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Today, which is celebrated as Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday), is the first day of what has been known traditionally as ‘Holy Week’.
As this title suggests, we are called to enter this time with reverence and celebrate its rites with care and devotion. All normal parish activity should be put on hold so that the community can focus on these special days. The Gospel reading for today highlights what will be celebrated in the week that lies ahead – our passage with the Lord from death to resurrection.
During Holy Week, Lent comes to a close and the Triduum begins. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and concludes when the Mass of the Lord’s Supper begins. The word Triduum is a relatively recent addition to our liturgical vocabulary. The best translation is ‘the three days’. The three days are counted following the Jewish pattern, that is, from sunset to sunset. The Easter Triduum begins on Holy Thursday evening and closes with evening prayer on Easter Sunday.
The Roman Missal makes it very clear that the three central liturgies of the Triduum form a unified celebration:
The Triduum is a single celebration of the paschal mystery presented, over three days, under different aspects. Christian remembering is more than retracing the Lord’s steps during his last days in Jerusalem. At the Holy Thursday eucharist, the church is already drawn into the whole event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Good Friday celebration of the Lord’s passion is austere but never sad, for the risen Lord already reigns triumphant. On Holy Saturday the church waits for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection and its own at the Easter Vigil, when the Spirit hovers over the waters of the font and the community of faith drinks deeply again of the mystery of Jesus’ passage from death to life.
The celebration for each day is centred on the key elements of the rites. For example, at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper the focus is on the reading of the story of the washing of the feet from John’s gospel, on a ritual foot-washing, on celebrating the eucharist using all the best eucharistic practices, and on the solemn transfer of the holy eucharist. Any additional rituals, such as receiving the blessed oils from the cathedral, need to be kept low-key so as not to distract from this central focus.
Parishes are sometimes tempted to use alternative rituals to the washing of feet, such as mutual hand washing, because it is more convenient and everyone can take part. This is hardly a suitable substitute. Hand washing was Pontius Pilate’s gesture; foot washing speaks powerfully of humility and self-sacrifice.
The key elements for Good Friday are the proclamation of the passion from John, the general intercessions, veneration of the cross and holy communion. The celebration finishes with the prayer over the people who then depart in silence.
The liturgies of Holy Thursday and Good Friday omit the final blessing and dismissal. There is a deliberate sense of incompleteness here. We are left up in the air waiting for something more. And there is more – the culmination – the Easter Vigil!