commentary by Msgr. Peter R. Beaulieu, S.T.L.
Director of Pastoral Care, St. Vincent Hospital
During the preceding days of Lent, if we have walked behind Christ, our destination is the same as His—to go “up to Jerusalem.” This march of the earthly Church forms a never-ending procession, until the eighth day, toward the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother. Christ’s triumphant entrance into the city of Jerusalem, to the shouts of hosanna, prophetically realizes His paschal victory on Easter and the Lord’s return to the Father in glory. The day, popularly known as Palm Sunday, serves as the introduction to Holy Week (Lat. Hebdomada Sancta), which commemorates the last week of the earthly life of Jesus. These sacred days begin with Christ’s triumphant entrance into the city of Jerusalem (Palm Sunday).
The Church acclaims Jesus, now as then, to be the Son of David, because only Christ can truly save us. His paschal sacrifice is what saves us. The original covenant was renewed each year during Passover by means of a ritual sacrifice that was a memorial (Heb. zikkaron). This act was not merely a recalling of the events at Mt. Sinai but ritually made what had happened in the past, present once again, so as to renew and ratify the saving events that had taken place centuries before. At the Last Supper, when Jesus told the apostles “Do this in memory of me,” He recalled the Jewish Passover as a memorial and applied it to Himself and the sacrifice that He endured upon the cross, while giving it a totally new and definitive meaning.
These sacred days, then, remind us of all the actions of Jesus that led up to His sacrifice on the Cross and the Lord’s vindication by being raised from the dead. The days between His arrival at the gates of Jerusalem until Maundy Thursday are labeled as Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week. On these three preliminary days, various events that constitute the basis of the Sacred Triduum are highlighted: the conversations Jesus had with His disciples and Jewish leaders, the plot hatched by Judas and those same religious leaders to betray Jesus.
The Triduum Sacram (or “the sacred three days”) commemorates “The greatest mysteries of the Redemption...celebrated yearly by the Church beginning with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday until Vespers of Easter Sunday. This time is called ‘the triduum of the crucified, buried and risen’; it is also called the ‘Easter Triduum’ because during the Paschal mystery is celebrated, that is, the passing of the Lord from this world to his Father. The Church by the celebration of this mystery, through liturgical signs and sacramentals, is united to Christ, her Spouse, in intimate communion” (Congregation for Divine Worship, Circular Letter, 1988).
On Holy Thursday, at the Last Supper, Jesus institutes the Eucharist as the memorial of His passion and designates the apostles as heirs to His priesthood (Holy Thursday). The Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper includes two distinctive features: the mandatum (command) or pedilavium—washing of the feet—and the solemn Eucharistic procession to the Altar of Repose.
The Friday before Easter or Good Friday (Lat. Feria sexta in Parasceve) immortalizes the Lord’s passion and death on the cross. This is a universal day of fast, abstinence, and penance. Good Friday and the daylight hours Holy Saturday are the only two days in which the celebration of the Mass is not allowed! It signals the end of one era in salvation history and the beginning of another. The Good Friday Liturgy has three parts: (1) the Liturgy of the Word that always concludes with the Passion of Our Lord according to St. John; (2) the Veneration of the Cross, with the Reproaches and the Trisagion; and (3) Communion with Hosts consecrated on Holy Thursday.
After lying in the tomb, for three days, Christ is raised from the dead and cries of He is truly risen, fill the Vigil of Easter and, on Easter morning, the women find the tomb empty and the Risen Christ appears to them. Keeping vigil is a fundamental activity of faith; so, the Paschal or Easter Vigil is “the mother of all vigils”. Its focus is upon the Lord’s Resurrection and, following the blessing of the new fire, the Paschal Candle is prepared—marked with the sign of the Cross, the Greek letters alpha and omega, and the date of the year—and lit. Since Christ is our Light, it is carried into the darkened church and three-times the acclamation is made, Christ our Light. Finally, upon reaching the sanctuary, the Exultet or praeconium paschale—the Paschal praise—is sung. Then, a series of readings begins, interspersed with psalms (Old Testament: three readings record the account of creation and four are prophecies of redemption; New Testament: passages about Christ’s resurrection and our baptism). The Alleluia, which has been absent, returns and the Gospel and homily follow. The focus, then, turns toward baptism, whether actual baptism or simply blessing the baptismal water. All present renew their baptismal promises. The Liturgy of the Eucharist continues the Vigil in the usual manner.