Easter is the greatest event in the Church’s Calendar. In the Easter liturgies we are offered a wonderful way to renew our faith and experience the love of God in a deeper way at this special time.
Each year we are given the opportunity to deepen our faith and experience more powerfully the love of God in our lives through the beautiful liturgies of the Church that are celebrated at Easter. The Season of Lent officially ends on Thursday of Holy Week and a period of three days of prayer and liturgies, called the Easter Triduum, begin on Holy Thursday evening and last until dusk on Easter Sunday. The Masses and Services during this time are full of deeply meaningful symbols that help us to experience the love of God in a deeper way by entering into the mystery of His Passion and Resurrection.
MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
The Triduum begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday evening. In this beautiful and joyful celebration of the Mass the Last Supper is remembered, when Jesus washed his disciple’s feet and gave them the gift of the Eucharist. This Mass is also a celebration of the priesthood and during the Mass the priest will, if he is able, wash the feet of chosen members of the congregation, as Jesus did at the Last Supper. Throughout Lent the Gloria is not been sung but at this Mass all the bells are rung while it is being sung and then the bells and the organ are silenced until the Easter Vigil Service. At the end of the Mass the altar is stripped bare and remains uncovered until the Easter Vigil. The Blessed Sacrament is removed from the Tabernacle and is processed to a side altar, where there is usually Eucharistic Adoration for some time into the night. This is to remind us that Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake and pray with him on the night before his arrest. “They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with Him Peter and James and John.” (Mark 14: 3 –33) If we join in Adoration we too can sit with Jesus.
Good Friday is a day of fasting and abstinence and the liturgy is very solemn as it commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross. All the statues and pictures in the Church are covered up, the altar is bare, and the door of the empty tabernacle stands open. So the atmosphere of the Church is one of sadness and mourning. The Mass is not celebrated on Good Friday or during the day on Holy Saturday but there is a service of the Lord’s passion and death which takes place during the afternoon around 3 o’clock. There is the Liturgy of the Word, which includes reading the account of the Lord’s Crucifixion followed by an opportunity to venerate the Cross (to bow before, touch or kiss the crucifix) and Holy Communion is distributed using Hosts that were consecrated the previous day. The whole service helps us to think about the great price that Jesus paid for our redemption out of His love for us. “He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)
The Church teaches that Holy Saturday is the day when Our Lord’s body lay in the tomb. It is a day when the faithful are asked to meditate with prayer and fasting on his passion and death, and on his descent into hell, while waiting for His resurrection. The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 624 says, “By the grace of God, Jesus tasted death for everyone. In his plan of salvation, God ordained that his Son should not only die for our sins but should also taste death, experience the condition of death, the separation of his soul from his body, between the time he expired on the cross to the time he was raised from the dead. The state of the dead Christ is the mystery of the tomb and the descent into hell.” It goes on to explain that hell is the place where all who had died before Him, whether righteous or evil, were waiting for their redeemer. When Jesus descended among the dead he opened the gates of heaven for those who were justified and so the Gospel message could be preached to all mankind, those yet to be born, those living at the time and all who had already died.
The third part of the Easter Triduum is the Easter Vigil Mass held on Holy Saturday night after sunset. This is the first celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and His victory over death and is a wonderful celebration of light and new life. “On this holy night we celebrate the Easter Vigil, the first, indeed the mother of all vigils, of the liturgical year. On this night, we walk once more the path of humanity from creation to the culminating event of salvation, the death and resurrection of Christ.” (Homily by Pope Saint John Paul II on Holy Saturday 2004)
The Mass starts with a celebration of light, when all the lights in the church are turned off and a small fire is lit outside the church. With the congregation outside, the priest blesses the fire and a new Easter (Paschal) Candle is lit from the fire. This candle is then processed into the darkened church as a sign of Christ, the Light of the World, who has overcome the darkness of sin and death. Then everyone lights a small candle from the flame of the Paschal Candle symbolising that Christ wants to spread his light to all people. This section finishes with the singing of a beautiful hymn of praise called the Easter Exultet which includes the words, “This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow together in holiness. This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave. What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer?”
This is followed by the Liturgy of the Word, where there are readings from the Old and New Testaments recalling the story of God’s great love for his people throughout the ages. The Gloria is sung once again with all the bells ringing joyfully. The next part of the Mass is called the Liturgy of Baptism when the congregation, holding their lit candles, renew their baptismal promises. This is also the time when adults who want to be baptised or to become full members of the Catholic Church are initiated into the Sacraments and receive Baptism, and Confirmation as appropriate. They will then receive the Eucharist later in the Mass. The Easter Vigil ends with a celebration of the Eucharist.
If you cannot attend the Easter Vigil, the Mass on Easter Sunday is a joyful celebration of Christ’s resurrection. It may lack some of the symbolism of the Easter Vigil Service of Light but it is a fitting conclusion to Holy Week and celebrates Baptism and the New Life that Christ won for us by His resurrection from the dead.
ENTER THE MYSTERY
The Triduum, the services on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil are the most important in the Church’s calendar for each one of us and we should make a special effort to attend them all. They are opportunities to pray and praise together with our Parish community thanking God for all that he has done for us. Together they celebrate the most sacred and important aspects of our faith. By attending all three important celebrations we journey with Jesus through his Last Supper, His Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, His Crucifixion and His Resurrection and we are able to enter into the mystery of these events. Make sure that you don’t miss out on the most beautiful, dramatic and faith-building liturgies in the Church’s year this Easter.