Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
The ancient rites of the triduum
by Father Jan Larson
(From the March 18, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
At the moment Lent ends, the triduum, the sacred three days, begins with the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The triduum is the Church’s most sacred three days, and is really a unitive feast – a feast three days long, three chapters that tell the story of the paschal mystery – the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising and how we share in the power of that mystery. One can participate in any of these three liturgical rites, but one only celebrates the full ritual expression of the Easter mystery by participating in all three liturgies.
A Spanish woman by the name of Egeria visited Jerusalem in about the year 384, and in her diary she describes how these three holy days were celebrated toward the end of that fourth century. From her records we know that on Holy Thursday the Christians in Jerusalem did not stress the Last Supper as we do today. Egeria describes instead a day filled with various other rites and prayers, including the regular morning prayer service of Lent. At 2 p.m. there was a service that included a Mass at which no one received Communion. Then Christians would go to the church near the site of the crucifixion, where another Mass would be celebrated, but this time people would receive Communion. After a pause to allow people to have supper, people would assemble at the Mount of Olives for an all-night vigil. They would then move to a second church at midnight, then process to the garden of Gethsemane, and then back to the place of crucifixion.
On Good Friday, from 7 a.m. until noon, the people came to venerate three important relics: the wood of the cross and the inscription that was attached to it, King Solomon’s ring, and the horn (container) used to anoint Jewish kings. At noon an outdoor service began, consisting of readings from the Jewish Bible and the New Testament. At 3 p.m., to commemorate the moment when Jesus died, they gathered to hear John’s Gospel account of how Jesus “gave up the spirit.” They concluded with prayer and dismissal; they all walked to the nearby cathedral for another prayer service; and then to the Church of the Resurrection to hear the Scriptures describing the burial of Jesus. While this was the end of the regular services, many would keep an all-night vigil at the Church of the Resurrection.
On Holy Saturday, people could attend regular prayer services at 9 a.m. and at noon, but at 3 p.m. everything was quiet, so that people could prepare for the great Easter Vigil Saturday night and Easter Sunday morning. Egeria reports that the vigil service was not unlike the vigil as celebrated in her native Spain. This certainly would have included an all-night vigil, ending with the celebration of the Eucharist and baptisms at dawn.
Today the average parish schedule of services during the triduum is simple, compared with fourth century Jerusalem. Nonetheless, many Catholics today have never celebrated all three days, perhaps more than we think our overburdened schedules and need for sleep could possibly handle. We might ponder the words of the bishop of Jerusalem, encouraging the tired faithful to be patient and strong. He tells them “not to be weary, but to put their hope in God, who will give them a reward out of all proportion to the effort they have made.”
(This article originally appeared in the April 6, 2006 edition of the Inland Register.)
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)