Catholic 101: Holy Week

Anyone who knows me really well knows that, despite being considered a Protestant by the traddies, I have a great love for the liturgy of the Catholic Church. I should have dedicated a day to the regular Mass before, but let’s not get into details of my failure to have a rational editorial calendar and instead how I answer topic as they come to me in conversations with those people who actually enjoy reading this column about the church I so love, even if her people drive me mad constantly.
This week, however, we’re going to talk about something that is a favourite to me even if nobody really asked me to explain the Triduum. It’s like that kind stranger on Twitter who told me to learn more about the faith linking me the Catechism in the link of the US Bishop Conference when I run a weekly series on church teachings that usually quotes from the CCC on the Vatican website (which said person doesn’t know because said person knows nothing about me other than my opinion on immigration). Apparently I need to learn more about the faith because I don’t support stricter immigration policies targeting Muslims on the grounds that either they are good people striving to serve God as they know Him (and converting to Christianity in droves, as I mentioned before, so why wouldn’t you want them where you can evangelise them?) or they are bad people, and the battle with evil was won at Calvary. So let me make assumptions about you and conclude you have never been to a Triduum before and are all dying to know what happened at Calvary and how the liturgy of the church reflects this. Also, since we like our Catechism you will find the official church teachings here.

Tomorrow (April 9th) is Palm Sunday. It’s the beginning of Holy Week, the last week of Lent and the most solemn part of the liturgical year (Passiontide). It’s a longer Mass which has the whole reading of the Passion of Christ with various actors, and the congregation takes the role of the mob. We are, quite literally, condemning Jesus to death, an act that we do whenever we commit a sin but hardly ever stop and think about. The name Palm Sunday derives from the palm branches (symbol of peace and victory) that are distributed to parishioners for a procession, in a reenactment of the arrival of Jesus, the humble king riding a donkey instead of a horse ready for battle, into Jerusalem for the final days of His earthly life. The palms that remain in the church are burn for the ashes that are used the next Ash Wednesday, in a never-ending cycle of remembering our own mortality and need for salvation.

Nothing of huge importance happens, liturgically speaking, between Sunday and Thursday. I will be re-reading Sam Well’s book Power and Passion which I have first read and discussed at his church (St Martin-in-the-fields) in my time as an Anglican 4 years ago. I like to re-read books so I can see how much I have grown in the way I respond to it. Sam is a really great thinker even when I don’t agree with him (and I didn’t agree with him on something, although now I don’t remember why).
On Thursday afternoon I will be making my way to Worth Abbey, where I will be spending the Triduum. I love Worth Abbey at Easter because the Easter Vigil looks even more amazing and powerful in a round church. I guess I should take a step back and say that the Triduum is the name for the three-part liturgy that takes place from Holy Thursday to the Easter Vigil, which takes place in the hours of darkness between sunset on Saturday and sunrise on Sunday, included. I also like being in one place for the whole of it, as the retreat setting really makes you get deep into the idea it really is just one liturgy going on for 3 days and I would advise anyone who really wants to know more about the faith to start at Easter as it’s like a crash course into what Catholics believe.

On Holy Thursday, known as Maundy Thursday, Mass is pretty much the same as always except for the washing of the feet: the theme of the day was Jesus’ last supper and institution of the Mass in the breaking of the bread and wine which He commanded to do “in memory of me” (Luke 22). As Jesus’ washed the feet of the disciples, showing us that the master has come to serve, so does the priest (who does the consecration of the eucharist at every Mass in persona Christi anyway). However, there is another, much less noticeable difference with the regular Mass: it doesn’t end. The people aren’t dismissed, and the Blessed Sacrament (which is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus as Catholics believe in transubstantiation) is taken to a side altar called the altar of repose for adoration (which really is just enjoying the presence of God). This is the re-enactment of when Jesus left the supper to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is at this hour that the disciples start to fail Him. “Couldn’t you keep watch with me for one hour?” (Matthew 26:40). It is a very moving moment if you can get to spend any time at that altar.

The next day is the most solemn day of the liturgical year, Good Friday. We are still within the liturgy that started on the day before. The altar is bare, and if communion is distributed it’s from hosts already consecrated on Holy Thursday as the Eucharist is not celebrated. It’s a day of fasting for the whole church. A service consisting of the liturgy of the word (readings from Scriptures) and the veneration of the Cross usually marks the hours of Jesus’ crucifixion, but other devotions like the Stations of the Cross take place. The veneration of the Cross traces back to the 4th century, and it’s approaching a cross with a sign of devotion to what the Cross represents (Jesus dying for our sins).

Holy Saturday is a really alienating day, especially in retreat settings, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel the same sense of alienation before. It is the sabbath and it is the day Jesus descended into Hell. It feels like the whole of creation is mourning, and yet there is a sense of trepidation because of what comes next. The silence can be daunting. In the word of Br David, in the Paschal Mystery we are involved in a cosmic event. All we have is silence. It is, quite literally, the one time of the absence of God. No Mass is said, even without communion, and the church is bare. The tabernacle, which is where God dwells as in the Jewish temple of the Old Testament, is empty, the door open. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:13)
It’s the visual representation of the drama of the Passion which took place on Good Friday. The whole Triduum is anamnesis, the Church’s liturgy gives us something tangible to “get it” even if we can’t truly understand the mystery. It’s an intuitive knowledge in the depths of our being. And so we carry on our day with the sense of emptiness that comes with it, until it’s dark.

The Easter Vigil starts with the lighting and procession of the Paschal candle, the Lumen Christi, light of the world. The church is dark, and the faithful follow the only light that there is, carrying candles that are not lightened. The symbolism is just amazing. Then, it becomes even more beautiful: our candles are lightened from the Paschal candle, first the priest and then one person sharing it with the next, until the whole place is bright with the light of Christ, and the Exsultet is sung. It’s translated in English to Easter Acclamation which really loses the meaning from the Latin, which means exultation. There is a reason why Latin should have stayed the liturgical language of the Church even with the Novus Ordo!
What follows is a very long liturgy of the word (because contrary to popular belief we like to read our Bibles), starting with the Creation of the world in Genesis. The Gloria is sung again after Lent, and the Alleluia before the Gospel is sung again: it’s the Gospel of the Resurrection.
At this point, people are baptised and received into the church, and those already baptised renew their baptismal promises. Then, it’s the first time in 2 days that Mass is said in full again, with the Eucharist taking place. The first holy communion of the newly baptised. At last, the Mass is ended. What started on Holy Thursday is now accomplished. The congregation is dismissed, as it happens at every Mass. For 3 days the faithful around the world have entered into the commemoration of the events at Calvary in a way that goes much more deeply and much more tangibly than what happens in the regular Mass, a liturgy we sometimes become too accustomed to to really enjoy. And at the sound of “He is risen!”, off we go to celebrate the salvation of the world.

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1 Comment

  1. Eastern Catholic Churches’ Holy Week observances and customs are generally the same as in the rites of the corresponding Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox Church or Assyrian Church of the East.

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