Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil – also known as the Triduum within the Catholic church – these are some of the most beautiful and important liturgical days of the year. Although I wasn’t able to make it to all the services this year, I thought I’d post a brief synopsis to give you an idea of what takes place.
On Holy Thursday – sometimes known as Maundy Thursday, we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. There is a ceremonial washing of the feet as part of the service. In many churches, the Tabernacle (where the Blessed Sacrament is kept) is normally placed behind the altar. On this night, it is removed to an altar of repose, out of sight, the only time of the year it is not present. The Paschal candle, which is symbolic of Christ’s illuminating light, is extinguished – again, the only time of year that the “light” of Christ is not present. The mass ends in silence.
Good Friday is the night we recall the Passion and crucifixion of our Lord. Scripture is read, recalling the final hours of Christ’s life. Then there is something called Veneration of the Cross, where a cross is held at the front of the sanctuary and congregants come forward to “venerate” – some kneel, some bow, some kiss the cross. I imagine to your typical Protestant it could seem like idolatry at it’s finest, but rather it is intended to be a raw reminder of the sacrifice taken on our behalf, and gives us an opportunity to respectfully reflect on this reality. This is the only night of the year that Mass is not celebrated. At some point in time (it varies from church to church) the altar is stripped of all it’s “finery”. At my parish the liturgical dancers return – still in white robes, but this time draped in sheer black mantles, and systematically remove flowers, candles, all decoration. The crucifix and all statues are covered in a deep purple cloth – traditional rituals of mourning. Again, the mass ends in silence.
Easter Vigil – arguably the most beautiful, moving service of the year. It begins outside, after sunset, where a fire is blessed and a new Paschal candle is lit. Then begins the “Ceremony of Light”, where the new candle is carried by the priest into the darkened church. He stops three times on his procession to the altar, to proclaim “Christ our Light” to which the assembly responds, “Thanks be to God”. Other candles are lit from the Paschal candle and soon the “Light of Christ” has been carried through the entire church as each congregant shares their candle light with their neighbor. Next, the Exsultet is read (essentially an Easter proclamation rejoicing in Christ’s Resurrection). Then the candles are extinguished, the lights are raised, and you see the altar returned to it’s glory – the mourning cloths are removed, the new candle is lit and (at least in my parish) there are fresh flowers everywhere.
There follows readings, prayers, and a homily (sermon). Easter Vigil is the traditional time to formally receive converts into the church either via baptism or confirmation. I had the joy of being received last year and it was a moving experience. Those being baptized for the first time receive a candle lit directly from the Paschal candle – a powerful reminder of the light of Christ now dwelling within them. After the celebration of the sacraments of initiation, the entire congregation renews their baptismal vows and receive the sprinkling of baptismal waters (just like a water park, but without the gut-churning motion and screaming! J ) Then the full liturgy of the Eucharist is celebrated – the first Mass of Easter, and the first communion for the newly baptized/confirmed. Afterwards there is typically a reception to recognize and welcome the newly confirmed members of church. The season of mourning has ended (and taken Lent with it – wahoo!) and it is now time to rejoice!