Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Easter Triduum: Opening the Mystery

The following is something I wrote that has just been published in our diocesan magazine, Christ is Our Hope.

In 1987, I experienced my first Easter Vigil when I came into Full Communion with the Catholic Church. My main memories are of my family being there, of the large brass image of a descending dove on the canopy above the altar, of receiving communion for the first time. Thirty Easter Vigils later, I must say, that “night of all nights” never gets old for me. Each year I experience anticipation, excitement, and joy in a different way. It’s been like Forrest Gump’s famous box of chocolates. You never know just what you’re going to get!

As I have experienced the Easter Triduum (the “Three Days”) in the years since, as a music minister, liturgist and catechist, I have come to love the Vigil on Holy Saturday night as the climax of those special days. I’d like to share some of my own spirituality, impressions and experiences, hoping to invite others to a deeper celebration of the Easter mysteries.

Each Holy Thursday I take the day off from work to prepare, sometimes helping at my parish to set up the Altar of Repose for the evening liturgy.  I run any personal errands that would have occupied my weekend and quiet myself in anticipation. If I am to serve as a cantor, I rehearse my music. As evening approaches, I begin to consciously observe the Triduum fast – turning off the TV to better focus myself. I arrive at church early, and as the Mass of the Lord’s Supper begins, I slip into a familiar groove – a mix of excitement and contentment. I feel “at home” in the celebration.

Over the years, I have had Holy Thursday “moments.” Watching the holy oils, blessed by the bishop at the Chrism Mass, be presented for use in the parish. The time I had my feet washed.  The beauty and joy of watching others wash and be washed, in the image of Jesus and his disciples. The singing of songs with texts that speak of the love of Christ and our love for one another. But always, the final, beautiful solemn procession honoring the Eucharist, accompanied by the ancient chant “Tantum ergo.”  The silent departure, without formal dismissal, always seems to say we are not yet finished – we must come back because there’s more. For those who choose to stay, the silence and candle-lit beauty of the Eucharistic vigil is a true invitation into Jesus’ Passion. 

Good Friday should be for all of us, a quiet day of fasting and penance. (I find it truly sad that some people must work these days.) The reading of the Passion is, for me, always an emotional experience – because it is hard not to visualize Jesus’ betrayal and suffering. The long, formal intercessions and the starkness of a simple Communion service instead of a Mass remind us that this day is different from all others. Christ has died. The rest is yet to come.

In the years when I had a garden, I used to spend the afternoon after the Good Friday liturgy hand-tilling the soil with a spade for new planting. The achingly hard work and silence were a way for me to be in solidarity with Christ’s suffering. These days, since I now live in an apartment, I simply go home and fast from the television and internet – which for me, is true sacrifice!

Holy Saturday morning is a special time: Jesus is still in the tomb and all Creation holds its breath. If we are keeping the Triduum fast, focusing more on “being” in the Three Days, this is the time to begin preparation for Easter. At home, this might be cooking and cleaning, perhaps going to church for the blessing of the Easter foods.  In churches all over the world, this is when many helpers prepare the worship space and catechumens and candidates who will be initiated are in final retreat and rehearsal for the night’s liturgy. Flowers are arranged, altars are dressed, the people’s candles and the new paschal candle are prepared.  When all is ready, all go home to await the setting of the sun.

As darkness falls, it gets exciting. At St. John’s, we gather in a circle around a large outdoor bonfire in the middle of the courtyard, to bless the new paschal candle. One year, as our pastor recited the words “Christ, the Alpha and Omega…” as he pressed the incense nails into the candle, I saw something astonishing. Across the circle from me, her wrinkled face lit by firelight, was an elderly Hispanic woman, with tears streaming down her cheeks.  I found myself overwhelmed and grateful for her simple, open emotion.

The procession into the church with the candle, the lighting of the people’s candles from its flame, and the chanting of the Exsultet – the great song of praise to the candle, the light of the Risen Christ and the proclamation of the Resurrection, when we are invited to rejoice with all the powers of heaven – is the most beautiful moment of the year:
This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel's children,
from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.
This is the night
that even now, throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace
and joining them to his holy ones.
This is the night,
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.
               (The Exsultet, from the Roman Missal)

As we sit down and extinguish our candles,  we listen to the readings of the Vigil, the story of our salvation, from Creation to the coming of Christ. We sing once again the “Glory to God,” silenced since the beginning of Lent, then, we hear from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans that the Resurrection of Christ makes all the difference. The triumphant return of the “Alleluia” and the Gospel proclamation of the Resurrection lift us into the presence of the living Christ.

How fitting it is, that after the homily, those coming into the Church through baptism and Confirmation are initiated, joining us for the first time at the table of the Lord. I have had the privilege of preparing some of these RCIA candidates over the years, and it is always an occasion for joy. 

One of my favorite memories is of Jose, who approached the font with the casual expression of a typical young man, but who emerged from the baptismal waters with a beautiful smile and an obvious quiet joy that made me want to shout: “IT’S IN THERE!” He had met Christ in the water of new life.

After the baptisms, the entire assembly renews its baptismal promises, ending with “This is our faith. We are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus.” Renewed as a people and ready to resume our places in the Body of Christ, refreshed in the light of his Resurrection, we prepare and partake of communion, as at any regular Sunday Mass. Everything is now familiar, but I am convinced we cannot be the same as we were before the Three Days. If we have fully surrendered to the experience, we have truly walked with Christ.  


  1. Thank you, Joyce, for this truly beautiful piece of work!

    1. You are welcome, Jean. It came from the heart.

  2. Excellent reflection. Mick