Tonight marks the beginning of the Triduum – the three days from Holy Thursday evening to Easter Saturday evening – during which Catholics commemorate the Last Supper, the Passion and Crucifixion, and finally the vigil at the tomb awaiting the Resurrection. The three-day Liturgical celebration caps off Holy Week which began the preceding weekend on Palm Sunday (which recalls Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem).
Tonight we remember the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. In preparation for His death, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples, a meal which would be His last. And at that celebration Christ gave new meaning to the unleavened bread and the cup of blessing, by proclaiming, “This is my Body…This is my Blood” – linking His sacrificial death to the Communion meal now celebrated at every Mass.
Also at that meal Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles to demonstrate the humble service to which they would be called as leaders of the Church. If Jesus, their Master, washed their feet, then how much more ought they to wash the feet of others. On this night, during Mass, members of the congregation are selected to have their feet ceremoniously washed by the presiding celebrant (the priest or bishop presiding at Mass.)
At the end of the Mass, the consecrated Eucharist (which Catholics believe to be the Body and Blood of Jesus – His Real Presence in our midst) is transferred from the main altar to a temporary location outside of the main sanctuary to a suitable altar of repose, where members of the faithful can wait with the Lord through the night, just as the Apostles were called to do in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested.
On Good Friday the death of our Savior is recalled. The Liturgy begins (or rather, takes up again where it left off on Thursday) that afternoon in silence, as the priest prostrates himself (lies flat upon the floor) before the altar as a sign of reverence and humility in honor of Christ’s sacrifice. A cross or crucifix is brought forward for the faithful to reverence (with a kiss, a touch, or a bow).
Scriptural readings include the telling of the Passion from John’s Gospel. As the story of Jesus’ suffering and death are recounted, the faithful are given a part to play: During the reading, when Pilate asks what ought to be done with this Jesus, who claims to be King of the Jews, we cry out, “Crucify him!” We also are given the role of taunting and ridiculing Jesus on the Cross. This aspect of Good Friday is meant to drive home the point that we are all guilty and we cause Jesus to suffer by our sinfulness. We are the ones who bear the blame for His death.
There is no consecration of the Eucharist on Good Friday. When Communion is distributed, the Body is taken from the altar of repose where it has been kept since the previous evening.
Afterwards, all leave in silence…for again, the Liturgy does not truly end, but will continue the following evening.
Since the time of the Second Vatican Council and the renewal of the Liturgy, the Holy Saturday celebration has become a sort of “crowning jewel” of the Liturgical Season. Filled with multiple symbols and significance, this night stands out among other Masses as a real point of inspiration when it is celebrated faithfully and with reverence.
We begin outside (whenever possible) around a fire, in the dark of the evening. The fire is blessed, and a large candle (the Paschal Candle or Easter Candle) is also blessed and lit from the fire. The flame of the Paschal Candle represents Christ “the Light of the World.” The congregation lights smaller candles from the larger Paschal Candle as we all receive our light from Christ. We process in to a darkened church which is soon aglow in the light of the many small candles, as we pass flames from one to another, until the whole congregation is assembled. Then the proclamation of Christ’s Resurrection is read or sung and the lights of the church are turned on. From then the Mass continues.
Among the other features of Holy Saturday, those seeking full communion with the Church are baptized and Confirmed and receive their first Communion. After completing many weeks of training in the faith, Holy Saturday is the traditional day of accepting these new Catholics into the fold. For this purpose, holy water is blessed and the chrism (holy oil used for anointing), which was only recently consecrated at the beginning of Holy Week, is used in the ceremony.
Also, the “Alleluia” is sung for the first time since the beginning of Lent. Since Lent is a time of penance, a somber reflective season, the grand Alleluia, which is usually sung before the Gospel, has been omitted for forty days. The Alleluia makes a glorious return on Easter Saturday evening.
And with that the Gospel is proclaimed that Jesus has risen, and the long wait of Lent is over.
I would strongly urge anyone who is able to participate in all three days of the Triduum if at all possible. It encapsulates the entire Passion of Christ and plays it out in real time before your eyes with liturgical precision. In the Triduum the true meaning of Easter is celebrated within the Universal Church, as the whole Body of Christ’s believers await the risen Christ.