Reflection on the Most Solemn Days for Christians: the Triduum

Author: Michael Monshau, OP

Reflection on the Most Solemn Days for Christians: the Triduum

Michael Monshau, OP
Professor of Liturgy, Homiletics and Spirituality at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (The Angelicum), Rome

Devotional Customs Enrich the Holy Week Experience

Palm Sunday introduces the most solemn week of Church year while the Triduum itself comprises the holiest days of the year for Christians. Uniquely, it is only one liturgy, and not three, that is celebrated during the Triduum. At the conclusion of the Mass on Holy Thursday, there is no dismissal, no final blessing and no announcement that the Mass has ended, for indeed, it has not ended. After Holy Communion on Holy Thursday, the priest solemnly processes toward the Altar of Repose where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved for night Adoration. After a short period of Adoration, the priest simply withdraws; the faithful subsequently depart one by one when each feels ready to do so. The next day, the Good Friday Liturgy has neither an introduction nor a conclusion since it is part of the same liturgy that was begun the previous evening. And the Easter Vigil itself features no formal opening, for it, too, is a continuation (and ultimately a conclusion) of the liturgy that began on Holy Thursday evening. Only at the conclusion of the Easter Vigil are the dismissal announced and the final blessing bestowed. With that blessing and conclusion the Church has once again fulfilled its liturgical observance of the highest holy days of her year.

Because these days are so significant to the Church and the spiritual wellbeing of her children, it behooves the Christian to participate as much as possible in the sacred mysteries commemorated through the liturgy of these days. Over the centuries and throughout the world, various extra-liturgical customs and devotions have also emerged. These observances, performed outside of the Triduum liturgy, can strengthen and extend the spirit of the liturgy throughout the three holy days. Anyone can supplement their participation in the liturgies of the Triduum by participating in one or several of the extant devotions that have formed around these holy days or by creating new rituals for the home. The faithful of many nations hold different ancient customs of the Triduum close to their hearts. From time to time in the Church's history, some unhelpful customs may have appeared, and in most of those cases, pastoral intervention has served to correct whatever misunderstandings may have been present. But when such devotions are sound and enhance our relationship to the Church's worship, they should be enthusiastically encouraged. No article could provide an exhaustive compendium of the array of devotional customs that accompany the Triduum in different cultures, but a few words about a small number of them may inspire some readers to supplement their practices this year with previously unfamiliar aids to a deeper sense of participation in the Lord's Passion, death and Resurrection.

The Church's liturgy consists of the Mass, the celebration of the seven sacraments and the Liturgy of the Hours (the Divine Office). Other forms of prayer are regarded as private devotions. Because it is observed with great variety today, Tenebrae can be regarded as a good bridge between the liturgy and one of the many private observances in which individuals can participate during Holy Week. Tenebrae (which takes its name from the Latin word for darkness or shadows) is actually part of the liturgy since it is a unique arrangement of the daily offices of Matins (Office of Readings) and Lauds (Morning Prayer) on the last three days of Holy Week. It features numerous readings followed by the gradual extinguishing of an entire candelabra of lights until it is nearly totally dark in the Church (to signify the darkness that pervades without Christ), followed by a dramatic making of noise (made by each participant hitting one's book against the pew or some other way of producing a loud noise in the dark Church), reminiscent of the earthquake following the death of Christ. It is not celebrated uniformly today throughout the world, and therefore, Tenebrae might be regarded as an extra observance available to the faithful during these days. For that matter, for those members of the Church who do not celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours regularly, attendance at those Hours can be the most worthwhile way of surrendering more thoroughly to the spiritual drama that unfolds during these three days. In that respect, Vespers (Evening Prayer) is not prayed by those who participate in the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday, the Celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday or the Easter Vigil on Saturday night. Neither is Compline (Night Prayer) celebrated on Saturday night by those who attend the Easter Vigil, and the Office of Readings for Easter Sunday is included in the Easter Vigil, so is not repeated. Otherwise, the Liturgy of the Hours is the most perfect companion to the main liturgy of each day of the Triduum.

The Mass of the Lord's Supper concludes with Adoration at the Altar of Repose that extends until Midnight, thus beginning one of the most beautiful moments of private prayer in the Church year. In response to the Lord's invitation, "Could you not, then, watch one hour with me?" (Mt 26:40), people place themselves in the Lord's presence at the specially appointed and decorated Altar of Repose in their churches. This silent time of prayer on this special night prepares one to accompany Christ intimately into the three-day journey that has begun. Because the Holy Eucharist was instituted on this day, Eucharistic Adoration is particularly appropriate. Also, the devotion of providing a consoling presence to Christ in the garden by remaining with Him at prayer that night, a feature included in so many spiritual traditions in the Church, touches many hearts. Indeed, the weekly Holy Hour kept by devotees of the Sacred Heart on the Thursday evenings of the entire year takes its inspiration from this moment.

To Adoration at the Altar of Repose, in many parts of the world, the faithful add the custom of going on pilgrimage that evening to as many churches as possible, to pray at the various Altars of Repose. This is possibly a reflection of the movement in Christ's own life that evening, from table to garden, and then to the various places that figure into the narrative of Our Lord's Passion that night. Those for whom travel would be distracting might do better to spend all the time they are able to devote to Adoration that evening in the same place. But for those whose prayer is enhanced by the spirit of the pilgrimage, the annual journey on Holy Thursday night from one church to another is a much-anticipated and beloved tradition that would not easily be surrendered. Good Friday can represent another set of devotions in addition to the liturgical Celebration of the Lord's Passion. To begin with, it is poignant to enter any Catholic chapel or church to take note of the terrible sense of absence caused by the empty tabernacle. Sometimes one only realizes how deeply one's life is rooted in the Eucharistic Lord by stopping into a church during the day on Good Friday to note how disturbingly 'real' the 'unpresence' is without Him. In its own way, the deliberate visit for a few moments to an 'empty' church on Good Friday reinforces one's sense of Eucharistic devotion. It can be particularly instructive for youngsters if the family visits its parish church on this day and the parents can be heard to describe their own sense of bereavement over the empty tabernacle. Since the liturgy for the day includes the Word service, the Adoration of the Cross and the reception of Holy Communion, appropriate and frequently chosen devotions for that day can include a private meditation or a family observance of the Stations of the Cross. Keep in mind that there is no single correct way to pray the Stations, nor is a printed text necessary to guide one's prayer or meditation. Maintaining a spirit of silent prayerfulness from Noon until 3:00 p.m., the hours during which tradition holds Our Lord hung on the Cross, is also a significant and meaningful practice for many people. Some of the Eastern Rite Churches have different liturgical practices, and the Triduum is an excellent time to remember our shared Catholic vocation and take advantage of it. The Melkite Rite, to name one, has a dramatic night Office for the Burial of Christ on Good Friday evening. During this service, the Lamentations are sung to a tune that transports the listener back to the ancient Holy Land itself, and a procession of the Lord's burial shroud, during which many acts of piety and veneration are visible, proceeds to the Lord's Tomb. Participation in this touching liturgy, or in any liturgy of the various Rites with which one is typically unfamiliar, can add great meaning to one's experience of Holy Week since it introduces consideration of aspects of the Lord's journey that one's own Rite might nuance differently.

On Holy Saturday, many of the Slavic people have the custom of bringing food in beautifully decorated Easter baskets to the church to be blessed. While the particulars of the custom can vary from one national group to the next, many would agree that the food presented for blessing constitutes, or at least represents, the ingredients of the family's Easter dinner or other special foods particularly associated with the Easter season. Some ensure that a good number of beautifully decorated Easter eggs are included in the basket to be taken to church. If one is not near a parish featuring this custom, any priest would gladly bless a basket of food destined for the family dinner table on Easter Sunday. The presence of food at the Easter dinner that has been blessed by a priest helps to emphasize the strong connection between the family dinner table and the Eucharistic altar in the parish church. In addition to the food that has been blessed in some homes for Easter dinner, many groups of people find that the choice of lamb for the entree enhances the entire Easter representation of the Lord as the Lamb of God who has victoriously taken away the sins of the world. In homes where the cost of lamb is prohibitive, even for such a festive day as Easter (or in a part of the world where lamb is not typically eaten), one often finds that a cake or even a stick of butter has been molded in the form of a lamb. The Easter egg itself is a symbol of the new life we all enjoy because of Christ's salvific victory on our behalf.

In some places, care is taken at the Easter Vigil to provide each family with the opportunity to light a candle from the blessed Easter fire and to take that living flame home where it burns throughout the year as a perpetual light of devotion. Again, if the Easter Vigil is the holiest night of the year for the Christian, any effort to extend the memory of that night throughout the year is laudable. One wants to remember that the weekly observance of Sunday is just that, a remembering of the Lord's Resurrection that extends throughout the entire year.

Finally, in very many cultures, Easter is a time of visiting, renewing acquaintances and hosting family gatherings. The social nature of this season should not be lost on people of faith. Christ's saving deeds restored us to relationship with God and made us His adopted children. Taking its signal from the restoration of that most significant of all relationships, Easter then, is a highly appropriate time for social gatherings, and social gatherings can themselves become more valuable to us when we remember they are reflections of the great Easter gift of redemption.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
31 March 2010, page 12

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