Our Sacred Triduum

The Sacred Triduum is here. The holiest days of the Christian year. Tonight, with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper we enter into our liturgical celebration of the events that are at the very heart of our faith, the events that are decisive for the life of the Christian and the Christian community. Everything we believe and do is rooted in the Triduum, everything.

The ancient theological precept lex orandi, lex credendi – the law of prayer is the law of belief - is on full display. When we try and understand the Trinity, or who Jesus is, or why we have a Church, or how sins are forgiven, all of which we proclaim in the Creed every Sunday, we look first to the Triduum where these beliefs are revealed to us. Here, in the Agony of the Garden, we see Jesus’ obedience to the Father at its fullest, and we glimpse the hypostatic union by which we believe Jesus is fully man and fully divine. Here, in the washing of the feet, we learn about Christian discipleship. Here, in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ we learn that God has redeemed man entirely, entering into all that is most human, most painful, most distressing, most confounding, most unjust, and redeeming it by His taking that pain and distress and confusion and injustice upon Himself. Here, in the empty tomb, we discern the power of death shattered by God’s love.

Our liturgy, in different ways, teaches us these things. The bare altars of Good Friday. The Mandatum rite on Holy Thursday. The passage from darkness to light at the Great Vigil. The readings from Scripture that accompany us in these days recall, with great specificity, the historical facticity of the events even while they point beyond history, better to say, through history to that which is beyond it. Here, we discover the form of life for the Christian, the self-emptying love that has characterized Jesus’ ministry, constantly surrendering His life to His Father’s will, comes to completion on the Cross and receives God’s verdict which, of course, was not man’s verdict: Man condemned Jesus to death. God raises Him to new life.  

The paschal mystery is an event. It is not a proposition. It is not a theory. It is not a principle. It is not an argument. It is an event. We humans create our own propositions and theories and principles and they all too easily become like putty in our hands, we can form them this way or that as we desire. The event of the paschal mystery stands on its own. We cannot shape it to suit our desires or ambitions. No, we must be shaped by it.

And, in this event, the Trinity is revealed to us: Jesus reveals the face of God and sends His Spirit to continue that self-revelation among His disciples. It is in the Upper Room that Jesus gives the disciples the eucharist, prefiguring His own sacrifice and promising that His sacrifice, though once and for all, is an eternal sacrifice that will continue through time and space whenever and wherever His disciples gather for the eucharist. It is in the Upper Room that Jesus institutes the new priesthood, calling His apostles to wash each other’s feet and to break bread with one another and to turn that bread and wine into His very own body and blood. Tonight, at Holy Thursday, Jesus teaches us about what is to follow. It is through the lens of the Last Supper that we will understand the cross and the tomb.

A few years back, I was having lunch with an old friend who is a non-believer. He said something to the effect that, of course, I did not really believe that the bread and the wine at Mass were turned into the body and blood of Christ. I replied, “Well, actually, I do believe that.” He noted that we could call upon a chemist to perform an analysis of the communion wafers and communion wine and prove that it is still bread and wine. I pointed out that this same chemist could perform a chemical analysis of us, and determine that we were both homo sapiens, but that is not the important part of the story. The chemist could not tell us that we were old friends, who had buried a dear friend together years ago, encouraged each other in our professional careers, shared laughter and tears through the years, come to obtain a deep and abiding respect for each others’ work, or recently been touched by a particularly funny mutual friend. That is the reality, no matter what the chemist said. So it is with the eucharist.

Like all events in salvation history, this event happens within history, or else we would have no way of knowing about it, but it also points beyond history. The “already but not yet” quality of the paschal mystery is determinative of the Christian life because it characterizes the Kingdom of God. We have moments of grace that give us a palpable foretaste of that Kingdom and we have moments of sin that remind us the Kingdom has not yet come. Indeed, we might define sin as that which contradicts the paschal mystery. Pride, the deadliest of the deadly sins, is the exact opposite of how Jesus behaves and what He does in these three days. All is obedience. The peace which Jesus brings, in these days and to the Church, is a peace rooted in obedience to His Father’s will. We, too, must choose whether to be obedient to the Father’s will, now that the way has been shown to us, or not. Conversion, from darkness to light, from death to life, from sin to grace, day in and day out, this is the life of the Church, the on-going drama of the paschal mystery through history, as the Kingdom breaks forth here, but recedes there, depending upon our willingness to go to our own Gethsemanes and to embrace our own crosses.  

The Triduum is one event. We see this liturgically in the fact that tonight, there will be no closing blessing: The priest departs in silence. Tomorrow, when we gather to commemorate the Lord’s Passion, there is no opening “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and no closing blessing: The priest enters and leaves in silence. At the Vigil, the service begins with the new fire entering the church. Lex orandi, lex credendi. The Triduum is one continuous prayer of the Church because these three days are really one event in the life of the world, because there is no separating of cross from empty tomb, no separation of both from the supper that precedes them. Our NCR headline last issue notwithstanding, we are emphatically not “an Easter people,” but a “paschal people.” It is the Crucified who lives. If we diminish the Cross, we become silly. If we diminish the Resurrection, we have no ground for hope. And, if we do not see both as flowing from the Last Supper, and what the Master there taught us, we fail to see how this event creates a community of believers, the Church. We do not so much profess an understanding of this paschal mystery, as if it were a bit of knowledge we can manipulate as we do other discrete bits of knowledge. No, the Church sets forth on a way of life from this event. We embrace a new attitude towards death and therefore towards life. The teachings of Jesus, which got Him killed, are confirmed for us as true. And, because of the eucharist and the abiding Spirit at work in the community of faith, we know that on this way of life, we do not walk alone, we accompany each other and are accompanied by the Spirit of Christ.

The Triduum is, in the strictest sense of the word, wonderful. For all our cares, for all our troubles, for all our successes and achievements, are but dust and ashes as we were reminded forty days ago. Here, in this Pachal event, and in the liturgical prayer by which we enter this Paschal event, here is our new and everlasting Passover, from fear to hope, from sin to grace, from darkness to light, from death to life. A blessed Triduum to you all. 

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