Thursday, March 24, 2005

A primer on Triduum

If you would like to know what the next three days is about for the Church throughout the world, listen up. The next three days are the most special time in the calendar of the whole Church: it is called Triduum--"the three days"--the high point in the Church's calendar. The preparations of Lent during the past 40 days--the fasting, the prayers, the almsgiving--have led the members of the Church in the celebration of these three days.

During this time the Church enters into the experience of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus (which we call the Paschal Mystery). Gathered together as a community, the Church enters this Mystery through rituals, symbols, singing, music, readings, sermons, and prayer. All of these rituals and celebrations make up ONE liturgy over three days. It's not that we all stay in Church for three days without going home: we get to go home. But rather, all of these celebrations constitute ONE liturgical act and movement.

That means for instance that at the end of each of the rituals beginning today until Saturday night, you will not hear the priest dismissing the assembly (although they may disperse), and you will not hear the priest giving the assembly a blessing at the end. The reason why the Church regards this as one liturgy spread over three days is because the Church is celebrating one central and unified event in the experience of Jesus--his trial, torture, execution, burial, and resurrection. These make up one event that has saved, and continues to save, the whole world from sin and death.

Triduum begins this evening when the whole Church celebrates the Mass recalling Jesus' Last Supper. A special liturgical rite during this evening's Mass is called the "washing of the feet." Through this ritual we recall Jesus' action of washing the feet of his disciples. It is a sign of humility and service. We are called to do as Jesus did--serving and loving others--and we symbolize our serving and loving by ritually washing each other's feet.

Also, the Mass this evening (Thursday) commemorates the time when Jesus took bread and wine and told his disciples that these are his body and blood. Then he commanded his disciples to partake of this consecrated bread and wine in his memory. This is the command that the Church observes not only whenever she celebrates this special Mass remembering the Last Supper once a year this evening, but also whenever Mass is celebrated every week on Sunday and every day.

Triduum continues on Friday with the observance of Jesus' passion and death. Usually held at three o'clock in the afternoon, which is traditionally believed to be the time when Jesus was nailed to the cross, the Church's observance of this day includes a reading of the story of Jesus' trial and execution, traditionally from the narrative of St. John.

A special ritual on Friday is called the veneration of the Cross. Members of the assembly come forward and venerate the Cross through the gestures of kneeling in front of it, kissing the cross, or touching it. Also, an expanded set of prayers is offered this day; that is, the general intercessions are lengthened. At regular Masses, these petitions occur after the homily and are usually a sentence long. On this special day these intercessions are brought to prominence by having periods of silence and by having special prayers spoken by the priest after each intercession.

After the commemoration of Jesus' passion and death, the whole Church pauses and waits. No Masses will be celebrated the following day, on Saturday. In fact, the whole Church is encouraged to fast. But this is to be a different sort of fasting, unlike the fasting in Lent which is all about discipline, penance, and sorrow for one's sins. The type of fast called for on Saturday is called the Easter fast--a fast of joyful anticipation and excitement.

Triduum culminates on Saturday night with the celebration of the Great Vigil of Easter. On this night, the Paschal Candle (symbolizing the Light of Christ) is lit and processed into the darkened Church. Then, the beautiful words of the Exsultet--the Easter Proclamation--is sung. If you decide to attend the Easter Vigil at your local Church, I encourage you to listen to the words of this Proclamation closely: they are simply beautiful.

On this special night, there will (hopefully) be more than three readings from the Bible. The Church encourages parishes to read as many of the seven prescribed readings from the Hebrew Scriptures as possible. Following these Scripture passages, the letter of Paul to the Romans is read. Then, the "Alleluia" is sung: a word which the Church has "fasted" from during the past 40 days of Lent.

Following the singing of the Alleluia, the Gospel is proclaimed. This year the Gospel reading that will be proclaimed is the story of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary being told by an angel at the tomb that Jesus has risen. The story continues to relate how Jesus then actually appeared to them as they were on their way to tell the disciples the good news of the resurrection.

The elect--those who have been preparing for baptism--are called forward this night in order to be baptized and confirmed. Also on this night, those who previously belonged to different denominations but who wish to enter into a fuller communion with the Catholic Church are received. Their time of catechesis and instruction has led them to this night, and the Church welcomes them as her own.

The Vigil of Easter gives those who are already baptized an opportunity to renew their baptismal promises. It also commences their joyful celebration of the season of Easter which is to last for 50 days--all that time holding in their hearts the words they have heard this night from the Exsultet: "Jesus Christ is risen!"

I encourage you to attend as much of this beautiful liturgy as you can at your local parish.

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