begins outside the church around a large fire in the dark. This new fire symbolises the radiance of the Risen Christ dispelling the darkness of sin and death. The Paschal candle is blessed and then lit. This Paschal candle is used throughout the season of Easter, remaining in the sanctuary of the church or near the lectern, and throughout the coming year at all baptisms and funerals, reminding us that Christ is our light and life. 

Once the candle has been lit there follows the beautiful and ancient rite of the Light or Lucernarium, in which the candle is carried by a deacon through the nave of the darkened church, stopping three times to chant an acclamation such as “Christ our Light” to which the people respond “Thanks be to God.” As the candle proceeds through the church, the baptised light their candles from the flame of the Paschal candle. As this symbolic “Light of Christ” spreads throughout those gathered, the darkness is dispersed. Once the procession has reached the sanctuary of the Altar, with the church lit only by candlelight, the Exultet (Easter Proclamation) is sung.

The Liturgy of the Word

The Liturgy of the Word consists of up to seven readings from the Old Testament. Each reading is followed by a psalm and a prayer connecting what has been read in the Old Testament to the Mystery of Christ. After these readings finish, the Gloria is sung for the first time since before Lent (except for when it is sung on Holy Thursday), while the church bells and the organ, silent since that point on Holy Thursday, are sounded again – and the opening prayer is read. A reading from the Epistle to the Romans is proclaimed, followed by the chanting of Psalm 118 (A song of victory). The Alleluia is sung for the first time since the beginning of Lent. The Gospel of the Resurrection is then proclaimed. 

The Order of Christian Initiation

During the vigil all those who have completed their formation as catechumens are received into the Church. They receive the sacraments of initiation, Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist during the Vigil, surrounded by, and sustained by, the prayers of the whole Christian Community.

“Therefore Easter is not simply one feast among others, but the ‘Feast of feasts’, the ‘Solemnity of solemnities’, just as the Eucharist is the ‘Sacrament of sacraments’. St. Athanasius calls Easter ‘the Great Sunday’ and the Eastern Churches call Holy Week ‘the Great Week’. The mystery of the Resurrection, in which Christ crushed death, permeates with its powerful energy our old time, until all is subjected to him.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church – 1168 and 1169.

Fleur Dorrell