What is the Paschal Triduum?
When I was enrolled in my master’s degree program in Liturgical Studies, a question on an exam asked “What do Christians celebrate on Sunday?” It seemed a perfectly simple and innocent question. I tend to overthink these sorts of things, so I wrote a long answer. When I got the exam back, the professor had written in the margin, multiple times: Paschal Mystery. I guess the question was simple.
Although I risk defining it too simply here, for the purpose of this reflection, the Paschal Mystery is the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This central event of our faith is celebrated each and every Sunday when we gather for Eucharist. That is the “theme” of Sunday Mass. This theme — the Paschal Mystery — allows Sunday to become a foundation for our entire week if we allow it to penetrate our lives more deeply.
But the Paschal Mystery isn’t just celebrated on Sundays. We celebrate the Paschal Mystery in an intentionally intense way over the Paschal Triduum — the sacred “three days” leading up to and encompassing Easter Sunday. The Paschal Triduum is to the entire year what Sunday is to the week.
What exactly is the Paschal Triduum?
The Paschal Triduum is a single liturgical celebration that spans three days. It begins on the Thursday before Easter and ends the evening of Easter Sunday. “Isn’t that four days?” you might ask yourself. The Church counts these days liturgically, so the “day” begins the evening before. (Remember, “evening came, and morning followed, the first day” from Genesis). Thus: Thursday evening to Friday evening (Day 1), Friday evening to Saturday evening (Day 2), Saturday evening to Sunday evening (Day 3).
Another unique element about the Paschal Triduum is that a single liturgy encompasses all three days. It is not three separate liturgies. This is best seen when all three days are celebrated physically in the same church.
At the end of the Mass on Holy Thursday, you’ll notice there is no final blessing or dismissal. People are invited to pray quietly before the Blessed Sacrament and then leave when they are ready. The liturgy doesn’t formally conclude; it simply pauses.
It picks up again on Good Friday with the Solemn Celebration of the Lord’s Passion. You’ll notice that this solemn liturgy doesn’t have the usual, formal beginning we are used to: the entrance procession or greeting by the priest. Rather, the priest and ministers enter the sanctuary when they are ready and, after prostrating before the altar, they simply pick up where they left off the evening before. Like Holy Thursday, the Good Friday liturgy doesn’t have a formal dismissal; rather, the priest simply says a prayer over the people before departing. Another pause.
And although the Easter Vigil begins with the sign of the cross, it begins in a different location — outside, around a fire (although this year, because of Covid, adaptations may need to be made) without an opening song or procession. We pick up our prayer from where we left off the day before. And it is only at the end of the Easter Vigil Mass we hear the formal dismissal of the assembly, “Mass is ended,” with the double alleluia. The Easter Vigil, which always is to begin after sunset on Saturday, takes place on the third day of the Triduum, so the vigil is considered the Easter Mass. Subsequent Masses are celebrated on Sunday for those unable to attend the vigil.
Although this year you may not be able to participate physically in the Paschal Triduum liturgy because of your own health concerns or capacity restrictions, I invite you to take part in this most important prayer of the Church, either by watching a live-stream of the Triduum liturgy or by keeping the Triduum at home with your own special prayer.
Resources for celebrating at home can be found on the diocesan website at vermontcatholic.org/worship. Whichever method of participation you choose, we hope you join us for this solemn liturgy spanning three days — the Paschal Triduum.
— Josh Perry is director of worship for the Diocese of Burlington.
—Published in the Spring 2021 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine and the March 27-April 2 Inland See.