This post also appeared in The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To learn more about St. John's and to read the rest of the newsletter, click here.
As Holy Week approaches, preparations for the Triduum Sacrum are underway in churches all over the world. Although the Latin term for the three-day celebration of the Paschal mystery does not appear in our prayer book, it has become a fairly common way for Episcopalians to refer to the period that begins with the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday and ends with the conclusion of Easter Day. Like every congregation, we have our own way of celebrating the Triduum, but many of our traditions also unite us with all Christians who observe this three-day journey.
In Latin, the word triduum is a singular noun that means “three days.” In English, which cannot help but pluralize those words, we struggle to convey in language the unitary nature of that celebration, but, in not-so-subtle ways, the liturgy itself helps convey how those different services are united as one. As Leonel Mitchell, who in turn cites Ormonde Plater, notes in his Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and the Great Fifty Days, “the omission of the dismissal at the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday liturgies also serves to tie the liturgies of the Triduum together. In one sense it is a single liturgical act.” Whether we feel it or not, therefore, the worship held during the Triduum is a single offering made to the Lord by the church that is punctuated only by prolonged periods of silent prayer.
The commemoration of the Last Supper on Thursday evening becomes the stripping of the altar as the church is laid bare in preparation for Good Friday. The next day, we gather in silence and begin our worship without the usual opening acclimation and, again, end the Good Friday liturgy without the customary dismissal. Similarly, the service for Holy Saturday takes place in a quiet, dark church without any particular words to delineate when the watch begins or when it concludes as the faithful gather at the Lord’s tomb. Sometime after sunset that night and before sunrise the next morning, the people reassemble to continue their uninterrupted watch during the Easter Vigil. Only after the lights have been turned on and the bells have begun to ring do we see how the mystery has unfolded all around us, and the celebration of the resurrection continues throughout the day, ending with the disciples’ journey down the Emmaus Road.
To see it all, however, you must begin on Thursday and continue your pilgrimage through the three days without deviating from the path that begins in the upper room and leads first to the garden, then to the high priest’s courtyard, then to Pilate’s headquarters, then up the street and out of the city to Golgotha, then to the nearby tomb, and then to the shadows of grief, where the we wait with the disciples until the first light of the miracle will reach us. Once the Triduum begins, it cannot be stopped. If you miss any part of it, however, the story is left unfinished. Like a symphony from which a movement has been cut, our carefully coordinated worship may reach its conclusion, but, if a piece of the Triduum is omitted, the celebration is incomplete.
One three-days-long service requires a considerable commitment from the whole parish. All of us—clergy, parish staff, flower guild, altar guild, bread guild, musicians, ushers, LEMs, lectors, acolytes, nursery workers, cleaning crew, and congregation—must offer ourselves to God in this exhausting act of worship. When we emerge from this sacred pilgrimage, we are supposed to feel that satisfying mixture of elation and fatigue that comes from an arduous journey. It is difficult, but I promise you that it is worth it. No one who completes the entire Truduum Sacrum is disappointed. Might you join us this year for the entire trip?
How might you prepare yourself for what lies ahead? Like any pilgrim embarking on a difficult trip, you must plan carefully for these three days, preparing yourself physically, mentally, and spiritually. Begin making space and time each day for extended periods of quiet—5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes of sitting undistractedly in the presence of God. Lighten your load by deciding which appointments and decisions need to be handled now and which ones can wait until after the journey. Study ahead for the trip you will be taking by reading the daily scripture lessons and accompanying meditations that our parishioners have written as well as the proper lessons for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil, Easter Day, and Easter Evening. Make a budget of how you will spend your time and how much you will eat during the trip. Will you need to rearrange your calendar to be present for all of the services? Will the experience be more meaningful if you eat more simply or even fast in anticipation of the journey? Consider with whom you might enjoy spending this time, and ask that person to join you for the pilgrimage or, perhaps, to celebrate with you when it is over.