The Paschal Triduum

The earliest Christian communities did not celebrate a specifically Christian feast of Easter. It was probably not until the early years of the second century that some began to do so and even then the Church of Rome did not accept the practice for another 50 years or more. Some early leaders resisted such a feast for fear of compromising Sunday, the weekly memorial of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.
The celebration of Pascha consisted of a joyful eucharist on Easter Sunday morning followed by a day of feasting. Two days of fasting and an all-night vigil preceded the celebrations. The eucharist broke the fast and began the feast. By the fourth century, Abrose describes these days as a “sacred triduum when Christ suffered, rested and rose”. Augustine speaks of it as “the most holy triduum of the crucified, buried and risen Lord”. Over time, the Easter vigil came to be understood as the time for the celebration of initiation.
Originally these days were a unitive celebration, that is, it was one proclamation of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. Later, however, this situation changed and the celebration of the Pascha was divided up and historicised. Good Friday focussed on the passion, crucifixion and death of Jesus and ignored the resurrection. It was a day marked by mourning and sorrow. The resurrection was celebrated on Easter Day in a way that disconnected it from the passion and death of Jesus.
This development originated with the custom which arose in the fourth century of Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land in order to visit the places mentioned in Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. One of these pilgrims, a nun called Egeria who was probably from Spain, gives a fascinating account of the events of Holy Week in Jerusalem around the year 384. By visiting and praying at the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, Calvary and the tomb (covered by a large basilica) on different days during the week, visitors were taken back in time to the events of Jesus’ passion. This travelling to the holy places and celebrating liturgy at various sites influenced the understanding and celebration of Easter elsewhere and resulted in the fragmentation of the feast.
The triduum, like other feasts and seasons of the liturgical year, is not a re-enactment of historical events. Jesus does not institute the Lord’s Supper again on Holy Thursday or die again on Good Friday and rise again on Easter Sunday morning. Rather, the paschal mystery is being celebrated in our very midst by the crucified and risen Christ, present in the church today through the power of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of these days is our participation in the paschal mystery through sacramental signs – foot washing, cross, fire and light, water and oil, scripture stories, the paschal meal – so that it becomes our way of being Christian in daily life.


Elizabeth Harrington