The Paschal Triduum: The Symphony of Salvation
Within Roman Catholic, Anglican, and some Lutheran Churches there is the tradition to observe the Paschal Triduum. The Paschal Triduum begins on Maundy Thursday and ends Easter Sunday. While the word ‘triduum’ means ‘three days’ if you do the math you will notice that Thursday to Sunday is four days. So then, why don’t we call it the Pascal Quaduum? Because the Paschal Triduum is reckoned using the lunar way of counting days. In the lunar calendar, which the Jews still use for their religious calendar, the days are marked sundown to sundown and not sunrise to sunrise as in the solar calendar. This is why, for Jews, the Sabbath begins sundown Friday and ends sundown Saturday.
With this in mind, we see that sundown Thursday to sundown Friday is Day 1, sundown Friday to sundown Saturday is Day 2, and sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday is Day 3. Thus, the Triduum.
The Paschal Triduum contains within itself four services, or four acts, or maybe even three movements with two interludes. This is why I call it the Symphony of Salvation for while each movement is meaningful and could stand alone, it needs the entirety of the piece to bring its full understanding.
The First Movement is Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes via Middle English from the Latin word ‘mandatum’ or ‘mandate’. This reflects Christ’s new mandate He gives us at the Last Supper in John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” During the Maundy Thursday service the priests and sometimes the bishop will invite the faithful forward so that they, the clergy, can was the feet of the laity. We do this after the example set forward by Christ who washed the feet of His Apostles. As a priest, this a very moving part of the service for it is a tangible reminder of my vocation as a servant of the servants of God. On this day we also celebrate the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper and we consecrate enough wine and wafers so that we can have Communion on Friday. After the Mass, the Altar, which is a representation of the Body of Christ, is stripped, washed, and anointed in silence. This moving act is a reminder that before His death, Our Lord was stripped of His clothing and after His death, His body was washed and anointed for burial. The Presence Lamp is extinguished, and the Consecrated Elements are moved to the Chapel. The Tabernacle remains open and empty. This is the last Mass before Easter.
During the time between the First and Second Movement the Sacrament is displayed on the Altar of Repose and people are encouraged to come and spend an hour with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is the First Interlude.
The Second Movement is Good Friday. On this day, the priests enter in silence and the service begins
not with the normal acclamation but with the Collect of the Day. The Passion Narrative is read, and we chant the Solemn Collects, a group of prayers in which we pray for the Universal Church, for all nations and peoples, for all who suffer, and for those who do not know the love of Jesus. Then a wooden cross is processed down the aisle and we are encouraged to come up individually and adore the cross. Some kiss the cross, some embrace it, some kneel and pray in front of it. It is a deeply personal time when we are all invited to give our full attention to the Cross of Our Lord and marvel at His sacrifice for our salvation. After this, Holy Communion is distributed from what we consecrated at the Maundy Thursday service. In solemn honor to the Crucifixion, we do not consecrate more bread and wine on Good Friday. After the service everyone leaves in silence.
The Second Interlude is a very brief prayer service for Holy Saturday. Mass is not celebrated, and we are left with a void in recognition of the emptiness the Apostles’ felt at the death of Christ.
The Third Movement is The Great Vigil of Easter. We begin in a dark church completely absent of light and then in the back a new fire is lit. This is the Easter fire and after it is sanctified the Paschal Candle, a representation of Jesus, is lit from the new fire and blessed. A clergyperson processes the Paschal Candle down the aisle proclaiming this to be the light of Christ and from it everyone lights their individual candles. As the light of Christ moves down the aisle the dark church is illuminated by the individual candles. This reminds us of the spreading of the Gospel. The beautiful Exsultet is chanted which connects our celebration today to the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Then, we recall the story of salvation through several readings. If baptism or confirmations are to take place they are done after the readings. Then, when we cannot stand the anticipation any longer, the celebrant cries out “Alleluia. Christ is Risen!” and the people respond, “The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!” The lights come up, the bells ring, the organ plays the fanfare, and we rejoice in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead!
The Mass continues, new elements are consecrated, the Tabernacle is again filled with the Eucharist, and the Presence Lamp is lit. This is the climax of the Paschal Triduum.
From there we have two more Sunday morning Easter Masses, and the Triduum ends with Evening Prayer at sundown on Sunday.
The Symphony of Salvation has ended for another year and we walk once again in the light of the Risen Christ. All Praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.