The Triduum Sacrum refers to the three Holy Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In origin, the services which mark these Holy Days go back to the early centuries of the Christian religion.
Maundy Thursday is concerned with the Institution of the Eucharist by Our Blessed Lord in the Upper Room and with his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Liturgy on Good Friday is pre-occupied with the Crucifixion of the Saviour. The Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday celebrates his Resurrection and our own sharing of his risen life through our membership of his Church.
In these three great days, therefore, we share with Our Blessed Lord his sufferings and his triumph, from the Upper Room to the Easter Garden. In so doing we experience in our souls the salvation he has won for us, and we renew ourselves so that we may go with him into the world again, there to walk in newness of life.
Easter is the most important feast in the Christian calendar. We celebrate the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead and so, after the bleakness of Lent and Passiontide, all is bright and joyful. The liturgical colour is white or gold, the church is bright with flowers, the bells which have been silent since the singing of the Gloria on Maundy Thursday ring out again, Alleluias are sung and the music reflects our joy and gratitude at the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The season of Easter lasts for 50 days, from Easter Day until Pentecost.
THE EASTER VIGIL
In the early centuries, Our Blessed Lord’s Resurrection was celebrated each year by a vigil service on the night of Holy Saturday and Easter Day, during which candidates for Holy Baptism were baptised and confirmed, and made their first Communion at the Easter Eucharist.
The Easter Vigil begins after dusk on the evening of Holy Saturday. The Vigil joyfully honours Our Blessed Lord as the Light and Life of the World, symbolised by the Paschal Candle and the baptismal water, and in a dramatic way it expresses the meaning for us of the Resurrection.
The Vigil has three main parts: the Service of Light, the Baptismal Service, and the Eucharist.
The Service of Light
The Vigil begins with the Blessing of the New Fire, the Blessing of the Paschal Candle, the Solemn Procession and the Easter Song – the Exsultet.
The service starts with the church in darkness. The congregation all have a small unlit candle. Then, at the door of the church, a new fire is kindled from a flintstone, a vivid symbol of Christ’s Resurrection: as the spark leaps from the flint, so he arose from the rocky tomb.
An outline of the Cross, with the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet – Alpha and Omega – and the numerals of the current year, is first inscribed on the Candle to teach us that the Risen Christ, the Lord of all ages, should shine in our lives during the coming year. Five nails or grains of incense, symbolising Christ’s wounds, are fixed to the cross on the Candle.
Then the great Paschal Candle is lit and blessed, representing Our Risen Lord shining in the light and splendour of his Resurrection. As the Israelites of old were led out of the bondage of Egypt by a pillar of fire, so Our Risen Lord leads his people out of the bondage of sin into the promised land of Heaven.
The great candle is then borne in procession through the church. Three times the deacon or celebrant, carrying it, sings, “The Light of Christ” and the congregation joyfully sing “Thanks be to God”. As the procession moves through the church the candles of those nearest the Paschal Candle are lit from it and the flame is passed from one to another until everyone’s small candle is alight. The sole source of everyone’s flame is the Paschal Candle just as Christ is the sole Light of the world.
So we see a vivid and dramatic representation of the Light of Christ spreading to enlighten all humankind. At the same time, helping one’s neighbour to light his or her candle is a reminder of our duty to spread the light of the Gospel which we ourselves have received from others. (1)
The Procession is followed by the Exsultet, that ancient and beautiful song of joy celebrating Christ’s victory over sin and death on that night of nights.
The Baptismal Service
The second part of the Vigil now begins and centres on the mystery of baptism by which the Light and Life of Christ was first given to us. During this part of the Easter Vigil candidates are baptised and confirmed. People already baptised renew their baptismal promises.
The Easter Vigil reaches its climax with the celebration of the Eucharist in which Our Crucified and Risen Lord brings us, his own baptised members, with him before his Father’s throne in Heaven, and in Communion he gives himself to us in his own Glorified Body and Blood to remake us in his own likeness.
DIFFERENT LITURGICAL PATTERNS
In some churches the Service of Light and renewal of baptismal promises takes place on Holy Saturday evening, but celebration of the Eucharist does not immediately follow; it takes place on Easter Day. See Common Worship for a number of different patterns of worship.
Although traditionally the Triduum Sacrum refers to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (including the Easter Vigil), it makes good sense to regard these great three days as starting with the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday evening and ending with Evening Prayer at the end of Easter Day. (2)
1. Diekmann, G.L. (1957) The Masses of Holy Week and the Easter Vigil, London: Longmans, Green and Co.
2. Pope Paul VI (1969) Apostolic Letter: General norms for the liturgical year and the calendar, para 19. Available from: http://www.liturgyoffice.org.uk/Calendar/Info/GNLY.pdf (Accessed 20 April 2011) (Internet).
Other Holy Faith resources
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Wishing all Holy Faith visitors a blessed and joyful Easter