Three Days, One Celebration


For priests, liturgy planners and ministers, in fact for all Catholics, Easter is the busiest time of the church year. On four consecutive days the church will be filled for important services of worship, starting with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and ending with Mass or evening prayer on Easter Sunday evening.

It may seem strange that this period of four days is referred to as the Triduum, a word meaning ‘three days’. Here the church follows the Jewish method of counting a day from sunset to sunset: Holy Thursday evening to Good Friday evening is the first day, Good Friday evening to Holy Saturday evening the second, and Holy Saturday evening to Easter Sunday evening the third day.

With people leading such busy lives, many may be tempted to choose to attend just one of the big liturgies of the Triduum, perhaps Good Friday because of the moving veneration of the cross, or the Easter Vigil because it’s the main celebration of the period, although it starts later than the normal Saturday evening Mass and lasts much longer!

But to miss any of the three liturgies of the Easter Triduum is like missing one act of a three-act play. The Triduum is best understood as one three-day-long liturgy, or as one liturgy with three different moments. This is illustrated clearly when we consider how the liturgies of this period begin and end.

The Mass on Holy Thursday evening begins in the usual way, but there is no blessing or dismissal at the end. Instead there is a procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the place of reservation. People depart in silence. The Good Friday liturgy begins with a silent procession, a period of silent prayer, and the opening prayer. It finishes with the prayer over the people. Again there is no final blessing or dismissal and people depart in silence.

The liturgies of Holy Thursday and Good Friday give the sense of being unfinished. They leave us up in the air, waiting for something more. And there is more!

At the Easter Vigil we gather around a fire in silent darkness for the blessing of the fire and the lighting of the paschal candle. The liturgy concludes with the joyful paschal dismissal: “Go in the peace of Christ, alleluia, alleluia” as we process out to the sounds of the triumphant Easter hymn.

The three-day liturgy, which began with the entrance and greeting on Holy Thursday evening, has moved us from suffering through death to resurrection. The whole Easter mystery is celebrated from a different point of view on each of the three days.

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