Although Catholics are known for their obligatory holy days (such as All Saints’ Day or the Feast of the Assumption), some of the most significant events on the church calendar come with no obligation attached. Among these are the ones that come at the end of Holy Week known as the Triduum, a Latin term meaning “a space of three days.”
The biblical significance of three consecutive days is that of gestation and rebirth: Think Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish and how it changes his mind about his mission. The ancients viewed three as a perfect number: totality epitomized by the prime alliance of the Trinity. No wonder Saint Paul identifies a trinity of virtues—faith, hope, and love—as the essence of Christian living.
In the Easter Triduum we who put our hope in Christ celebrate our rebirth into eternal life. The Triduum is comprised of three commemorative events celebrated as a single act of liturgy continued over three days: the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion, and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday evening. In common usage, however, the Masses of Easter Sunday are included as an extension of the Triduum commemoration.
Throughout these high holy days we first recall the events of the Last Supper: the institution of the Eucharist as well as its obligation of discipleship, ritualized by the washing of feet. Enough Eucharistic bread is consecrated on Holy Thursday to last until the third day when we celebrate the Easter Vigil. The tabernacle is then emptied of its precious contents, reserved elsewhere with proper adoration. The Table of the Lord is also stripped bare.
At the Good Friday service the Passion of Jesus is recounted from the Gospel of John and the cross is venerated in a special way by the whole assembly: kissing, touching, bowing. The reserved Eucharist is distributed but no Mass is celebrated on the day we recall the Crucifixion.
After dark on the third day we light the fire of Easter and proclaim “Christ our Light” with a magnificent extended scriptural reading of the highlights of salvation history, culminating with the gospel account of the Resurrection. On this joyful night the church receives new members in the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and first Eucharist. During the Vigil we also welcome Christian candidates for full communion with the Catholic Church. The big word of the evening says it all: Alleluia!
• Three Holy Days: A Lenten Series on the Easter Triduum from Nativity Catholic Church, Longwood, Florida
• What Every Catholic Needs to Know About Lent, Triduum, and Easter: A Parish Guide to the Paschal Season by Kevin McGloin (Resource Publications, 2001)
• These Sacred Days: Walking With Jesus through the Sacred Triduum by Brother Richard Contino, O.S.F. (St. Pauls, 2008)