The celebration of the Easter Triduum of the passion and resurrection of Christ at the end of Holy Week is the culmination of the entire liturgical year. The Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday, continues through his crucifixion on Good Friday and reaches its high point in the Easter Vigil; it closes with the evening prayer on Easter Sunday.
The Triduum is one continuous celebration. This is underlined by the omission of a concluding rite on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. It's as if the liturgies of these two days are saying to us, "We are not done yet. To be continued."
Here, Daniel Tay and Joyce Gan of CatholicNews write on some aspects of the theology, rituals and other interesting features of the celebrations in a question-and-answer format.
A woman touches the hand of Jesus on the cross in a mosaic of the 11th Station of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church is built on the site traditionally accepted as the burial place of Christ. CNS photo
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Palm / Passion Sunday
Q: Why are Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday celebrated on the same day?
Before the Second Vatican Council, Passion Sunday was used to denote the Fifth Sunday of Lent in the liturgical calendar, which was then the start of a two-week sub-season called "Passiontide". It used to be called the First Sunday of Passiontide, with the Second Sunday being Palm Sunday. "Passiontide" was suppressed in the 1969 liturgical calendar revision, which went into effect in 1970.
Palm / Passion Sunday has two focal points. The first is the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem just days before his arrest, trial and crucifixion. The second is the reading of the Passion Gospel.
Q: What is Palm Sunday all about?
The liturgy for this day begins with an enactment of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, with palm branches waved by worshippers. Originally, the procession was separate from Mass, but was eventually attached to the beginning of the Eucharistic celebration.
All four Gospels state that Jesus rode a colt into Jerusalem, where the people laid down their cloaks, along with small branches of trees, in front of him. Only John's Gospel mentions palm leaves.
The people are also described as singing part of Psalm 118 - "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord", which is part of the processional hymn for the Jewish feast of Tabernacles.
Q: Why do we wave palms?
As a symbol of triumph, the palms point us towards Christ's resurrection and remind us of the saints in heaven "wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands" (Rev 7:9). The white robes remind us of baptismal garments, and the palms suggest their triumph over sin and death through the waters of baptism.
In Jewish tradition, the palm branch is a symbol of triumph and victory. Hence, the scene of the crowd greeting Jesus by waving palms and carpeting his path with them has given the Christian celebration its name. Carrying palms in procession goes all the way back to the Old Testament (Lev 23:40).
Q: What happens to the leftover palms from Palm Sunday?
They are saved and burned to make the ashes for the next Ash Wednesday. The palms, which symbolize triumph, and the ashes, which symbolize death and penitence, form a great symbolic connection between suffering and victory.
Q: What is Passion Sunday?
The second part of the Mass focuses on the Cross and Passion of Christ. Passion Sunday memorializes the increasing hatred against Christ from those who would not accept him.
Q: What is the significance of the Gospel reading used? Why do we take the role of the crowd that calls for Jesus' crucifixion?
The Gospel reading for the day is the Passion Gospel (from Luke this year). Sometimes it is read by several readers, with the priest taking the part of Jesus and the congregation taking the part of the Jerusalem mob.
Many consider this the most moving liturgy of the year. Its relevance is both to tell the story of "Christ crucified", as St. Paul puts it, without which there would be no Easter story; and to call attention to our involvement as an accomplice by our personal sinfulness in causing Jesus' death.
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Q: What is Holy Thursday?
Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood. At this, his last meal with his disciples to celebrate the Passover, the time when God delivered Moses and the people from slavery in Egypt, Jesus offered himself as the Passover Victim.
The evening Mass of the Lord's Supper commemorates four main events - the washing of the disciples' feet by Jesus Christ, the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, the agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and the betrayal of Christ by Judas.
Catholics also celebrate and focus on the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Mass is not celebrated again in the church until the Easter Vigil that proclaims the resurrection.
On this day, a special Mass is celebrated (in the morning in the Singapore Archdiocese), which is attended by the priests of the diocese to observe the institution of the priesthood. At this Chrism Mass the bishop blesses the oils used by the church throughout the year in its liturgy.
(There is an abundance of symbolism in the liturgical celebration of the events of Holy Thursday. For many centuries, the Last Supper of Our Lord has inspired great works of art and literature, such as Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" in the 15th century.)
Q: Why is Holy Thursday also called Maundy Thursday?
The word "Maundy" is derived from the first word of the Latin phrase, "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" (A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you). Jesus exemplified the significance of this teaching to his disciples by his action of washing their feet.
Q: What is "the washing of feet"?
A priest or bishop (representing Christ) ceremonially washes the feet of typically 12 persons chosen as a cross-section of the community. They will be seated before the congregation. The priest goes to each, pours water over each one's feet and dries them.
The rite usually takes place after the Gospel reading of how Christ washed the feet of his 12 Apostles and it highlights the importance of humility and service.
"Washing of feet" appears to be part of the hospitality customs of Jesus' time. Typically, the host would provide water for guests to wash their feet, or ask a servant to wash the feet of the guests.
This is mentioned in several places in the Old Testament of the Bible (e.g. Gen 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24; 1 Sam 25:41), as well as in other religious and historical documents.
Q: What is the Altar of Repose and what is it used for?
The Altar of Repose is an altar where the Communion Host, consecrated at Mass on Holy Thursday, is reserved until the following day, Good Friday.
At Mass on Holy Thursday, two hosts are consecrated; after the consumption of the first, the second is placed in a chalice, which is covered with a pall and inverted paten; over these is placed a white veil, tied with a ribbon. This remains on the corporal in the centre of the altar till the end of Mass, when it is carried in solemn procession to the Altar of Repose. This host is reserved for Good Friday service, when there is no Mass.
The Holy Thursday service concludes with the stripping of all altars except the Altar of Repose.
Q: Why is the main altar stripped?
Since the altar symbolizes Christ, the "stripping of the altar" symbolizes the abandonment of Jesus by his disciples and the stripping of Jesus by the soldiers prior to his crucifixion. This represents the humiliation of Jesus and the consequences of sin as a preparation for the celebration of new life and hope that is to come on Easter.
Q: Do we genuflect on Holy Thursday or bow?
Catholics genuflect on one knee to the tabernacle where consecrated hosts are kept each time they are in church. The same is done on Holy Thursday until the consecrated hosts are removed from the tabernacle and kept in the Altar of Repose.
After that, there should be no genuflection to the tabernacle as Christ is not there anymore. Since Catholic piety has made Holy Thursday a day of exceptional devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, the faithful can bow or kneel on both knees at the Altar of Repose and to adore the Blessed Sacrament too.
Q: When is "Holy Hour" and what is its symbolism?
The faithful are encouraged to stay in the church for an hour of prayer and devotion after Mass has ended. This is symbolic of Jesus' agony in the Garden of Gethsemane where he had entreated his disciples to remain awake and watchful while he prays. The faithful is reminded of how they too, can devote that time to symbolically accompany Christ in his agony before he was betrayed by Judas.
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Q: Why is Good Friday called 'Good' if Jesus died on this day?
The church uses the word "Good" to show that Christ has died to liberate everyone from sin, and that suffering and death are not pointless. It is also called "Good" because it shows forth the absolute goodness of God on our behalf.
Q: Why is there a service but no Mass? What's the difference?
No true Mass is celebrated on this day. The service of Good Friday is called the "Mass of the Pre-sanctified". It is not a true Mass because no consecration takes place. In the Mass of the Pre- sanctified, Communion which has already been consecrated on Holy Thursday is given to the people.
The omission of the prayer of consecration deepens our sense of loss because Mass throughout the year reminds us of the Lord's triumph over death, the source of our joy and blessing. The desolate quality of the rites of this day reminds us of Christ's humiliation and suffering during his Passion.
We can see that the parts of the Good Friday service correspond to the divisions of Mass:
â€¢ Liturgy of the Word - reading of the Passion
â€¢ Veneration of the Cross
â€¢ Communion, or the "Mass of the Pre-sanctified"
â€¢ Liturgy of the Word - reading of the Passion
â€¢ Veneration of the Cross
â€¢ Communion, or the "Mass of the Pre-sanctified"
Q: Why do we venerate the cross?
In the seventh century, the church in Rome adopted the practice of the adoration of the cross from the church in Jerusalem, where a fragment of wood believed from the Lord's cross had been venerated every year on Good Friday since the fourth century.
According to tradition, a part of the Holy Cross was discovered by St. Helen, mother of the emperor Constantine, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326.
A fifth century account describes this service in Jerusalem: A coffer of gold-plated silver containing the word of the cross was brought forward. The bishop placed the relic on a table in the chapel of the crucifixion and the faithful approached it, touching brow and eyes and lips to the wood as the priest said (as every priest has done ever since): "Behold, the wood of the cross."
Veneration of an image or representation of Christ's cross does not mean that we actually adore the material image, of course, but rather what it represents. In kneeling before the crucifix and kissing it, we are paying the highest honour to the Lord's cross as the instrument of our salvation.
Because the cross is inseparable from his sacrifice, in reverencing his cross we, in effect, adore Christ. Thus we affirm: "We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless you because by your Holy Cross, you have redeemed the world."
Q: Why is the lamp beside the tabernacle unlit on Good Friday?
This sanctuary lamp (or altar lamp) that continually burns before the tabernacle is kept alight to indicate and honour the presence of Christ. On Good Friday the tabernacle is empty, hence an unlit lamp indicates that Christ is not present in the tabernacle. This symbolizes the darkness of sin.
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Q: What is the Easter Vigil?
The Easter Vigil celebrates the resurrection of Christ Traditionally, the Easter Vigil is held between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday. It is considered the first celebration of Easter Day.
Historically, it is at this vigil where adult catechumens are initiated into full communion with the church.
Q: What is the significance of the Easter Vigil?
The Catholic Church considers the Easter Vigil the most important Mass of the liturgical year. At this Mass, the word "Alleluia" is first used to rejoice since Lent started.
Q: What takes place at the Easter Vigil?
There are four main parts in the celebration - the Service of Light, the Liturgy of the Word, Christian Initiation and the Renewal of Baptismal Vows and the Holy Eucharist.
Q: What is the Service of the Light?
The Service of the Light marks the beginning of the celebration of Easter Vigil. Where possible, the faithful gather outside the church after sunset where a fire is blessed by the celebrant. This new fire symbolizes the radiance of the Risen Christ dispelling the darkness of sin and death. It is from this new fire that the paschal candle is lit - the same paschal candle that will be used throughout the season of Easter and in the coming year at baptisms and funerals, a sign and reminder to all that Christ is "light and life".
This is followed by the ancient and dramatic Lucernarium rite, in which the candle is carried by a priest through the nave of the church that is in complete darkness. He stops three times to chant an acclamation such as 'Christ our Light' or 'Light of Christ', to which the assembly responds 'Thanks be to God'.
All baptized Catholics (those who have received the "Light of Christ") present then receive the fire lit from the paschal candle. This symbolic "Light of Christ" spreads through the congregation as one candle after another is lit.
Once the candle has been placed on its stand in the sanctuary, the lights in the church are switched on and the assembly extinguish their candles for Mass to begin.
Q: What is uniquely symbolic about the paschal candle?
The paschal candle displays the Greek letters alpha and omega (the beginning and the end), and the year at its base. There are also five grains of incense embedded into it to represent the five wounds of Jesus Christ (the nails in each hand and foot, as well as the spear in the side).
Q: How is the Liturgy of the Word at Easter Vigil different from ordinary Mass?
The Liturgy of the Word at Easter Vigil consists of seven readings from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament. The account of the Israelites' crossing of the Sea of Reeds is given particular attention in the readings since this event is at the centre of the Jewish Passover, which Christians believe Christ's death and resurrection is the fulfilment of. Each reading is followed by a psalm and a prayer relating what has been read in the Old Testament to the Mystery of Christ. After these readings conclude, the Easter Vigil proper is finished and the Mass of the Resurrection begins.
Q: Why are converts baptized at the Easter Vigil?
As Easter Vigil celebrates Christ's resurrection from death to life and bringing light into the world, the converts are the new life that God has brought through Jesus' death and resurrection to individual believers. This important emphasis on the continuity of the church with the Old Testament readings at the Liturgy of the Word bear witness to God's ongoing work in history to define the nature of the church and its mission in the world.
Q: What is the significance of the converts being clothed in white garments?
The clothing of the white garment symbolizes the convert's new life in Christ. (It is also the origin of the tradition of buying new clothes at Easter.)