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The Paschal Triduum: Worship, Experience, Encounter

It’s Holy Week, the most important week of the Church year. The life and mission of Christ is fulfilled in the coming days, which serve as the bedrock of the Christian faith.

The liturgies which comprise Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are commonly referred to as the Paschal Triduum, and they constitute the high point of the liturgical year. In fact, these three days are celebrated as one continuous liturgy in commemoration of the Lord’s paschal sacrifice on the Cross.

As parishes prepare for an influx of visitors this weekend, Mother Church offers a beautiful opportunity to enter more deeply into these sacred days with special traditions, meditations and prayers that have been practiced since the early days of the Church. While going to church three days in a row can feel like a marathon (especially for families with young kids), be assured that there is no more important place to be as we mark the death and resurrection of Our Lord.

If you’ve never experienced the Triduum in full before, we’d like to invite you to make this year the year to do it. Make plans to attend the Masses, devotions and prayer services to worship, experience and encounter Jesus more deeply than ever before. He delights in our presence and he won’t let us down; give it a shot and see what happens!

Here’s a breakdown of the various liturgies, traditions, devotions and prayers that make up the Holy Triduum. Find the parish nearest you using the Parish Locator to see what they’re offering.

Holy Thursday

Before the first light of the day hits, the Tenebrae prayer service starts early in the morning on Holy Thursday and happens on each morning of the Triduum. The word “Tenebrae” means “shadows” in Latin and reflects the dark and mournful atmosphere of the liturgy, which is traditionally a modified form of the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. A few candles are lit and gradually extinguished throughout, while the chants focus on elements of Christ’s passion and death. The intent is to reflect upon the darkness that shrouds the earth at Christ’s death and call the faithful to turn toward the light of Christ at Easter. 

The Last Supper, Ugolino da Siena (Ugolino di Nerio), ca. 1325-30.

Mass of the Lord’s Supper
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper is one of the most beautiful liturgies of the liturgical year. Not only does it commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist, it highlights the humility of Christ in a powerful way when the priest washes the feet of the faithful in the congregation. The Mass ends with a procession of the Blessed Sacrament out of the sanctuary to the altar of repose, symbolizing Jesus’ impending death on Good Friday. There is time for silent prayer and adoration throughout the night while Jesus resides in the tabernacle. This Mass brings to life the person of Jesus Christ in a very particular way and is a liturgy that everyone should experience. 

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Pilgrimage to the Seven Churches
This tradition grew out of one that’s credited to St. Philip Neri and is still practiced in Rome today. Following the Holy Thursday Mass, the faithful travel to each of the seven station churches in Rome and pay homage to Christ on the altar of repose. Obviously, it’s not feasible to hop on a plane to Rome, but we can still participate in this tradition locally by visiting Jesus at seven local churches. Use the Parish Locator to map out your own Seven Churches pilgrimage.

Good Friday

Tre Ore
Tre Ore translates to “Three Hours’ Agony” and is a meditation on the Seven Last Words of Jesus on the Cross that takes place between noon and 3 p.m. on Good Friday. This typically takes the form of a series of homilies preached by a priest on the Seven Last Words, but there are various reflections available for individual reflection (including this one). By meditating on the Seven Last Words of Christ, we place ourselves more intentionally within the suffering of Christ on the Cross and therefore open ourselves up to receive his love and mercy, poured out on our behalf.

Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion
Perhaps the most somber liturgy of the year, the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion is not a Mass. No new hosts are consecrated during this liturgy, symbolizing the absence of the Lord in the tabernacle following his death. As the liturgy begins (usually at three o’clock in the afternoon, to coincide with the hour of Jesus’ death), the clergy process to the altar and lay prostrate before it as a profound expression of sorrow. We hear the account of the Lord’s Passion from the Gospel of John, and following the homily, the faithful are invited to adore the Holy Cross. This adoration includes kissing, touching or kneeling before the cross out of reverence. Communion is still offered using consecrated hosts from the day before, indicating that even in death, the Lord is still present with us.

Following this liturgy, parishes will sometimes expose relics of the Cross and others from the Passion of Our Lord if they have them available for veneration by the faithful.

Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross)
The Via Crucis, more commonly known as the Way of the Cross or Stations of the Cross, is yet another moving way to meditate on the Passion of Our Lord. It consists of praying and meditating upon 14 key moments in the Lord’s Passion. Parishes typically do this every Friday throughout Lent in the church, but Good Friday brings about a more public occasion of witness, with processions often being led outside and through cities across several blocks.

Passion Processions and Plays
Passion processions and plays are further opportunities to pay homage to the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday and enter more deeply into his suffering on the Cross. Passion processions generally happen following the Good Friday Liturgy and feature a symbol of the “dead Christ,” usually a statue, the carrying of which symbolizes “the small procession of friends and disciples who, having taken the body of Jesus down from the Cross, carried it to the place where there ‘was a tomb hewn in the rock in which no one had yet been buried (Lk 23:53)'” (Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy, 142). 

Passion Plays, on the other hand, are dramatic re-enactments of the Lord’s Passion as he was led up Calvary to his crucifixion. Actors and actresses portray the key figures in the story, from Jesus and Mary to Simon of Cyrene and the Centurion soldier, and the drama unfolds either in the church for observers to watch, or as a living procession outdoors, where the observers portray the part of the crowd. This is a very popular devotion in predominantly Hispanic parishes, and brings the Passion to life in a very visceral way.

The Seven Sorrows of Mary
The Seven Sorrows Devotion, also known as Our Lady of Sorrows or Our Lady of Dolours, is a meditation on the seven sorrows of Mary: The prophecy of Simeon (Lk 2:34, 35), the flight into Egypt (Mt 2:13, 14), the loss of the Child Jesus in the temple(Lk 2:43-45), the meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross, the Crucifixion, the taking down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross and the burial of Jesus. The traditional way to do this devotion is to meditate on the seven sorrows and pray a Hail Mary for each one, but it can also take the form of a prayer service accompanied by music or literature.

Holy Saturday

Ora della Madre (Vigil at the Tomb)
This tradition is very popular in the Eastern Church and consists of waiting with Jesus and reciting hymns and reading scripture as the Church awaits the beginning of the Easter Vigil. As the Holy See’s Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy describes, “According to tradition, the entire body of the Church is represented in Mary: she is the ‘credentium collectio universa.’ Thus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as she waits near the Lord’s tomb, as she is represented in Christian tradition, is an icon of the Virgin Church keeping vigil at the tomb of her Spouse while awaiting the celebration of his resurrection.”

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, 1432.


Easter Vigil
At last, we come to the true climax of the Liturgical year, the fulfillment of Christ’s paschal sacrifice, and indeed, the most triumphant and extravagant sacrifice of the Mass: the Easter Vigil. The celebration of the Easter Vigil recounts the entirety of salvation history, from creation to the resurrection, and is intentionally set apart from other Masses in its longer form and prayerful reverence.

Among the rites and rituals that make it different are: the lighting of the Easter fire and the blessing of the Paschal candle, the beautiful proclamation of the Exsultet to begin the Mass, the expanded Liturgy of the Word with nine readings and seven psalms, the Liturgy of Initiation, when new members of the Church are fully received into communion, and of course, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which feels like a long-awaited reunion after the Lord’s absence which began on Holy Thursday. While it is longer than a regular Sunday Mass, each extra minute spent in worship to our Savior during the Triduum are certainly not minutes that are wasted! 

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the former Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.

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