By Dr. Glenn Ambrose, Professor of Religious Studies
Three days in the life of Christ have shaped Christian worship more than any other. The time frame beginning with the Last Supper and ending with the discovery of the empty tomb have given rise to rich liturgical traditions. In the 20th century, the nomenclature of the “Paschal Triduum” came to be widely used to designate the liturgies of these three feast days that celebrate the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the traditions associated with Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil have ancient roots.
In the fourth century, the Church began to systematically mark the events of Jesus’ last week of pre-resurrected life. This established a Holy Week beginning with Palm Sunday and its celebration of Jesus’ fateful entry into Jerusalem. The Church of Jerusalem played a key role in the development of these traditions. No doubt the grounds where Jesus walked and where he suffered and died provoked Christians there to commemorate the events of these three days in special manner.
Holy Thursday recalls the last night that Jesus ate with his disciples. While this liturgy marks the first Eucharist and ends with Eucharistic adoration, it is more recently known for the tradition of foot washing. Foot washing is a unique aspect of the account of the Last Supper in the Gospel of John, but this was only inserted in the Mass for Holy Thursday in 1955 by Pope Pius XII. Pope Francis notably raised its profile when he washed the feet of two women and Muslims early in his papacy.
In the fourth century, the church in Jerusalem memorialized the death of Jesus with a whole day of prayer and a procession from the place Jesus was flagellated to Golgotha where he was crucified. Along the way at different stations passion narratives, prayers and psalms were read. Today in San Antonio, an internationally renowned passion play is staged in the heart of the city. Known for its realism it provides an opportunity to solemnly walk with Jesus, accompanying him through his sufferings as he journeys with us in ours.
The Triduum comes to a close with what St. Augustine called the “mother of all vigils” – the Paschal Vigil. Marking the end of Lent and the beginning of a new Easter season, the community of faithful with its newly baptized members recommits itself to follow the way of Christ. Although not commonly practiced today, this lengthy liturgy that recounts not just the day of the Resurrection of the Lord, but also the entirety of salvation history, is ideally started late enough in the evening so as to end at the dawn of a new day. But whether this service ends at 10:00PM or 4:00AM, we are all both challenged and invited by the empty tomb to become the eyes, hears and hands of God’s incarnated love.
Praised be the Incarnate Word.