The Holy 3 Days

March 30 2009 | by

THE WORD Triduum means three days, and it refers to Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, days which form the very cornerstone of our faith.

While the events of each of these days are important in themselves (e.g., the commemoration of the Lord’s Last Supper), they nevertheless should be considered to be part of one sacred event which is, to a certain degree, inseparable. Thus, even as early as the Holy Thursday liturgy, we begin to speak of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

In the Paschal Mystery, we pass beyond time and participate in a mystical manner in the eternal now of God. When we remember these events in our Eucharistic liturgies, and especially in the Triduum, we participate in the events. It is not that Jesus is dying again, but we are somehow present when it first happened. This is a Jewish understanding of remembering called an anemnesis, for when the Jewish people read the account of the Passover from Egypt, they somehow participate in that event. Likewise, we are present at the Last Supper, Cross and Resurrection of Jesus when we celebrate the Eucharist, and especially the Triduum. We touch the holy.

When many of us were growing up, there was an understanding that the season of Lent ended sometime on Saturday before the celebration of the Easter Vigil. In recent years, the understanding has changed to the idea that Lent ends on Holy Thursday before the celebration of the evening Eucharistic Liturgy.

The Chrism Mass

Sometime between Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday evening, each bishop gathers as many clergy and laity as possible at the cathedral for a blessing of the holy oils that will be used in the coming year. This gathering is called the Chrism Mass and during this ceremony the oil used for anointing the sick, the oil of catechumenate used to anoint those to be baptized, and the oil of chrism used for those who have been baptized, for those being confirmed and for those being ordained, are consecrated. After the Mass, supplies of these three oils are distributed to representatives of each parish in the diocese.

Holy Thursday

Other than the Chrism Mass, no other Mass should be celebrated on Holy Thursday besides the evening Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. This Mass begins with a solemn procession which often includes a presentation of the oils which had been blessed at the Chrism Mass.

The Gloria, which had not been sung throughout Lent, is now sung, often with the accompaniment of a ringing of bells. One of the important elements of the Triduum is a prayerful silence. After the Gloria, musical instruments should only be used to accompany the music if necessary, and the singing should be solemn. Holy Thursday and Good Friday are not the time of the year to pull out all the stops in terms of sacred music.

After the proclamation of the Gospel which speaks of how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, the celebrant ritually re-enacts the washing of the feet (in Latin called the mandatum). Twelve parishioners are chosen and the celebrant, in the person of Jesus, washes their feet. This action is a symbolic explanation of what Jesus has done and is doing for us: he serves us most humbly, and he calls us to serve others with equal humility.

This idea of service can be exemplified again in the collection taken up at this liturgy. People often save money for the benefit of the poor as a Lenten penance. This is an excellent time to gather this money.

The rest of the Mass proceeds as usual until its end. After the final blessing, the celebrant processes the Eucharist to a side altar or chapel which has been prepared for the reposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Very often this procession is accompanied by the singing of the beautiful hymn written by Saint Thomas Aquinas called, Pange Lingua in Latin or ‘Praised be Christ’s Immortal Body’ in English.

There is no formal ending or blessing after this procession. The celebrant incenses the Blessed Sacrament and then prays in silence for a while before departing. The faithful are invited to pray before the Blessed Sacrament in vigil until sometime around midnight. This prayer vigil recalls the invitation that Jesus gave to his disciples to stay awake and pray with him for a while.

The altar is stripped bare and the tabernacle is left open to remind us that things are not normal. When we enter church on Good Friday, we should feel the difference when we check the automatic impulse to genuflect, for the Blessed Sacrament is not present in the main body of the church.

Good Friday

The sombre tone of the commemoration of the Lord’s Passion is evident from its very start. The celebrant enters in silence and prostrates in prayer before the altar. He then proclaims the opening prayer.

This is not a Mass. The Mass is not celebrated between Holy Thursday evening and the Easter Vigil. This liturgy is the combination of three powerful elements that leave us at the very least reflective, and when done well, all but stunned.

The first element is the liturgy of the Word. One of the readings is taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and it speaks about the Suffering Servant of Yahweh. Although this poem was written around 550 BC, the description bears an uncanny similarity to the suffering Jesus. The Gospel read this day is the account of the Passion taken from the Gospel of John. This account speaks of the dignity of Jesus, who even though He is being crucified, nevertheless remained in control of what was happening for he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

This is followed by a type of Prayer of the Faithful. This is one of the most ancient uses of this type of prayer. Ten intentions are proclaimed (for the Church, pope, clergy and laity, those preparing for Baptism, Christian unity, the Jewish people, those who do not believe in Christ, those who do not believe in God, civic officials and other needs).

The second part of this liturgy is veneration of the Cross. A Cross which has been covered with purple cloth is carried into the church while the celebrant proclaims, “This is the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the World.” All the members of the congregation are invited to give reverence to the Cross by kissing it. The Cross is so central to the liturgy this day that we genuflect to it – the only day of the year that we do this.

Finally, there is the reception of Holy Communion. Following the Our Father, the Eucharist which had previously been consecrated is distributed to the faithful. The congregation is once again dismissed in silence.

Tradition holds that Jesus laid in the Tomb for three days, and yet it was really closer to 40 hours. Three days is a Jewish way of counting in which any part counts as the whole. Therefore, Jesus was in the Tomb from his burial until sunset on Good Friday (Jews count sunset as the beginning of the day) which is one day, from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday which is the second day, and from sunset Saturday until early morning Sunday, which is counted as a third day.

The Easter Vigil

The climax of the Triduum is the celebration of the Easter Vigil. It is a ceremony packed with symbolism of the triumph of life over death, light over darkness, and love over hate.

The ceremony opens with the lighting of the Paschal fire. This fire and the candles lit from it represent Christ as the Light of the World.

The Paschal candle is lit from the fire in a ceremony which explains the symbolism of the figures inscribed on it. It has the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of that alphabet. This reminds us that Jesus is the source and the goal of all time and all creation. It also has the numbers of the current year, for Jesus is the Lord of all time, and every minute of our lives should be lived in him. Finally, it has five grains of incense in the form of a cross to remind us how Christ won his victory over sin and death: through the Cross.

The Exultet

After the deacon has carried the Paschal candle to its resting place, he solemnly proclaims a hymn of praise called the Exultet. It is actually a short theology of the meaning of the Paschal Mystery which we are celebrating.

The Readings

This instruction continues in the extended liturgy of the Word. Wherever possible, nine readings are proclaimed which outline the history of salvation from the days of creation to the first Easter Sunday. After the seven Old Testament readings, the Gloria is proclaimed, and after the New Testament epistle, the Alleluia is proclaimed for the first time since the beginning of Lent.


The faithful respond to these saving events just proclaimed through a liturgy of Baptism. Those who have participated in the RCIA/OCIA (Rite or Order of Christian Initiation for Adults) and babies are baptized in the newly blessed water of the baptismal font. This practice represents a return to the earliest practices of the Church when those who were to be baptized prepared for it through a long period of catechumenate and were baptized at the Easter Vigil Liturgy.

After this, the entire community is invited to renew their baptismal promises. This is true both of the Easter Vigil Liturgy and all of the other Masses to be celebrated on Easter Sunday.

The rest of the Easter liturgy proceeds normally. Yet, the renewal of our baptismal promises reminds us that we cannot just return to our normal way of living. In these holy days we have died with Christ to live with Christ. Now, we must go forth in a renewed and energized manner to proclaim that we no longer live for ourselves but for Christ.


Updated on October 06 2016