The Easter Triduum, When Time Stands Still

During our Good Friday liturgy this year, one of our priests commented that a parishioner once said to him, “In the Triduum, it’s as if time stands still.” This is true. The Three Days — Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday culminating in the Easter Resurrection — have been venerated by Christians for 2,000 years as the holiest time of the year. Appropriately, the feel of the liturgies during the Triduum is different from any other. The unity of these Three Days, and thus the “time standing still” character of them, is reinforced by the fact that in Catholicism, the liturgies are treated symbolically as one extended event from the opening of the Holy Thursday Mass to the close of the Easter Vigil Mass. Because of this, there is no formal dismissal at the conclusion of the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which ends with Jesus waiting for his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane; there is not the usual beginning or any dismissal in the Good Friday Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion and Death; and there is certainly not the usual beginning of Mass at the opening of the Easter Vigil. At the conclusion of the Vigil, we finally have again the formal dismissal. Only with this does the Triduum end and time moves forward again. At the Easter Sunday Masses the next day, the Church returns to the normal format.

Each of the Triduum liturgies has its own unique character and purpose. At the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, the sign of his eternal presence with his people on this Earth; and we re-enact his washing of the disciples’ feet, the sign-act of his commandment for humble service of others. This is the refrain of the hymn that we sing during the washing of feet at our church: “I, your Lord and Master, now become your servant… I who made the moon and stars will kneel to wash your feet… This is my commandment, to love as I have loved you… Kneel to wash each other’s feet, as I have done for you.”

It’s almost impossible for a self-aware person to participate in the Holy Thursday liturgy without feeling a recognition of all the ways that we do not love as Jesus loves us, all the ways that we resist the idea of humble service or even humility in general, all the ways that we resist the idea of washing another’s feet even metaphorically. Our overly-developed sense of individualism and our self-centeredness so often get in the way. But Jesus knew that, and that is why he gave us this sign-act as an example for us to follow, and we remind ourselves of it at this time each year. If the incarnate God who has emptied himself out as a fellow human being can kneel to wash his followers’ feet — a servant’s job — why can’t we try a little harder to do so for one another?

The Good Friday liturgy, of course, is characterized most by its solemn nature. The altar is bare; the Tabernacle is empty; the suffering and death of Jesus are read aloud; we all come forward to kiss a wooden cross; there is no eucharistic consecration (Communion is taken from the many hosts that were consecrated the night before on Holy Thursday); and at the end of the liturgy, everyone leaves in solemn silence. We are mourning, and we are waiting now, for the Resurrection. Even amidst the mourning and the heaviness, we who are gathered have a joyful advantage the very first disciples did not yet have: we know already that there is a Resurrection.

This brings me to the Easter Vigil at the end of Holy Saturday, the day of waiting. Yet I really don’t have adequate words to describe the Vigil. As a kid and a young adult, I heard other people talk about how magnificent, how rich in ancient symbolism, and how moving it is. But, having always gone to Easter Sunday liturgies (which are wonderful too), I had never experienced the Vigil myself until two years ago, when my husband became Catholic and had his Confirmation at the Vigil, which is the worldwide custom for adults joining the Church. It was the first for both of us, and now even our 8-year-old daughter exclaims, “You know, the Easter Vigil really is addicting!”

You can feel the anticipation start to build when you first sit down in the dark church, holding your unlit candle and waiting. You know it has begun when the priest and the altar servers, standing in the center of the church, ignite a pillar of fire in an iron stand, light the Paschal Candle from it, and begin speaking of him who is the Alpha and Omega. From that fire the altar servers light their candles and share their flame with the first person in each pew, who lights their own candle and passes the flame until everyone in that pew — and eventually the entire church — is holding a lit candle. There are no other lights on in the church when now a solo cantor begins the Exsultet, a 10-minute-long a cappella chant recounting why we should rejoice in God’s eternal love for us on this holy night, when God revealed the ultimate impermanence of sin, suffering and death — and the ultimate promise of redemption and eternal life — with the Resurrection of his Son.

Through several Old Testament readings, beginning with Creation and going through the Exodus and finally the prophets, we arrive at the New Testament still brandishing our lit candles in an otherwise dark church. Then we know we’ve all arrived at something big when suddenly the lights are thrown on, the Gloria is sung to the accompaniment of everyone ringing bells, and (at our parish, at least) a liturgical dancer ushers in the reading of the Gospel. Now comes what is for many the most special stretch of the Vigil. This is the full reception into the Church of catechumens (unbaptized adults or older children, who will now be baptized) and candidates (adults or older children who don’t need to be baptized but are joining the Church from other Christian denominations; sometimes there are also “cradle Catholics” who simply never had their Confirmation).

This leads to a rather extraordinary time of the night. It’s during this part of the Vigil that everyone forms two lines and comes forward to the baptismal fountain. When we arrive, we reach into its running waters (one of the many benefits of electrical power!) and cross ourselves with the water in memory of our own baptism and its lifelong call to the continual journey of personal holiness. This, for me, is one of the most moving parts of the night. In our parish, we approach the fountain to the musical setting of “Come to the Water,” which everyone can join the cantor in singing. There is nothing quite like being one of literally hundreds of people all walking forward together to bless ourselves with the same water, bolstered with such powerful and inspiring music as we do it. Sitting in our pew after my husband, daughter, and I have returned from the fountain, just watching the dozens of adults and children continue to file past us, all heading for the same water, to remember the same baptism by which we all were baptized into Christ, is an experience that is impossible to encapsulate in words. It is one Christ, one God, one baptism, and in coming to the water of baptism we present ourselves to God, our ultimate Source. And we come to Christ, whose Resurrection we are there to honor and proclaim.

The spiritual journey of Lent and the Easter Triduum that concludes it are over for another year. But the season of Easter lasts a glorious fifty days, ending in Pentecost. Before we know it, we will be in Advent again, awaiting Jesus’ birth into the world at Christmas. Not too long after that, Lent will begin again. The rhythm will continue, a foretaste, we’re told, of the feast to come.

© 2015 Elizabeth Keck

Easter

From the moment we arrived in church this Easter, I was reminded that there is something about an Easter service which never fails to lift one’s spirit and fill one’s heart with joy. It is such an unabashedly positive conclusion to such a sober three days (for a few more thoughts on those three days, see my first post, The Triduum). I believe this is due to a combination of the message of Easter and the explosion of flowers that always adorns the altar. And, let’s be honest, it never hurts when Easter falls in bright, warm April as it did this year. Somehow those bracing March Easters don’t quite rise to the occasion, when the myriad altar flowers couldn’t be more incongruous against that stiff wind numbing your face.

But perhaps most of all, I think there is something that appeals to us on a bedrock level about that unabashedly positive — indeed ecstatic — ending. That ending to those three days of hushed gloom, in which we are meant to remember what is wrong in life and mostly in ourselves. What appeals to us on a bedrock level is not just the joyful, celebratory nature of Easter itself. It is the fact that that joyful celebration arrives not just any time, but after what are symbolically, representatively, the darkest days of the world.

It need not even matter whether one is Christian and therefore believes in a larger significance to what happened on those particular days in history. What matters is what those days are meant to represent. They represent the darkest hour, for an individual human being or for humanity on a broad scale. It cannot be incidental that the celebration of bursting light comes immediately after the days when things could not be darker, could not be worse. This speaks profoundly to us as humans. We want, and in many cases ultimately believe, that such will be true for our own lives and our own obstacles. Surely the progression from darkest to brightest that is the message of Easter resonates with us on this one of many levels.

While I love the exuberant, kinetic character of Easter, it is Christmas that holds for me a kind of joyfulness of spirit that is surpassed by no other time on the calendar. The joy of Christmas is in some ways a sweeter, more innocent-feeling, less wild kind of joy — but in no way lesser in impact. It is the charming, encumbered-by-nothing kind of joy that has to do with a little child bringing a message that at its basic level is just love and happiness, pure and simple. No strings, no ifs and maybes. Just love and happiness.

Yet even here, if we are reading Luke’s Gospel, we can detect a similarity to the post-Triduum arrival of Easter in that Joseph and Mary are in peril. They are away from home in a stable, with no human assistance, for a potentially life-threatening event. Luke would have had his own reasons for portraying those details in that particular way, as would have Matthew when he recorded a different peril in the threat of Herod to the child. But the charm, sweetness, and laughing joy of the Christmas event (and everything it can signify) will not be denied. There is nothing that exactly matches what I feel at the Christmas Eve service. The greens, the countless sparkling lights, the leaping candles, the red bows, the winter’s cold, the sense of a whole community in joyous anticipation. All of them together encapsulate for me that boundless and unrestricted Sublime. And that delight at a splendidly felicitous event, even in the awareness that peril exists in the world, is what Christmas shares with Easter.

But this was Easter. The flowers and the colors and the cathartic exuberance of the impossible fulfilled. Shine I knew it would, and shine it surely did.

© Elizabeth L. Keck 2010

The Triduum

This year, I didn’t even realize it was Holy Thursday until just after noon, while I was standing in the sacristy of our church doing some routine clean-up tasks. What a moment to have such a revelation.

I serve in the Altar Guild of our church, which means every 7 weeks or so it’s my turn to wash and iron the Communion linens and return them (and, if I’m unlucky according to the liturgical calendar, change the altar paraments). So I was standing there in the sacristy and I heard, coming through the hallway and the walls, the pastor’s voice leading as the congregants began to chant a certain part of the liturgy. Suddenly I thought: “My God, this is Holy Thursday and I didn’t even think of it till now.”

I used to be aware of every minute — every second — of Holy Week. Just a few years ago, forgetting any of the Triduum days was about as likely for me as suddenly being crowned Olympic champion in curling. Oh, of course I had known it was Holy Thursday somewhere in my brain, just as I had expected the Triduum the entire week and its culmination in Easter. But that morning, I had been preoccupied with preparing pizza chena: a traditional Italian Easter dish. At my grandmother’s recent passing, I determined that the tradition would not die, and that I would begin making it, for the first time this Easter. It is an arduous recipe and was occupying most of my finite brain. But I acknowledged that there was another reason one of the three holiest days in the Christian calendar did not actively occur to me until I heard the service listing in through the walls.

The truth was I hadn’t been going to church a lot over the last year. Actually, since the birth of our wonderful daughter 3 years ago, we had been going less and less. Finding that our lives, with which we were very happy and in which we would not change a thing, also made us….tired! Not unmanageably so; just enough not to have the motivation. But it wasn’t just a question of motivation. It was also a question of mental space. With so much going on in our lives that we have to track — not bad things necessarily, just a lot of things — we find the downtime together on weekends to be almost sacred. Especially for my husband, who works not only a full time job but also a difficult night class every semester. And maybe we were too lazy to manage getting a small child to (and through) church every week. We still count ourselves steadfastly Christian. Liberal Christians yes, Christians always interested in wisdom from other religions — but still stalwart ones. We hadn’t become any less spiritual about our religion. We just didn’t go to church as much anymore, even though we had and have no intention of giving church up for good. Had we joined the ranks of those who are religious yet for whatever reason don’t go to services very often? Possibly, for now. But not forever, I can’t help feeling.

So, I had gone to church on Palm Sunday, was actively anticipating Easter, and Holy Thursday still snuck up on me. Whatever that means, as I stood there in that sacristy listening to the beautiful strains of the liturgy, I felt both like an outsider for having “forgotten” and yet, in my deeply individualistic way, also a profound sense of belonging. Belonging to this faith that celebrates an unfathomably sacred Triduum each year: Maundy/Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday culminating in Easter. These three days are so sacred because we commemorate a Creator God who took our own form on Earth in the most mindblowing act of empathy and identification that anyone can imagine. Even without the Crucifixion, just the act of that God assuming human form — in some mystifying emptying of Godself — is the ultimate act both of identification with human beings and sanctification of human beings.

In thinking of this, I also thought those thoughts that many people of faith find uncomfortable and try to avoid. This uncomfortable avoidance is natural, and I often find myself doing it, though less so since reading Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith. Tillich, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, contended that questioning, confused, or even doubting thoughts are not signs of weak or no faith, but are in fact integral to the nature of faith itself, which is dynamic by nature and is “the state of ultimate concern.” As a Hebrew Bible scholar, I think automatically of Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord in Genesis. It was only after that all-night wrestling match that God’s messenger blessed Jacob and changed his name to Israel.

The unsettling thoughts, of course, revolved mostly around suffering. Jesus’ suffering. Why? To become fully human, including to experience suffering, in the ultimate demonstration of the Creator’s solidarity with the created? To act in keeping with the biblical tradition, which states that restitution for sin is accomplished through deliberately, voluntarily sacrificing something? So God decided to sacrifice Godself — once and for all — in human form, for humans? I thought of the old debate, dating to the beginning of Christianity: was Jesus fully God or was he like God? I feel that if the Christian story is true, Jesus would have to be truly God in human manifestation for the Crucifixion to make any sense at all — it would have to be God assuming that suffering on Godself, not simply a man handed over to torture. How could that, indeed, accomplish anything? Such a cosmic act requires a divine participant. God deciding to suffer alongside humans, and thus to redeem them in the most magisterial way possible, I can appreciate and be grateful for. But the question inevitably tied to it is the question every faith has probed in every time: why suffering in the first place? No answer, many theories. It is, in the truest sense, a Mystery. Just as the nature of the Universe itself is a Mystery.

All this I pondered as I stood there in that sacristy. Now, the pizza chena is finished and sitting in the fridge, and I am home with my daughter. Not long ago, I actively realized it is Good Friday. Tonight, I will take some time to think about the impenetrable mystery of a God who willingly became a human.

© Elizabeth L. Keck 2010