Tomorrow begins the Easter Triduum, the highest point of the Catholic liturgical year. It is also the shortest liturgical season of the Church calendar. This three-day celebration of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ marks the end of our Lenten journey (liturgically speaking; our Lenten fast does not end until Holy Saturday) and serves to introduce the joy of Easter. Beginning with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday, the Triduum concludes with Vespers (evening prayer) on Easter Sunday. In between those bookends, Catholics celebrate Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion and the Mass of the Resurrection of the Lord (the Easter Vigil mass). Many of the faithful have never participated fully in the Easter Triduum, settling for attendance at an Easter Sunday mass. If you have never immersed yourself completely in the liturgies of this holy season here is a primer to help you appreciate the significance of how the Church celebrates.
Holy Thursday – Chrism Mass – Purple Vestments
This Mass is not officially part of the Easter Triduum but is commonly celebrated by the Bishop at the cathedral during the morning of Holy Thursday. At this mass the chrism oils – the oil of the sick, the oil of catechumens, and the chrism oil – are consecrated by the bishop and distributed to the various diocesan congregations for use throughout the ensuing year. If you have never been to a chrism mass, I would recommend you do so at least once in your life. The mass is attended by nearly all priests of the diocese and is quite impressive.
Holy Thursday – Mass of the Lord’s Supper – White Vestments
This mass is a time of remembrance of Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Celebrated in the evening, it is comprised of two essential parts: the washing of feet and the celebration of the Eucharist.
Washing of the Feet
During the washing of the feet, the Priest goes to each of the chosen (typically) men and with the help of ministers, pours water over the each one’s feet and dries them. The mass continues with the Universal Prayer. The Creed is not said.
Liturgy of the Eucharist
During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, a sufficient number of hosts are consecrated for not only the Holy Thursday mass, but also for the mass on Good Friday. At the conclusion of the distribution, the “extra” hosts are placed in a ciborium and placed on the altar. The tabernacle remains empty following this mass. After the Prayer of Communion, the Priest incenses the Blessed Sacrament three times and then, taking the ciborium, he processes to its place of repose (typically an Adoration chapel or other place set aside) outside of the sanctuary. The congregation can follow the Priest, singing a eucharistic chant (e.g., Pange, lingua). The ciborium is placed in the tabernacle (in the place of repose), incensed, and the door of the tabernacle is closed. A period of silent adoration follows.
Good Friday – The Celebration of the Passion of The Lord – Red Vestments
On Good Friday and on Holy Saturday (up to but not including the Easter Vigil Mass) the Church does not celebrate the Sacraments. The altar is completely bare, no cross, no candles, no cloths. Typically at 3 PM in the afternoon (the time of Christ’s death), the Lord’s Passion is celebrated. It consists of three parts: the Liturgy of the Word, the Adoration of the Cross and Holy Communion.
Liturgy of the Word
During the Liturgy of the Word, the Passion of Our Lord is enacted. The Liturgy of the Word concludes with the Solemn Intercessions which are prayed for particular intentions followed by silent prayer of the congregation. On Good Friday, the Solemn (or General) Intercessions are the same throughout the Church.
Adoration of the Holy Cross
The second part of the mass is the Adoration of the Holy Cross. The cross is brought to the altar where the congregation process, showing reverence to the cross through genuflection or a kiss. During this time chants can be sung.
At the conclusion of Adoration, Holy Communion begins with the bringing of the Blessed Sacrament from its place of repose. Distribution follows after brief prayer and, following reception of Holy Communion, the priest gives the blessing and all depart in silence.
Good Friday – Stations of the Cross
Many participate in Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. This often follows the Mass of the Passion of The Lord.
Holy Saturday is a day of waiting, waiting at the tomb of Our Lord, waiting for His resurrection. The sacrifice of the Mass is not celebrated until after the Vigil. Holy Communion may only be given on Holy Saturday as Viaticum (last rites).
The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night – White Vestments
The Easter Vigil is the greatest of all the solemnities that the Church celebrates. The entire celebration takes place after dark and ends before dawn on Easter Sunday. The Vigil mass consists of four parts: the blessing of the fire and preparation of the candle, the liturgy of the word, the baptismal liturgy, and the liturgy of the eucharist. This is a LONG mass, typically lasting about 3 hours. But it is well worth attending, at least once.
Blessing of the Fire and Preparation of the Candle
If possible, the mass begins outside the church. A fire is kindled and the priest blesses the fire. The priest then cuts a cross into the new paschal candle, makes the Greek letter Alpha above the cross, the letter Omega below, and the four numbers of the current year between the arms of the cross while reciting the words of blessing: “Christ yesterday and today the Beginning and the End the Alpha and the Omega. All time belong to him and all ages. To him be glory and power through every age and for ever. Amen.” The candle is then lit and this fire is passed from the paschal candle to light the candles that all the congregation has. The church is dark except for candlelight. The Priest, deacon, etc. process to the altar and, once all candles have been lit, the Priest announces the Easter Proclamation (the Exsultet). This proclamation speaks of how God has interceded for us and especially upon Christ’s resurrection. Upon completion of the Exsultet, candles are extinguished.
Liturgy of the Word
In its full form, the Liturgy of the Word for the Easter Vigil consists of nine readings, seven from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament. The readings begin with God’s creation of the world and proceed to tell the story of salvation history. We’ll hear the stories of Abraham, of the Exodus, of Moses. We’ll hear from the prophets Isaiah, Baruch and Ezekial. At the conclusion of the Old Testament readings, the Gloria is sung. The Liturgy of the Word concludes with the gospel relating Christ’s resurrection.
Catechumens are called forward and presented. The Litany of Saints is chanted and the candidates are baptized. Following baptism, the Priest administers the Sacrament of Confirmation. The congregation renews baptismal promises if this has not been done during the baptism of the catechumens. This is an emotional part of the mass as we see the joyful tears of those who are completing their journey to full communion with the Catholic Church.
Liturgy of the Eucharist
This is the standard liturgy of the Eucharist.
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