High Holy Days – The Sacred Triduum (Part I)
It has begun. Tonight, the People of God prepare to observe the Sacred Triduum – a singular celebration of the high Holy Days of Christianity. During these three most hallowed days, the Catholic Church will experience with great intimacy Christ’s Paschal Mystery. What we undergo will be a solemn journey into the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every journey, however, requires us to take a first step. And so, we begin with the day of the Lord’s Supper: the first day of the Triduum.
The Eucharistic liturgy begins as usual with a procession into the sanctuary. Tonight, this holy walk reminds us especially of the exodus from Egypt and the Apostles preparing the upper room for the mystical feast. We are drawn to the altar tonight by the voice of our Lord, who says to each of us, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Lk. 22:15). The liturgical color for the Mass is white, symbolizing light, purity and triumph. It is in this triumphant assurance that we make the Sign of the Cross to begin the Mass. After the opening rites, the Gloria hymn – so missing from the Mass during Lent – is sung with the ringing of all the church bells. It is the last gasp of joyful hope in the face of the coming desolation. The bells rung tonight will remain totally silent until the Paschal Vigil, in honor of Christ’s Passion. The Liturgy of the Word begins now. Let us be attentive!
In the first reading, we discover the origin of this magnificent feast. The Lord’s people were enslaved in the land of Egypt, and, hearing their cry, the God of Jacob came down to rescue them. Through His prophets, Moses and Aaron, He chastised Pharaoh’s children and their false idols with plagues; yet Pharaoh would not listen. So the Lord God decided to execute a final judgment: He command the Israelites to take a spotless lamb and, in the evening twilight, sacrifice it and paint their lintels with its blood. They were then to roast and eat the lamb that was sacrificed. They obediently did as they had been commanded, and that very night the Lord came down and smote all the firstborn of Egypt, both man and beast. In His jealous love for His people, however, God spared the Israelites for their obedience and loyalty. Death “passed over” them, and the Lord won their freedom from slavery by a mighty hand and outstretched arm. He mandated His people to observe this day every year as a perpetual tradition (Ex. 12:1-14). And, as we are God’s people, grafted onto the trunk of Israel’s tree in Christ, we join in singing the ancient hymn of the Passover (Ps. 116) in the Responsorial Psalm: “The cup of salvation I will take up, and I will call upon the name of the Lord.” We sing with the Lord Jesus Himself (Mk. 14:26)!
In the second reading, we are taught by the Apostle Paul. He asks us tonight: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). How can this be? To understand, we most go back to that upper room, and that is precisely where the reading from the Gospel takes us. We listen as the Lord washes the feet of His disciples and commands them to do likewise (Jn. 13:15). Shortly thereafter, the priest descends from the sanctuary to do just that in the Rite of the Mandatum. Twelve men are chosen, representing both the Apostles and the People of Israel. The priest, representing Christ, pours water over their feet and dries them. Customarily, the priest may kiss the now washed feet as a sign of Christian love. In this rite, the greatest among us – he who is consecrated with the apostolic priesthood – bows low and becomes the servant of all in imitation of Jesus.
Agape, the supernatural love of God uniting believers in Christ, becomes visible to our mortal eyes. The ministers then return to the holy place and continue the liturgy.
The Mass climaxes with the Eucharistic Prayer. We watch as the Lord Jesus, having observed all the requirements of the Passover, does something altogether new. Taking the bread, he blesses and breaks it, and gives it to His disciples, saying: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my Body, which will be given up for you.” In like manner, He takes the cup of wine, blesses it, and gives it to His disciples – and to us – saying, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.” At this moment, we experience the mystery as if we too were there in the upper room. The Messiah has fulfilled the Passover Seder and has shown forth its true meaning. Christ is the Lamb of God who must be sacrificed and eaten for the forgiveness of sins; He has changed bread into His Body and wine into His Blood, offering it to us as true food and true drink (Jn. 6:55; cf. Jn. 6). In the priest at the altar, we see that by commanding His disciples to do this in memory of Him, the Messiah has created the apostolic priesthood. Sharing in His own High Priesthood, the Lord has given to bishops and priests the power to perpetuate the Sacrifice of the Cross until He comes again.
At this point, Christ has entered physically into our midst, and so we worship Him. This adoration constitutes the conclusion of tonight’s Mass. After Holy Communion, the remnants of the Lamb of God are taken in solemn procession to another church or chapel. Incense and candles pave a path as the priest, followed by the people, reverently carries the Body and Blood of Christ. When the procession ends, the people and ministers kneel before the Lord. We are now in the Garden of Gethsemane with our Savior in His agony. He beckons us from the Tabernacle, “Could you not watch one hour with me…?” (Mk. 14:37). Can we? Are we able to stay with Him now when He wants our company most? How about during the week in our daily lives? Tonight we wait with Him until adoration ends. Afterwards, the altar and the temple are stripped of all linens and furnishings. No candles, no images, no cloths – nothing remains. If the statues and other icons have not already been covered at Passiontide, they will be veiled tonight. The bleakest portion of the night is now upon us. The priest does not bless or dismiss us from Mass as we have entered into a single liturgy lasting until the Paschal Vigil.
Make no mistake: in the Holy Eucharist, established for us this night two thousand years ago, we can intimately commune with the Lord Jesus Christ. His promise to be with us always (Mt. 28:20) is fulfilled by His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity being truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. The apostolic ministry established by Christ that night also continues through the apostolic succession of the bishops, so that we might never suffer from lack of nourishment. Christ has furnished everything for our good at His altar. With this privilege, however, comes a duty, for we are solemnly charged by Christ to abide by His New Commandment to love one another as He has loved us. Ultimately, that is what the Day of the Lord’s Supper is all about: love. An imperishable, self-giving love for which we were made and for which we long. So let us say today, together with St. Ignatius of Antioch: “I have no taste for the pleasures of this life. I desire the Bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink, I desire His Blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans, 7:3).