What is the Sacred Triduum?
Today, Maundy Thursday, is the first day of what we call the Sacred Triduum, the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday leading up to the Easter Vigil, when the great season of Easter officially begins. These days call us to liturgical remembrance of the great Paschal Mystery - of Jesus Christ suffering in the garden, being tried unjustly, crowned with thorns, made to bear the cross, being crucified, laid in the tomb, descending among the dead, and finally - being raised on the third day. So central is this mystery that it demands our attention in this bodily fashion each year. This year will of course be different. The liturgies will be streamed. It will seem that we are “watching” the liturgy rather than participating in this great mystery.
I write to encourage you - do not miss this opportunity to participate deeply in this mystery! Kneel, meditate, prostrate yourself before the cross! Especially in this time in which so much attention is being given to bodily health and the woes of death - how much more should we give ourselves over to bodily participation the mystery of redemption!
Maundy Thursday recalls us to consider three things: the first is the mandatum, the New Commandment given by the Lord “that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34 ESV) This is exemplified by the simple service of washing feet. Normally, this is done by the priests of the Church, but this year, we’re encouraging everyone to do this in the home. If you live alone and are isolating, you might simply stick your feet in a bathtub and imagine the Lord washing your feet! This reminds us of the second thing we remember on this day - the institution of the priesthood. It was in those days the tradition of the High Priest to wash the feet of the priests as they entered the Temple service. The disciples understood that the Lord was initiating them into a new ministry, which they would only grow to appreciate. Thirdly, we remember the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus’ gift of participation in His Body and Blood to the apostles, and through them to the Church. It is through this mystery that we participate bodily in the great Paschal Mystery that we remember in the Triduum.
On Good Friday, we undertake two things: one is a fast, and the other is a veneration of the Cross. The fast, which the Archbishop has this year commended to us as a way to make powerful intercession in the midst of global pandemic, is aimed at directing us to the desolation of the Cross. We should remember how many in the world are dying in desolation and pain, lungs filled with fluid just as Jesus’s lungs filled with fluid. We should remember how Jesus has joined our suffering to His! Much of the liturgical practice for the Triduum was exported from the church in Jerusalem to the world. Starting in the 4th Century, it became the practice of the Christians in Jerusalem to venerate the relic of the Cross on Good Friday. The Spanish pilgrim Egeria, writing at the end of that century, writes that two deacons were placed on either side of the Cross to prevent people biting off pieces to bring home with them. Ultimately, most churches throughout the world settled upon veneration of a simple crucifix.
Some might ask: isn’t this idolatry? We should remember that this is a very real temptation, and avoid it. At the same time, we should remember that our salvation was not carried out in a purely spiritual manner - the Incarnation means that Jesus Christ took on a full and visible human nature. He did not merely appear to die upon a Cross, but truly died on an actual cross. Nature was used for our salvation - created things as instruments. And so, we pay homage to this visual symbol. These words of Saint John of Damascus are helpful:
“It behooves us, then, to worship the sign of Christ. For wherever the sign may be, there also will He be. But it does not behoove us to worship the material of which the image of the Cross is composed, even though it be gold or precious stones, after it is destroyed, if that should happen. Everything, therefore, that is dedicated to God we worship, conferring the adoration on Him.”
This year, we’re encouraging families and individuals to spend time looking upon a crucifix, and finally, if they are comfortable with this, giving it a kiss as a sign of bodily adoration of the Triune God.
Finally, we have Holy Saturday. The liturgy for the morning is very simple, and we’re encouraging everyone to do it from the Prayer Book at home, including the ancient homily for this day in the Holy Week guide. On this day, we remember the Lord’s descent among the dead, to which the Apostles’ Creed gives witness, following the testimony of the Apostles, especially Saint Peter. (1 Pet. 3:18-20) Through this, not only do we teach that the Lord died in the way we all will die, but that the Gospel is preached and proclaimed among the dead, who held in the prison of death, still hoped for this salvation. Holy Saturday concludes with the Great Vigil of Easter. All I will say at this point is that if you have never been to an Easter Vigil, you’re in for a treat, even through a live-stream. We’re encouraging people to watch this at home and participate by reading the readings and psalms with us.
Ela and I are praying that this Triduum would be a time of refreshment and renewal in your life in Christ, and that he would draw you into the contemplation of those mighty acts whereby He has saved us! Pax,
Father Lee Nelson, SSC