In his decree reforming the liturgies of Holy Week in 1955, Pope Pius XII referred to the Sacred Paschal Triduum as “the Triduum of the crucified, buried and risen”, inspired by a letter of St Augustine, in which the saint had affirmed the days of the Lord Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection as the three most sacred days in the Church’s year.
This can be more than a truism if we understand, with St Augustine and the Church, that these three days are not merely memorials of past events in human history. They are certainly historical, seen from a purely human perspective. However, from a supernatural, eternal perspective, these three days are not past history, but live on within the ongoing drama of salvation. As at every Mass we find ourselves in the presence of the living mysteries of Calvary, in a particular and intense way the liturgies of the Sacred Paschal Triduum invite us to enter more deeply into, and draw richer grace from, the living reality of Christ’s redemptive work.
Yet our experience of the Triduum is impoverished if we reduce it merely to attendance at its liturgies. The Triduum liturgies are undeniably crucial, but the very days themselves have a sacred character. From the evening of Maundy Thursday to the evening of Good Friday we are, mystically, living that day when our Lord celebrated the sacrificial banquet and began his tortured pilgrimage to the Cross.
From then to the evening of Holy Saturday, we live that day when our Lord slept in bodily death, his disciples bereft and forlorn in mourning. From the Easter Vigil to the night of Easter Day we live that day when our Lord liberated those who awaited him in the dark netherworld of death, and burst forth victorious back into this world in serene yet glorious light. These very days themselves carry power to sanctify.
It stands to reason, then, that we should pass each of these three days in a way consistent with the character of its mystery. If we pass these days in the spirit of their liturgies, we should find that we have something new to take with us beyond the Triduum and into the general rhythm of life.
There are several ways that we might enrich our experience of the sacred Triduum. One excellent way would be to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of the Church. There are websites and phone apps that provide the texts for those without the books. If finding time and space to pray the full round of daily offices is difficult, the Office of Readings would suffice, its readings geared to unfolding more fully the meaning of each day.
Clearing extra space in the day to allow time to be alone with God would be another excellent way to honour the Triduum. A visit to a church would be ideal, but if that is not possible then a quiet room with a crucifix or some image of our Lord would do.
There is no need for particular prayers or exercises. Rather, as the disciples tried somewhat pathetically to stay awake and watch with Jesus, so we too might use this time in watching with our Lord from Maundy Thursday evening until the hour of crucifixion on Good Friday. Then from that evening into Holy Saturday we could keep vigil by his tomb, allowing the momentousness of his death to possess us more deeply. After the Easter Vigil, we could spend time in joyful wonder at the empty tomb, the discarded corpse cloths, giving thanks for the redemption Christ won for us.
To return to St Augustine’s letter, he makes the point that we must behold from afar in faith and hope the two days of death’s sleep and the Resurrection. But the day of the Cross is truly now, “the business of our present life”. In the Cross is the call to live by charity now, that we might share the Lord’s peaceful sleep and his Resurrection when death calls for us.
The Triduum, as a living icon of what is essential in Christian life and destiny, calls even more strongly to us to share the Lord’s Cross through humbler self-sacrifice in acts of almsgiving, penance, self-mortification, patience and prayer. The call sounds louder this year as we hear of Christians throughout the world, especially in the Middle East and Africa, who are being called to a literal sharing in the Cross of Christ. Who could ignore the recent witness of the Copts who died with the name of Christ on their lips? Their witness should inspire and strengthen us to share more fully the Cross of Christ, this Triduum and after.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
Fr Hugh Somerville-Knapman is a monk at Douai Abbey. He blogs at hughosb.wordpress.com