If you’ve been a Catholic for more than a few months, you’ve probably got the rhythm down. You go into a silent church, stand for some prayers, sit for some readings, stand for the Gospel, sit, stand, kneel, process, and call it a day. Week in and week out, the framework of the liturgy stays the same as different prayers and readings are substituted. Oh, we may skip the Gloria in Lent or swap the Nicene Creed for the Apostles’, but generally speaking we know what to expect.
Until Holy Week, when suddenly we have multiple Gospels and multiple processions and participatory readings and people lying on the ground or taking off their shoes. It must be rather jarring the first time you attend the Easter Vigil and discover that it starts with a bonfire, or the first time you’re handed pieces of plants as you walk in to church. Plus there are the liturgies and services that aren’t Mass. There are tons of opportunities for prayer this week—and tons to be confused about.
Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday (liturgically, Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion), of course, with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In many churches the faithful meet outside the church to process as the Jews did 2000 years ago, waving palm branches as before a conquering hero and crying hosanna to the Son of David, to the messianic king who had been promised centuries before. But amid the festival atmosphere is the promise of what is to come: the red vestments of the priest, marked with the blood of Christ that will soon be poured out. Not 20 minutes after we shout “Hosanna!” we will cry “Crucify him!” It’s a jarring juxtaposition, but one we so often experience as we sing praise to God with our lips one moment and deny him with our lives the next.
It feels a bit pre-emptive, this reading of the Passion. After all, Jesus still has a few days left. He must be betrayed on Spy Wednesday, handed over on Holy Thursday. But since many of those in the pews won’t be at church to hear the Passion account on Friday, we hear it Sunday. Better to meditate twice on the agony that saved us than to skip from the triumphal procession to the empty tomb, as if Easter could be accomplished without the Cross, as if the Christian life made any sense without suffering.
After a few quiet days, the Paschal celebrations start in earnest. The Chrism Mass often takes place at some point during Holy Week, but it isn’t until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday that the Triduum begins, the most sacred time in all the year. That evening, we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood. We remember our call to serve as Jesus did, he who washed our feet and told us to do the same for others. And we mourn his lonely agony in the garden and his painful betrayal and arrest.
At the end of this Mass, the altar is stripped. The tabernacle is emptied. The Body of Christ is removed from the church, often exposed for worship until late at night. Then the Lord is hidden away, leaving the church empty and barren, a reminder of how distant he might have been had he not died and risen to save us.
But he’s not dead yet. The symbolism, as he stands exposed on countless altars throughout the world, is an invitation to watch an hour with him in Gethsemane. Peter, James, and John couldn’t stay awake, but you and I can choose to sit with him, thanking him and consoling him as he prepares to go to his death.
Good Friday always seems to dawn dreary, the world weeping in memory of the deicide so long ago committed. In some churches there’s a tradition of a Seven Last Words service, in which seven homilies are preached on the seven things Jesus spoke from the Cross. Most churches have Stations of the Cross, even living Stations, one last chance to meditate on the Passion before the stone is rolled away and Easter joy destroys the sorrow of Calvary.
But every church has the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion, the liturgy during which we read the entirety of John’s Passion narrative, venerate the wood of the Cross, and mourn the death of God. We enter in silence, as we left in silence the night before, shocked anew at the emptiness of a church whose tabernacle door stands ajar. There is no Mass this day; instead, the Eucharist is brought from its place of repose and the faithful receive their God in a spirit of somber gratitude, their hearts breaking for their sins that crucified the Lord.
And then comes Holy Saturday, a day of death, of silence, of waiting beside the tomb struggling to find hope, a day many of us have lived for years, wondering if Easter will ever come. But death did not win. Not 2,000 years ago and not now. And on Holy Saturday we gather once more, we who have sighed and wept together during this holy Triduum, to stand in darkness at the Easter Vigil and watch the light triumph. We read the history of God’s work in the world through seven candlelit readings, then finally cry out, “Glory to God in the highest!” the bells ringing, the tympani pounding. We turn on the lights and dress the altar and rejoice, rejoice, rejoice to sing alleluia when the Gospel finally proclaims the triumph of our God over the enemy who has so long enslaved us.
We watch our new brothers and sisters plunge into the waters of baptism and emerge as sons and daughters of God. We stand at the wedding feast of the Lamb to receive the body of our risen Lord, alongside new friends who have sought and hungered for years and decades before finally coming home to Rome on this, the night above all nights. And we who have lived Lent well will find ourselves filled with joy as we undertake 50 days of feasting and celebration after our 40 days of penance. Having walked with him from Bethany to the temple, from the Upper Room to the Mount of Olives, from the praetorium to Calvary, we will dance before the empty tomb, remembering the love he poured out on us when he poured out his blood for our salvation.
Easter Sunday Mass is a beautiful liturgy, a marvelous celebration of the triumph of our God. But if you can, make plans to celebrate the three liturgies of the Triduum this year, to enter in to these mysteries of our salvation so that you can rejoice as never before.