Beginning tonight, churches throughout the world will reenact the greatest drama in human history. Like many great dramas, this one will be presented in three acts. But unlike most dramas, which are presented in one showing, this drama will be spread out over three nights. Perhaps it is too great a story to fit in one night.
(Note: I’m using the Catholic liturgies for these three nights as my example. Many Anglicans and Lutheran churches will also observe the Triduum in a similar way, with a few small differences.)
The Paschal Triduum.
Act One: Holy Thursday evening.
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper begins as usual, with a sung Introit (extolling the glory of the Cross) or a Hymn. The Gloria is sung for the only time during Lent—excluding the Feasts of the Annunciation and Saint Joseph—and church bells are rung. After this, the bells (and organ, if the church has one) are silenced until Easter eve.
The readings at the Liturgy of the Word describe the original Passover celebration (Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14), recount the institution of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), and retell the account of Jesus washing the disciples feet (John 13:1-15). After a brief homily, the priest removes his chasuble and washes the feet of twelve parishioners—standing in for the apostles—following Jesus’ example.
The Eucharist follows. After communion, the Reserved Sacrament is carried in procession out of the church and to an Altar of Repose where the faithful wait with Jesus—whom Catholics believe is truly present—for at least the hour that the disciples couldn’t manage. There is no recessional or closing hymn. The altar is stripped privately in silence.
Act Two: Good Friday, at about three in the afternoon.
The Liturgy of the Passion opens in silence. The priest, deacon, and any assisting ministers prostrate themselves before the altar, expressing the grief and sorrow of the Church.
The readings at the Liturgy of the Word (Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12, Hebrews 4:14-16, 5: 7-9) climax with the passion account from John’s Gospel (Chapters 18 and 19). Typically, the priest reads the words of Jesus, the deacon (or a lector) narrates the account, one or more parishioners read the other parts, and the congregation take part as the crowd. It’s an effective reminder of how we are all—in our sins—responsible for Jesus’ death.
After the reading, a series of prayer are said (or sung) by the deacon—for the church, for all Christians, and for all people—and the priest. Then a large crucifix (or cross) is unveiled before the altar and the each member of the congregation is invited to come forward and venerate the crucifix (or cross) in some way.
Then the Lord’s Prayer is said and the Eucharist is distributed to the faithful from the Reserved Sacrament. The liturgy ends as it began—in silence.
Act Three: Saturday night, after sunset.
The Great Pascal Vigil begins in the darkness outside the church. A fire is kindled and a large candle is lit. The deacon processes with the candle into the dark church chanting “The Light of Christ” three times. Each time, the congregation responds “Thanks be to God.” Small candles are customarily lit by each congregant, passing the flame through the congregation until the Light of Christ fills the whole church. The deacon places the candle in a large stand at the front of the church and chants the Exsultet, an ancient hymn proclaiming that “this is the night” of “the Passover of the Lord.”
The Liturgy of the Word begins with the opening of Genesis, climaxes with Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea, and foreshadows Christ in the words of the prophets. After these readings, the candles are lit at the altar and the lights are turned on throughout the church as the congregation sings the Gloria and the church bells are rung. A passage from Paul’s epistle to the Romans is read, describing the link between baptism and Jesus rising from the grave. Alleluias are sung for the first time since the stat of Lent, and the deacon proclaims one of the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection.
Then the font is blessed and the catechumens are received into the Church through baptism and confirmation. Candidates for full communion who were baptized outside the Catholic Church are confirmed at this time as well.
The Eucharist follows, and the Risen Christ is present among us. This brings the three acts of the Paschal Triduum to a close.
Together, these three liturgies held over three days tell a single story. It is the greatest story of all, and we miss so much of it when we only go to church on Palm Sunday and Easter Day. I don’t attend these three services every year myself. They break into the routine of the week and are often hard to plan around. But at least once—if not this Holy Week, then maybe next year—I recommend that everyone experience the greatest drama in world. You will never look at Lent, Holy Week, or Easter the same way again.