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With the celebration of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion today we mark the beginning of what is traditionally known as “Holy Week”.
As this ancient designation 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 “days of salvation”.
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 runs from Ash Wednesday until the time when the Mass of the Lord’s Supper begins. The Easter Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, reaches its high point in the Easter Vigil, and closes with evening prayer on Easter Sunday.
The word “Triduum” is a relatively recent addition to our liturgical vocabulary. The best translation, “the three days”, gives an idea of how it should be celebrated - as a unity out of what seems to be plural.
The Roman Missal says this of the Triduum:
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.
Our celebrations should centre on the key elements of the rites as given, not on “added extras”. 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. The addition of rituals such as receiving the blessed oils from the cathedral or commissioning special ministers of communion will distract from this central focus.
Parishes are sometimes tempted to use alternative rituals to the washing of feet, eg mutual hand washing, so that everyone can take part. What messiness or discomfort could justify dismissing the mandate set down in the rite and ignoring the example of Christ? 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!