During Lent we prepare to observe our Lord’s death and celebrate his resurrection. It is a time of spiritual discipline as we contemplate His sacrifice on the cross. We repent of our sin and seek to grow in the faith. During the season of Lent we are preparing. The season and its mid-week services are moving to a crescendo. They are moving towards Holy Week. During Holy Week we will focus with renewed intensity on the death of Christ for us. The eastern part of Christianity has called Holy Week, “the Great Week,” because of the great things accomplished by the events we celebrate then.
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday. Following a tradition that began in the fourth century A.D. in Jerusalem, we will process into the church bearing palms as we remember our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem in the week of His passion. Palm Sunday is also called the Sunday of the Passion since on that day we will read the passion account of our Lord. This will provide a “roadmap” of the events we will be observing in the coming week.
Holy Week provides us with the highpoint of the Christian year. The highpoint of Holy Week itself is the Triduum. Triduum means “three days.” It refers to the last three days before Easter Sunday: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday. The services that occur on these days are in fact considered to be one service that takes place over the course of three days.
Maundy Thursday derives its name from the Latin word for “commandment,” mandatum. This word is a reference to our Lord’s statement at the Last Supper, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you” (John 13:34). At this service we will again contemplate Christ’s gift of the Sacrament of the Altar which He instituted at the Last Supper. We are reminded that through this miraculous meal our Lord gives us the benefits of Good Friday.
The service consists of four parts: the Service of Corporate Confession and Absolution, the Service of the Word, the Service of the Sacrament and the Stripping of the Altar. The Service of Corporate Confession and Absolution signals the end of the Lenten preparations with the absolution and peace of Christ that stand at the center of the Triduum. The Service of the Word focuses on Christ’s humble service demonstrated in His washing of His disciples’ feet. This servanthood was enacted on the Cross and its benefits are bestowed in the Lord’s Supper. The Divine Service culminates with the Lord’s ministry to His people through the Sacrament of the Altar.
The depth of Christ’s servanthood is demonstrated as the altar is reverently stripped in preparation for the Church’s observance of Jesus’ death. In this service, the Church and her catechumens begin the journey through the three days of Christ’s Passover as she passes from death to life and from captivity to freedom. The Divine Service does not conclude with a Benediction, since the service of the Triduum continues the next day.
On Good Friday we pause and consider our Lord’s death on the cross. Crucified between two criminals He took our sins upon Himself and died in our place. The darkness and earthquake that accompanied that event (Matthew 27:45, 51) demonstrate the cosmic significance of Christ’s death as part of God’s end-time action. The Good Friday service includes the Bidding Prayer (a prayer in which the topics for prayer are introduced and then the prayer itself is offered) which is one of the most ancient prayers in the liturgy of the Western Church. It also contains the Reproaches which are the words of the Lord directed against his people, the Church. To this the congregation responds with a plea for mercy. The Passion of Our Lord according to St. John is read.
The Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday is a celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord and of our Baptism. The Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday marks the final service of the Triduum – the three day service that leads up to Easter Sunday. Jesus remained buried in the tomb on Holy Saturday. The apostle Paul says in Romans 6:3-4 that when we were baptized, we were buried with Christ into death. Because of the connection between Holy Baptism and Christ’s death, the early Church began the practice of baptizing new Christians on Holy Saturday. On this day when Christ was buried in the tomb, Christians were buried with Christ into His death through the waters of Holy Baptism. By at least the early third century A.D. Christians began observing the Vigil of Easter in connection with these baptisms (for more background on this see the post “The surprising history of Romans 6 and baptism in the early Church”).
At the same time Holy Saturday stands on the verge of Easter Sunday and is celebrated as the first service of the resurrection. In the Jewish reckoning of time used in Jesus’ day, a new day began at sunset. The church in its liturgy has adopted this as well, and therefore Saturday evening begins the celebration of Easter. Baptism on the evening of Holy Saturday reminded Christians that as Paul says in Romans 6:5, their own baptism provided the guarantee that they would also share in Christ’s resurrection when He returns in glory on the Last Day.
The Vigil of Easter falls into six parts. In the Service of Light the Paschal Candle is lit and processes into the nave of the darkened church. Individual candles are then lit from the Paschal Candle. The light that pierces the darkness and emanates out among the people represents the resurrection of Jesus Christ that has pierced the darkness of death and brought the hope of resurrection and everlasting life to all who believe in Him.
In the Service of Readings we hear recounted God’s saving acts in the Old Testament that prefigured and pointed forward to Christ’s great victory that he shares with us through Holy Baptism. In the Service of Holy Baptism we hear Romans 6 read and then renew our baptismal vows. In the Service of Prayer we pray the Litany of the Resurrection which recounts our Lord’s death and resurrection. In the Service of the Word the Easter Gospel is read and we hear the first news of our Lord’s resurrection, which points us forward to the full and joyous celebration that will follow in the morning on Easter. Finally, in the Service of the Sacrament the risen Lord comes to us in His true body and blood as He gives us a share in His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins.
Then, on Easter Sunday we will celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord. After observing His death for us and the means through which Christ gives us a share in that death, we will then rejoice in His resurrection from the dead and celebrate the fact that through His resurrection we have the assurance that He will raise us up on the Last Day.
Sometimes Christians want to focus on Easter and ignore those services leading up to Easter Sunday. However, we are only prepared to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection if we have walked the way that led to Easter Sunday. Congregation members are encouraged to view the Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – as one service and attend it accordingly. The services on these three days will deepen our appreciation of our Lord’s sacrifice during Holy Week and will strengthen us in the faith. Then, after observing these great events of the Great Week, we will celebrate the victory of our Lord’s resurrection on Easter Sunday.