The Most Holy Time of the Year

The Sacred Paschal Triduum

The Sacred Paschal Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday) marks the high point of the Church’s liturgical year.  Over the course of the year the Church recounts the important facts of Jesus’ life and incorporates them into the life of the Church.  The Triduum is the time when we, in a very particular way, remember the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — the central events of our salvation.  

Triduum means “three days,” and the Sacred Triduum runs from the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday.  The USCCB web site says, “Though chronologically three days, they are liturgically one day unfolding for us the unity of Christ’s Paschal Mystery.”  It also makes mention of the Triduum as a “single celebration.”

The Triduum begins on the evening of Holy Thursday with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, where the Church recounts the institution of the Eucharist and the Priesthood.  The celebration ends with a procession with the Eucharist out of the church to “an altar of repose,” recalling Jesus’ time praying in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before He died.  But the liturgy does not end on Holy Thursday.  There is no ita missa est, no “the Mass is ended, go in peace,” for it has not ended. 

On Good Friday (the only day of the year when no Mass is celebrated), the liturgy silently resumes as the priest, deacon and servers process into the church and prostrate themselves before the bare altar and empty tabernacle.  No bells are rung; there is minimal singing.  The cross is venerated.  Again, the celebration never formally ends.  The people depart in silence.   Though not part of the Triduum liturgy, it is customary in many places to pray the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.  (Many parishes pray them every Friday during Lent, or even all year long). 

The Stations of the Cross is a traditional devotion recalling the events of the Passion.  What many do not realize is that praying the Stations is actually a pilgrimage in miniature.  One of the most important aspects of our Catholic faith is that it is based on historical events.  Jesus Christ is not a fairy tale.  He walked the streets in Jerusalem.  He was actually arrested, tried, condemned and crucified.  And He truly rose from the dead.     Because these are historical events, faithful Christians throughout history have sought to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and walk the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Sorrow”), following in Jesus’ footsteps and visiting the places associated with His Passion.  In the Middle Ages, that became difficult because of Muslim occupation of the Holy Land, so St. Francis is said to have established the first Stations of the Cross, so that people unable to travel to the Holy Land could make a spiritual pilgrimage.  Today most every Catholic church has Stations of the Cross within the church — some even outside on the church grounds.  On Good Friday, in many cultures, the Stations of the Cross are reenacted dramatically; even more poignantly recounting the historical events of this day.  

The high point of the Triduum, and the pinnacle of all the Church’s liturgies, is the Easter Vigil Mass, when the Resurrection is finally proclaimed, our fasting ends, the bells once more ring out and the people sing “Alleluia!”  This is the Mass at which catechumens are traditionally baptized and many thousands of people world wide will be born again into Christ on this night.  It is the longest Mass of the year, with multiple readings from the Old Testament recounting all of salvation history.  Finally, after the joyful celebration of the Risen Lord, we are told, “Go in peace, the Mass is ended, Alleluia, Alleluia!”  The events set in motion on Holy Thursday night have come to pass.  It is finished.  

Whether you are celebrating Holy Week at home with your family, or right here in Cullowhee, I encourage you to join with the Church in prayer at this very special time of the year.  Pray for the grace to know Christ more intimately in your own life, so that you may join with Him in sorrow at His suffering for our sins, and join with Him in glory in His resurrection this Easter.  

To learn more about the Sacred Triduum, read this message from Pope Benedict XVI from 2011.