By now you may have heard TV and radio announcers intone the words, “Today Christians all over the world began their celebration of the three days before Easter and…”
Then you might tune out. Stock footage of Christians engaging in highly dramatic (and highly visual) rituals will fill your TV (or computer) screen: washing feet, carrying oversized crosses, lying on a church floor, pouring water over the heads of adults wearing white garments, blessing fire, lighting candles....
It might seem like a bit of a religious jumble. What’s going on?
It’s the Triduum, the three days of religious services that include Holy Thursday (“Maundy Thursday” in many Christian denominations), Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Despite the far-greater cultural emphasis placed on Christmas, aka the Feast of the Nativity, these three days are the high point of the Christian calendar. Anybody can be born; not many people can rise from the dead.
In the Catholic Church, Holy Thursday (“Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum referring to Jesus’s command to love one another) begins the Triduum, with a Mass that includes priests washing the feet of parishioners, recalling Jesus’s washing the apostles’ feet at the Last Supper. (Several weeks ago two bishops in Ireland washed the feet of clergy abuse victims, underscoring the gesture’s symbolism of penance and humility.) After the Mass, the altar is “stripped” of its linens and the consecrated host (the Eucharist) is taken from the main body of the church to symbolize the coming “absence” of Christ.
Good Friday, the most solemn day in the Christian calendar, sees a wealth of rituals. (“Good,” in this context, means “holy.”) The “Way of the Cross,” which re-enacts Jesus’s painful procession to various points (“stations”) in Jerusalem on his way to the crucifixion, takes place not only inside churches but in outdoor processions with local people portraying Jesus, Pontius Pilate and the disciples. Sometimes processions pause at real-life locations where violent crimes have occurred, to remind participants of the connection between Jesus’s suffering and those of contemporary men and women.
Many churches sponsor sermons on the “Seven Last Words” (really the seven phrases spoken by Jesus on the Cross, as recorded in the Gospels.) Some pastors take this opportunity to invite people from other denominations (and non-Christian religions) to address their congregations. Some Christians refrain from doing anything “fun” (when I was growing up: television) between noon and three, when Jesus is supposed to have hung on the Cross.
The Easter Vigil (or “Sunrise Service” in some Protestant churches) marks the end of the Triduum, and celebrates Christ’s triumphant rising from the dead. The Catholic Mass (typically late on Saturday evening) is the longest of the year, and includes the singing of the ancient hymn known as the Exsultet (from the first Latin word, “Rejoice”), the “Blessing of the Fire” and the lighting of the Easter candle, whose flame is passed from candle to candle among parishioners, gradually lighting the church. (Symbolizing the move from darkness to light.) Several readings from both the Old and New Testament trace the course of “salvation history.” Afterwards new Christians are baptized and welcomed into the church--another symbol of new life.
Some Catholic Masses may take as long as four hours. Sunday morning and afternoon services use similar readings, but are usually not nearly as long.
By the end of the Triduum, then, priests, pastors, ministers and pastoral associates as well as devout Christians can be forgiven for being not only joyful, but…tired!