Triduum Sacrum—The Three Sacred Days—is the name given to the days leading up to Easter: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The rites and ceremonies we observe on these nights developed over centuries with much local adaptation. Similar rites were described by Egeria in the diary she kept of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 381-384 CE. The first time the Triduum rites appeared in any Anglican prayer book was the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, however by then local congregations had been doing some variation of these services for decades—we have records of All Saints doing some versions of these rites as far back as the 1930s. The most common understanding now is that these services are unitive, that is, on these nights the faithful gather to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus in one single liturgy, which extends from the opening acclamation on Maundy Thursday to the dismissal at the Great Vigil. Some notes about each part of this single liturgy follow.
Maundy is an English word of uncertain origin. Most scholars agree that it derives from the Latin “mandatum” or “mandate,” the first word in the phrase, “Mandatum novum do vobis—a new commandment I give you.” The service opens with an acclamation and the liturgy of the Word, and we are offered a chance to practice and reflect on what being a servant really means. How do we actually live out this “mandatum novum?”
Washing someone else’s feet is a very intimate act. Probably the most intimate act we perform in church. Scholars remind us that part of what Jesus is doing here is demonstrating the intimacy of our relationship with God. Jesus desires us to be in a deep, intimate relationship with the creator of all life, and to recognize our deep connections to one another. During the service all will be invited to take part in both washing and being washed, and encouraged to reflect on how your feelings about helping and being helped shapes your relationships. How does serving or receiving loving service shape your views about power and authority—about who has it, how it’s shared or not? How does your experience with this ritual act shape your vision of the church’s ministry?
The service then continues with Communion; the altar railings are removed and all are invited to gather around the table. At the conclusion of Communion, there is no post-communion prayer, blessing, or dismissal. Those will wait until Saturday night. Instead, after we hear the story of the vigil in the garden and the betrayal the reserved sacrament is consumed, the altar is stripped and washed and the service descends into silence.
Good Friday is a shocking day. It is a day to contemplate Jesus’ death on the cross, and a day to be confronted with our own alienation from God and from one another. The second night of our triduum liturgy highlights this sense of separation, isolation, and void in several ways: in place of the altar stands a bare wooden cross; the readings are done from the high lectern emphasizing the distance between us and the Word; the organ is silent. Perhaps most significantly there is no Communion this evening.
By ancient custom, Good Friday is the one day in the Christian year when the Eucharist is not celebrated. However, by about the 8th century, communion from reserved sacrament—consecrated the evening prior—had been introduced; although up until recently, receiving this bread and wine during the “Mass of the Pre-sanctified” was reserved to the clergy alone. Whether or not to receive Communion from the reserved sacrament on Good Friday is a question the Church has historically left up to “local adaptation.” It is an option in our Book of Common Prayer; it is not a requirement. At All Saints, in order to emphasize the continuity of our three-day liturgy, and the sense of isolation and desolation that the shock of Good Friday invites us into, we do not receive communion. You are invited instead to find a spot where you will be able to sit or kneel and join in the prayers and contemplation of this day.
A note on terms: “The Jews”
Of all the worship services in the Christian year, the Palm Sunday and Good Friday liturgies poses some of the most difficult and painful problems for us in our relationship with our Jewish siblings. The Passion narratives that we hear on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday make references to those assigned blame by the early followers of Jesus: “the chief priests,” “the elders,” “the crowds,” and in John, “the Jews.” It is vital to remember that this is the language of an intra-family dispute—siblings arguing and casting blame one another in order to secure and establish distinct communal identities. Jesus and his followers were Jewish, as were many of those to whom the four canonical gospels were written. The first century was a tumultuous time for Judaism, and it is wrong and dangerous to accept the terms used in the Gospels without question or comment. For an excellent essay on how to avoid anti-Judaism at any time, but especially during Holy Week, we commend Amy-Jill Levine’s article Holy Week and the Hatred of the Jews: How to Avoid Anti-Judaism this Easter.
We should also remember that, as Diarmaid MacCulloch states in his magisterial Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, “The Romans killed Jesus, however much the Temple establishment, in fury and fear at the nature of his preaching, had prompted them to do so. Jesus had said nothing more outrageous about the religion of the Jews than other wild representatives of Judaism had proclaimed either before him or in his own time. His was not a theological but a political threat to the fragile stability of the region…This was emphasized by the title inextricably associated with the stories of Jesus’s last hours and said to have been affixed to his cross: ‘King of the Jews’. [However] Most Christians did not want to be enemies of the Roman Empire and they soon sought to play down the role of the Romans in the story. So the Passion narratives shifted the blame on to the Jewish authorities, and the local representative of Roman authority.”
What does all this mean for us today? Ultimately, the ones responsible for Jesus’ death is a fallen, broken humanity. Richard Rohr in his meditation for Good Friday in Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent reminds us that the crucifixion of Jesus both reveals and resolves a central human problem. It reveals what we all too often tragically and eternally do to one another and to ourselves. We seek to kill others instead of dying ourselves, we seek to blame others instead of taking responsibility, and we seem to hate and seek to destroy that which we should most embrace—God, ourselves, the rest of creation. The cross resolves this problem by showing us how God, through Jesus, goes though all this, “for us,” not necessarily “in place of us,” but rather “in solidarity with us.” The fully human and fully divine crucified Christ is the one we can look upon to know that it is we who were doing the piercing (John 19:37), and we who were being pierced.
Holy Saturday is the nothingness—the ex nihilo—out of which Easter is (re)created. As we re-gather for the Great Vigil and the first Eucharist of Easter the church is dark and silent, and in the dark a fire is kindled. The Paschal candle is lit. Pascha is the Greek term meaning “passage” or Passover. This candle burns throughout the great 50 days of Easter until Pentecost; it is the light of Christ. At the Vigil, we hear of God’s redeeming acts in history; how God saves in numerous ways. At the acclamation “Alleluia!” the altar candles are lit, bells are rung, a triumphant song of praise is sung—Easter is here! At the Great Vigil we enter most fully the mystery of passion, death, waiting, and new life. As the great prayer The Exsultet (ca. 7th or 8th century), sung by the cantor at the beginning of the service proclaims: “This is the night when God brought our forefathers out of bondage, when Christ broke the bonds of death and rose victorious from the grave. How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and all humanity is reconciled to God!”