An Introduction To The Liturgies Of Sacred Triduum
Rev. Peter Fonseca
This is the text for an Adult Faith Workshop on the Mass. It is intended to be an incomplete, yet simple introduction to what happens at the liturgies of the Triduum.
The Easter Triduum is the culmination of the Liturgical Year. It marks the end of the Lenten season and ushers in the season of Easter. Although the Triduum spans the three chronological days from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, it is one liturgical service expressing the unity of Christ’s Paschal Mystery. The Triduum contains the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion and the Mass of the Resurrection of the Lord.
The Triduum liturgy does not simply re-enact what happened over 2,000 years ago, but rather invites us to participate in those saving events, just as the Mass invites us into the sacrifice of Calvary, which while completed once and for all at a specific moment in history 2,000 years ago, is represented for us at every Mass. In celebrating the Triduum, we are invited into the Upper Room at the Last Supper for the institution of the Holy Eucharist, invited to journey into the Garden of Gethsemane and their enter into Christ’s anguish and betrayal before standing at the Cross on Good Friday and joining the women at the tomb Early on Easter Sunday to discover that Christ has risen.
Mass of the Lord’s Supper
On the night that He was betrayed Jesus gathered with His disciples to celebrate the Passover meal.  It was at this Last Supper that Jesus instituted the Eucharist so that he can “be with you always until the end of the age.” The celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is firstly then a memorial of the institution of the Eucharist. Since Jesus entrusted the Eucharist to the disciples, commanding them to “do this in memory of me” the Mass is also a memorial of the institution of the priesthood. Thirdly, at the Las Supper, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples so the Mass of the Lord’s Supper commemorates the love by which Christ loved us even unto death.
The Mass begins in the usual way. At the Gloria, which has been excluded in the Season of Lent, the bells are rung for the final time until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil. Following the Gloria, the Triduum takes on a more somber mood and the bells, organ etc. are silenced.
The First Reading comes from the Book of Exodus and recounts the original Passover of the Israelites as they prepared to flee from slavery in Egypt towards freedom in the Promised Land. It should remind us that the new Passover which we celebrate at Mass leads us from slavery to sin into the freedom of grace. We respond to that reading by singing Psalm 115 which is a hymn of thanksgiving for having been saved, exclaiming our salvation in Jesus Christ. In the Second Reading St. Paul recounts what took place at the Last Supper, which this Mass memorializes. The Gospel for this Mass recounts Jesus washing the feet of His Disciples.
Following the Homily the priest removes his chasuble and in imitation of Christ, washes the feet of some of those gathered. The mandatum dates until at least the 4th century. Traditionally the washing of the feet was reserved for 12 men, symbolizing Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. On January 6th 2016, Pope Francis gave permission for the pastor to “select a small group of the faithful to represent the variety and unity of each part of the people of God.” In this permission Pope Francis gives the option for pastors to have the mandatum represent Christ’s call to serve our neighbor, and not the priesthood.
Following the distribution of Holy Communion all the remaining Hosts remain on the Altar. Once the Post-Communion prayer has been recited the priest leads a Eucharistic Procession from the altar to the altar of repose, a separate altar with a tabernacle, set up somewhere in the Church. As the congregation follows behind the Blessed Sacrament, we walk with our Lord from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane where our Lord asks us “remain and keep watch.” The ministers leave in silence leaving the faithful the opportunity to spend time with our Lord, who will remain in the Church until Midnight. There is an ancient tradition of the faithful visiting Christ at 7 different Churches on Holy Thursday evening, imitating the 7 stops Jesus took on the way up Calvary.
At the conclusion of the Mass, the ministers proceed to strip everything from the sanctuary, leaving the Church completely bare, with the exception of the Altar of Repose. The barrenness of the Church reminds us of our sorrow at the death of our Lord, which will be celebrated the next day on Good Friday.
Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion
On Good Friday, the faithful assemble again at the Church, preferably at 3:00 pm, the hour when Christ died, to celebrate His passion. This celebration is a continuation of where the liturgy left off on Holy Thursday so the people assemble in a bare and silent Church. Recognizing that our Lord has just died to save us from our sin and recongizes; that we caused Him to suffer and die by our sinful actions, there is a somber and reverent tone to this liturgy. This simple, yet profound liturgy contains three parts, the Liturgy of the Word, the Veneration of the Cross, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
At the appropriate time the priest enters and prostrates himself in front of the altar while the congregation kneels. This act of humility symbolizes “the abasement of ‘earthly man’ and also the grief and sorrow of the Church” The priest then prays the Collect in a somber tone and all are seated for the first reading from the prophet Isaiah which is a prefiguration of Christ offering Himself for our sins. We respond to the reading by proclaiming the words of Christ on the Cross “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” The second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Christ our savior underwent pain and suffering and thus we have a high priest who can sympathize with our weakness. The Gospel for the liturgy is the reading of the Passion from the Gospel of John, reminding us what we are celebrating and inviting us to walk the way of Calvary whit Christ; to unite ourselves to hiss cross so that we can also rise with Him to new life. At the death of Christ all pause and kneel for a moment and then the reading of the Passion concludes.
Following a short homily, the Liturgy of the Word concludes with the orationes sollemnes. In these solemn prayers we pray for the Church, the Pope, the clergy and laity of the Church, for those preparing for baptism, for the unity of Christians, for the Jewish People, for those who do not believe in Christ, for those who do not believe in God, for those in public office and for those in special need. The Deacon begins by announcing the intention and then we all kneel in silent prayer. Following the silent prayer the priest prays a collect for each intention.
Once the Liturgy of the Word is concluded the liturgy moves to the Veneration of the Cross. The deacon processes from the back of the Church with a crucifix, stopping along the way, to exclaim, “behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the savior of the world” to which the people respond “O come let us adore.” Once the cross is brought forward the priest first comes to venerate the cross, traditionally genuflection three times, to symbolize the three falls of Christ on Calvary. After the priest has venerated the cross the cross is brought to the edge of the sanctuary and the people are invited to come forward to venerate the cross. As the cross is venerated the people are invited to pray in silence while the choir sings. Once the veneration is completed the cross and its accompanying candles are placed in an appropriate place in the sanctuary and the liturgy continues with the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
At the conclusion of the veneration of the cross, the deacon goes to the sacristy where the Blessed Sacrament is being reserved in private and brings the Blessed Sacrament to the altar. The priest then leads the people in the Our Father, the Ecce Agnus Dei and then the priest and people receive Holy Communion. Once everyone has received Holy Communion, the remaining hosts are returned to the sacristy and the priest concludes the liturgy with a final collect. At the conclusion of the liturgy all leave in silence while the cross remains in the sanctuary for people to pray to for the remainder of the day.
Having spent Friday evening in sorrow at the death of Christ, we rise on Saturday morning to recall Christ in the tomb. In the evening the Church gathers to celebrate His resurrection from the dead and to initiate new members into the Catholic Church. The Easter Vigil is the turning point of Triduum. It is the Passover of a new covenant which is marked by Christ’s passage from death to life. We gather at the Easter Vigil to await the Master’s return with our lamps full so that He will find us awake and seat us at His table. This Mass recounts the saving plan of God in history and is divided into four parts; the Service of Light, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of Initiation, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
When the faithful arrive for the Easter Vigil, which starts after dark, the church is left in the dark, the tabernacle is empty, and the church is bare, in recognition that Christ is buried in the tomb. They gather at outside at a fire to await the beginning of the Mass.
When the ministers arrive, the priest first blesses the fire and then the Easter Candle is brought forward. The Easter candle, which will be kept burning throughout the Easter Season and used for Baptisms and funerals throughout the year, represents the light of Christ to the World. After the candle is blessed and lit the candle leads the faithful into the dark Church expressing the light of Christ rising in glory scattering the darkness of our hearts and minds. Just as the Israelites, while they were wandering in the desert, were guided by a pillar of fire at night so to we follow the risen Christ on our earthly pilgrimage to heaven.
Once the Easter Candle has made its way to the sanctuary and the ministers and the congregation have settled into their places the lights are turned on and the deacon, or another suitable minister, comes forward to proclaim the message of Easter, in the traditional Exultet Hymn. This ancient hymn, dating to the 9th century is a preview of the scriptural and theological themes that pervade the Easter Vigil Liturgy. It tells the story of God’s deliverance of His chosen people, firstly at the Passover Feast, then in the passing through the Red Sea and finally in the coming of Christ, who suffered, died and rose so that we could be lead from the slavery of sin to the freedom of grace.
After the Easter Proclamation the Mass moves into the Liturgy of the Word. In the Liturgy of the Word we hear nine total readings; seven from the Old Testament, one from St. Paul’s Epistle and one from gospels. Through these readings “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” our Lord meets us on our journey. The seven Old Testament readings begin with the story of creation and show the outstanding deeds of God’s work in salvation history. We respond to each of these readings either with a moment of silence or through singing a psalm and then the priest gathers our prayers and offers them to God in a collect after each of the readings. The New Testament reading comes from St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, recalling that God has come to save all people. Last we stand for the Gospel to hear the account of the women coming to the tomb early on Sunday morning only to discover that Jesus has risen from the dead.
After the homily the Mass moves to the Liturgy of Initiation. Those who are to be baptized process behind the light of Christ, symbolized in the Easter candle to the baptismal font, while the choir calls on the saints to pray for us as we sing the litany of the saints. Following a profession of faith the priest blesses the water, recounting how God has used water in His plan of salvation and then the catechumen are baptized. After the baptism the newly confirmed are clothed in a white garment and reminded to bring that garment unstained to heaven and a candle light from the Easter candle which they are instructed to keep the light of Christ burning in their hearts. At this time the rest of the congregation stands to renew their baptismal promises and then they are sprinkled with holy water recalling their own baptism.
Following the baptisms those who are to be fully initiated into the Church come forward and make a simple profession of faith in the Catholic Church. The priest then calls down the Holy Spirit upon those to be confirmed, lays hands on them, and anoints them with Sacred Chrism, carrying out the sacrament of Confirmation.
Following the Easter Sacraments the Mass continues with great solemnity. After communion the remaining hosts are brought to the tabernacle and the sanctuary light is lit reminding us that the risen Christ now awaits us to come and visit Him in the Church. The Mass concludes with the praying of the Prayer After Communion with the final blessing and the Easter Dismissal of Alleluia. The Priest then processes out as the people leave to bring saving message of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection to a world in need of hope.
 Mt 26
 Mt 28:20
 Lk 22:19
 International Commission on English in the Liturgy. Ceremonial of Bishops. Collegeville, The Liturgical Press. 1989. Paragraph 297 Page 103.
 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline f the Sacraments, Decree In Missa In Cena Domini. January 6, 2016. Accessible at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20160106_decreto-lavanda-piedi_en.html
 Mt 26:38
 Lk 23:46
 Luke 12:25
 Lk 24:27, 44-45