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.