The washing of the feet. The veneration of the Cross. The blessing of the Easter fire.
These special traditions are just a few that Catholics around the world will witness as Lent comes to an end and the Easter Triduum begins.
“The summit of the Liturgical Year is the Easter Triduum – from the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Though chronologically three days, they are liturgically one day unfolding for us the unity of Christ’s Paschal Mystery.”
“The days of the Triduum are not holy days of obligation, and so many Catholics do not attend them, but they are the most beautiful liturgies that we celebrate each year,” said Father Justin Raines, pastor of St. Christopher Church in Dickson. “Attending them allows us to realize what great gifts the Eucharist and the priesthood are, to encounter Christ in his suffering for us, and to experience the great joy and victory of his Resurrection.
“Attending all three days allows us to more fully encounter Christ in prayer as we meditate on his death and Resurrection, which is the source of our redemption and our hope for eternal life,” he added.
And, more than ever, it’s a chance to say, “I was there,” as the story unfolds, said Father Ed Steiner, pastor of St. Philip Church in Franklin, in a 3-minute Theology video about the Triduum.
“As we enter into these three days, we want to keep in mind a very special belief that existed at the time of Jesus,” Father Steiner said. “They had a belief that when you told a story, as a listener, you become part of that story.”
The story begins on Holy Thursday.
‘Do this in remembrance of me’
“Brothers and sisters: I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” (2 Corinthians 11: 23-24).
The celebration of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday marks the “memorial of the institution of the Eucharist” and the “memorial of the institution of the priesthood,” according to the USCCB.
It is for that reason that Father Marneni Bala Showraiah, OFM, pastor of St. Catherine Church in McMinnville, said Holy Thursday is his favorite.
“It’s the establishment of the Eucharist,” Father Showraiah said. “Our Catholic life consists around the Eucharist. It is the sum of everything, the center of our life.”
Holy Thursday features several other key moments including the reception of the Holy Oils, the washing of the feet, and the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, where a vigil is held.
With the vigil, “we can say we are in the garden with Jesus Christ. We are at the place where the soldiers showed up to arrest him,” Father Steiner said. “We want to put ourselves in those places. It’s the only way the Triduum can make sense for us. We realize that we are entering into the experience with Jesus Christ himself. We want to feel that presence, see that presence in our mind and our soul so that we can experience what Jesus did for us.”
And that presence comes to its climax on Good Friday.
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? You are far from my pleas and the cry of my distress. O my God, I call by day, and you give no reply; I call by night, and I find no peace.” (Psalm 22: 1-2).
This is the psalm that is echoed by Christ as he hangs upon the cross, which the Church remembers on Good Friday.
“Christ’s death is both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,’ and the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the ‘blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 613).
To commemorate this with the veneration of the Cross, Catholics around the world walk into an almost empty Church, with no lights and no Blessed Sacrament.
“It’s a funny feeling to walk into a Catholic Church without the Blessed Sacrament present,” said Father Steiner. “Welcome to Good Friday, a world without Jesus in it.”
There is no procession into the Church with music either. Instead, the celebrating priest “after making a reverence to the altar, they prostrate themselves,” according to the Roman Missal.
Then, following a brief prayer, the Liturgy of the Word immediately begins, culminating in the reading of the full Passion of Christ, according to the Gospel of John.
“As we hear the story … our spiritual challenge is to figure out, ‘Who am I in the story?’” Father Steiner said. “Am I Peter that tried to defend Jesus? Am I Peter that ultimately denies Jesus? Am I Judas who thinks I know better than Jesus? … Am I Pilate, who condemned Jesus?
“There are other characters that we don’t know by name, but somebody is swinging the hammer, driving in those nails. We could be that person,” he continued. “What’s a sin other than swinging a hammer and hurting the person of Jesus Christ, hurting the Body of Christ, the Church, our friends, our relatives?
“Or, are we that person that, at the end, witnessed the death of Jesus and then suddenly get it?” Father Steiner concluded. “Suddenly say, ‘Indeed this man was the Son of God.’”
Then, following the Solemn Intercessions to conclude the Liturgy of the Word, worshipers come together to venerate the Cross one-by-one with a touch, a kiss or reverent gesture, be it a bow or a genuflect.
Finally, following the distribution of Communion, worshipers leave the church in silence.
“Good Friday, everyone knows it is the day the Lord died for all of us, and therefore it is important that we are able to mourn the death of the Lord Jesus or just realize the value of the death of somebody,” said Father Showraiah. “It is a deeper knowledge and understanding and a feeling of the power of the day, because of which, we have salvation,” and we patiently wait for his return at the Easter Vigil.
Experiencing the Passion
Along with the regular Good Friday Service, many churches will offer extra services or traditions to help parishioners more fully enter into the Passion and Death of Christ.
St. Catherine is planning to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3 p.m. and follow it with the Living Stations of the Cross outside at 4 p.m.
“With the Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3 p.m., it’s the time Jesus died on the cross as a sign of mercy for all people, and we’re trying to encourage the people to understand what the divine mercy is, God’s love for everyone,” Father Showraiah said. “Living Stations integrates all the people to experience what Jesus did.”
Sagrado Corazon Church at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Nashville also hosts several special events throughout Good Friday. The most anticipated each year being the Passion Play, which will be at 10 a.m. in the church.
The play, which is put on by about 50 parishioners, takes spectators from the Agony in the Garden through the burial of Christ. Throughout, the Stations of the Cross are prayed.
“This is something that the people expect every year,” said Father David Ramirez, pastor of Sagrado Corazon. “It’s something the people wait for and that’s why we work on this so hard every year, for the people.”
“We want to touch people with this,” said Cindy Toral, Passion Play director. “We want the people to feel the real passion of Christ.
“We hear all the time what is in the Bible,” she continued. “We read it, but I think it helps to see that representation, and I believe that there are opportunities for conversions with this.”
‘Awaiting his return’
“Brothers and sisters: Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4).
As Catholics gather at the Church, after nightfall, for the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, the Church is dark, but it is soon lit with the Easter fire – the light of Christ.
“On this holy night, the Church keeps watch, celebrating the resurrection of Christ in the sacraments, and awaiting his return in glory,” according to the USCCB. “It is the turning point of the Triduum, the Passover of the new covenant, which marks Christ’s passage from death to life.”
“At the Easter Vigil, we finally light a new fire. We light and bless a candle, the light of Christ,” Father Steiner said. “We’ve sat with Jesus at that table, and we know how much Jesus wants to be with us and us with him. Then, we have those struggles of Good Friday. But now, now that we’ve lasted, now we get to see the payoff, the new light into the world.”
As the congregation stands holding their own lighted candles from that of the Paschal Candle, following the procession around the Church, the Easter Proclamation is heard.
“I love singing the Exultant at the Easter Vigil,” said Father Raines. “This ancient and beautiful hymn is the Church’s great cry of victory over darkness, sin and death, which was won for us by the Lord Jesus.”
Then, the story of salvation is heard with seven Old Testament readings with their corresponding psalms, one epistle and one Gospel.
The history of salvation now proclaimed, a new generation of believers are welcomed into the Church family through the Sacraments of Initiation. More than 200 catechumens and candidates will enter the Church this year throughout the Diocese of Nashville.
With the welcoming of new Catholics, the priest then blesses the waters and all Catholics, once again, light their candles and reaffirm the promises of their own Baptism.
Then, they join Christ at his table for the Eucharist as Easter Sunday finally approaches and “the new age of the Resurrection fills the whole liturgical year with its brilliance.” (CCC 1168).
‘Source and summit’
“Easter has no value without the Triduum. Easter is the source and summit of all this together,” said Father Showraiah. “Death and Resurrection go together.
“Jesus said, ‘Go and do this in memory of me.’ We are supposed to do that from the time of the Last Supper to the Resurrection of Jesus,” he said, and it continues even further as Jesus gives us the same command as the apostles, in Matthew 28:18-20.
“Then Jesus approached and said to them, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”