The Sacred Easter Triduum

By Edgardo C. de Vera

The Easter Triduum Celebration in the Early Church

The earliest feast day in the Church is Sunday. Christ resurrected on a Sunday and the day was chosen for commemorating the Christian Pasch. Thereafter followed an annual liturgical observance in the form of a Great Vigil during which the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ was commemorated in one Liturgy. The faithful gathered in a continuous overnight Liturgy to celebrate mankind’s salvation and also look forward to the Second Coming.

During the course of a calendar year all of Christendom looked forward to this grand liturgy with anxious anticipation where the faithful joyfully participated in. Even the threat of harm, mayhem and death during the bloody persecutions in the second and third centuries could not deter Christians from this observance. The religious emancipation of Christians by Constantine’s Edictum Mediolanensium (Edict of Milan, AD 313) allowed all the faithful throughout the empire to openly celebrate Easter.

A variance in the Easter observance arose in the early centuries owing to divergent calendars for the Easter observance. Most of the Church communities had opted to base it on the solar-based Julian calendar, whereas strict traditionalists preferred to have it based on the Jewish lunar calendar – even if it meant that the Resurrection would not fall on a Sunday. Both schemes were hotly debated in the Council of Aries (314) and again taken up by the Council of Nicaea (325) which definitively decided to adopt the first Sunday following first full moon after the vernal equinox as the proper date. So it was for centuries until the Eastern Churches fell out of synch with the West’s adoption of the more accurate Gregorian calendar.

In time, the liturgical celebration evolved from one grand commemoration into a three day observance - the Easter Triduum - more in synch with the actual chronology of the climatic days of Christ’s mission. St. Ambrose of Milan writing in 386 describes the development to three days as: first day to commemorate our Lord’s passion; second when He rested from His sufferings; the third for His Resurrection. Saint Augustine referred to the three-day observance as the sacratissimum triduum crucifixi, sepulti et suscitat – the most sacred triduum of the crucified, buried, and risen Lord.

In extending it to three days the Church accorded the faithful more time to meditate, relive and fully appreciate the various aspects of the one great salvific event, placing the glorious salvation within a time frame consonant with Gospel narrative, while likewise pointing to it as the fulfillment of three-day periods that prefigured it in the Old Testament.

The Easter Triduum in the Middle Ages

By the Middle Ages the three days became widely known as Sacrum Triduum or Sacred Triduum. However, the Easter Vigil practice fell out of practice for a time until reinstated in liturgical reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council. The Council also made a slight but more significant change in terminology, calling it Sacrum Triduum Paschale – Sacred Easter Triduum – thus giving greater emphasis on the paschal mystery celebrated during these three days. Today the commemoration is sometimes commonly referred to as the Easter Triduum.

The Easter Triduum commences with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday; the Last Supper sacramentally anticipates the sacrifice on the Cross, thus Thursday evening is rightfully part of Good Friday, following the liturgical Hebrew custom where the hours after sunset belong to the next day, making evident the inseparable unity of the Last Supper and Calvary. Christ’s words of consecration, “This is My body which will be broken for you… This is My blood…” clearly point to His perfect sacrifice on Good Friday, at the moment He institutes the memorial that would make it present for all time. St. Augustine said that at that sacred moment of consecration, Jesus held Himself in His hand.

Importance of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday

All of us are reminded of the institution of the ministerial priesthood; the washing of the feet being a reminder for both clergy and lay that just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, so likewise should all disciples be of service to others. Note that no Final Blessing is given at the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper; this to indicate that the entire three days consist of one great liturgy in continuum until the final blessing at Easter Vigil Mass (liturgically the Easter Triduum officially ends on Easter Sunday vespers). Instead, the Blessed Sacrament is reposed at a side altar for adoration. Time here in prayer is time with our Lord at Gethsemane.

Good Friday of Holy Week is now called the “Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord.”

The continuing liturgical celebration consists of three parts: 1) Liturgy of the Word 2) Veneration of the Cross 3) Communion Service. Three readings related to the Passion, the final taken from John’s account precede the General Intercessions where the Church prays for all creation. During this time one notices, the altar stripped bare the evening before with the tabernacle left open, and the absence of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. A Communion Service follows the Veneration of the Cross.

Easter Sunday marks the climax of the Easter Triduum. The liturgical reforms of Vatican II restored the celebration of the Paschal Mystery of Christ in a Vigil Mass. And as in the early years of Christianity it is commemorated on Holy Saturday night to end before the break of dawn (some of today’s Vigil Masses end at or close to midnight). The liturgical ceremonies we generally know as Easter Vigil Mass relate to the Lord’s Resurrection and Sacraments of Initiation consists of four parts: 1) Service of Light 2) Liturgy of the Word 3) Liturgy of Baptism 4) Liturgy of the Eucharist. It is structured on Scriptural and Traditional elements that would take up pages to describe; suffice it to say here that it is the most moving Liturgy anyone can participate in.

Importance of the Easter Triduum in Daily Christian Living

The Easter Triduum, the culminating three days of Holy Week, is of utmost importance for every Christian in the long preparation of forty-days of Lent that preceded it and eight-day Easter Octave that ensues. It is the high point of the penitential period that breaks into joyous exaltation. Within the liturgical time frame are the all too familiar traditional devotions; popular norms of piety like Stations of the Cross, Holy Hour, processions, and other devotional practices drawn from the salvific events of our Lord. Each is no mere activity but occasions through which we reflect on the mystery of our redemption from the curse of death.

Often we fail to appreciate the important significance of the Sacred Easter Triduum and get lost in the simply devotional norms without internalizing the meaning for our lives. Renewed catechesis with emphasis on contemplating our liberation from death and exodus from darkness will restore the Eucharistic perspective and relevance to our lives. To be made aware that we do not commemorate some ordinary past historic event – we participate in the actual redemption made present in liturgy.

Sadly a good many opt to frolic instead in vacation spots and worldly pursuits during Holy Week rather than take part in celebrating the Sacred Easter Triduum. Majority generally look on the three day observance of the Easter Triduum with a ho-hum attitude. If they could only see the treasure of graces they are missing! Every December, we joyously celebrate Christmas, greeting one another, "Merry Christmas!" - for the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ ushers in our own personal Pasch – our Passover from death. In the Sacred Easter Triduum, we exult in the fulfillment of that greeting. 

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