The Paschal Triduum: A Christian journey to Easter

A darkened room of people looking forward, some reading books, holding candles, sitting in a church

A Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. Photo by George Martell, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, APRIL 13 and FRIDAY, APRIL 14 and SATURDAY, APRIL 15: Holy Week began several days ago with Palm Sunday, but this week’s events start to culminate with Holy Thursday and the launch of a trio of days known as the Paschal Triduum. For three days, Christians will perform centuries-old rituals and review the final events in the life of Jesus. From foot washing to the Stations of the Cross, Christians will lament the tragic events of Jesus’ final days; with prayer and fasting, the faithful will prepare for the most joyous holiday of the year: Easter (or Pascha), the Resurrection of Christ.

Note: This year, both Eastern and Western Christians will celebrate Easter (or, as it is known as in Eastern Christianity, Pascha) on Sunday, April 16.

News on Pope Francis and Holy Week: According to news reports, Pope Francis is slated to conduct a Chrism Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on Holy Thursday; later, Francis will celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper with the traditional washing of feet; and he will preside over an afternoon liturgy commemorating the Lord’s Passion in St. Peter’s Basilica on Good Friday. Later that night, he will pray the Via Crucis, or Stations of the Cross, with thousands at the Colosseum. The following night, Holy Saturday, Francis is scheduled to celebrate the Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica; on Easter Sunday, he will hold a public Mass in St. Peter’s Square at 10 a.m. and, immediately following, will give his Urbi et Orbi blessing—“to the city and to the world.”

HOLY (MAUNDY) THURSDAY: THE LAST SUPPER

Priest in black robes with head down, ornate background

Holy Thursday in the Eastern Christian Church. Photo by Saint-Petersburg Theological Academy, courtesy of Flickr

The Paschal Triduum is initiated with Maundy Thursday, the fifth day of Holy Week. Alternatively known as Holy Thursday or Covenant Thursday, this day commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus with the Apostles.

Some scholars believe that the name “Maundy Thursday” derived from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase stated by Jesus to describe the purpose for his washing their feet. (“A new commandment I give to unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you.”) In some churches, to this day, clergy ceremonially wash the feet of 12 persons as part of Maundy Thursday services. Following the Maundy Thursday service, in most Christian denominations, the altar is “stripped” in solemn fashion in preparation for Good Friday.

Today, even outside of the church building, global traditions for Maundy Thursday are varied and colorful. In the United Kingdom, the Monarch offers Maundy money to worthy elders; in Bulgaria, Easter eggs are colored and homes are prepared for the upcoming holy days. Holy Thursday is a public holiday in many Christian countries.

At the conclusion of Maundy Thursday services, the attitude in the Church becomes somber, dark and mournful. Church bells fall silent until Easter.

Priests in black robes arrying crosses down dirt street

A Good Friday procession in Malta. Photo by Antonio Caselli, courtesy of Flickr

GOOD FRIDAY: THE STATIONS OF THE CROSS

While in the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night, Christian tradition says that Jesus was located by the Romans—led by Judas Iscariot—and arrested. This led to interrogation, torture and, eventually, to Jesus’ death by the horrific Roman method of crucifixion. In the Catholic Church, Good Friday is a fast day of the deepest solemnity. The altar is bare, vestments are red or black and the cross is venerated.

In many parishes, the Stations of the Cross recount Jesus’ journey to the site of the crucifixion. In countries such as Malta, Italy, the Philippines and Spain, processions carry statues of the Passion of Christ. In Britain, Australia and Canada, hot cross buns are traditionally consumed on Good Friday.

Check local news reports in your part of the world: In the U.S., each year, more groups of churches in cities and rural areas are planning annual processions of the cross.

HOLY SATURDAY: SUSPENSE AND SOLEMNITY

Holy Saturday, or Black Saturday, ushers in with the darkness of Good Friday, commemorating the day that Jesus’ body lay in the tomb. Traditionally, the altar remains bare or is draped in a simple black cloth. In Catholic parishes, the administration of sacraments is limited. Holy Saturday is a time of suspense, quiet and solemnity, as Christians continue to mourn the death of Jesus Christ. In Catholic tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows is given the title Our Lady of Solitude, for her grief at the earthly absence of her son, Jesus.

THE EASTER VIGIL—At approximately 6 p.m. on Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil begins. A service that begins in darkness is illuminated, in Christian tradition, with the Light of Christ—the Paschal candle. After prayers, chants and biblical readings, “Gloria” is sung for the first time since Maundy Thursday. The church is flooded with light, statues covered during Passiontide are unveiled and the joy of the Resurrection begins. The Paschal candle, the largest and most exquisite candle in the church, is lit each day throughout the Paschal season.

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