Three days that can change your life.
Today, Maundy Thursday, begins what the Western Church calls The Triduum – the Three Days. They lead up to the holiest day in the Christian Calendar, Easter Day, when we commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Today we commemorate what Jesus did on the night before he was crucified. He shared the Passover meal with his disciples and instituted the rite which they came to realize was to be the Christian equivalent of the Passover, the Lord’s Supper. They must have been puzzled when he passed the bread around and said “This is my body” and when he blessed the cup of wine and shared it with them, saying “This is my blood”. If, as some accounts have it, he added “which will be broken for you” and “which will be shed for you”, they may have begun to realize that he was going to suffer for them. But they could not have accepted yet that their Master, whom they knew to be the Messiah, the Christ, could be going to be crucified like a common criminal.This evening I will also wash twelve disciples’ feet in tonight’s Mass, as Jesus did, to the astonishment of them all. He was turning things on their heads: surely they should have been washing his feet? He knew they did not understand, but he comforted them by saying that soon they would know what he had done and why.
That understanding did not come immediately. Tomorrow, Friday, he was flogged, humiliated and crucified. Most of his disciples must have thought “Well, that’s it. He has failed. The dream is over.” The Good Friday Liturgy begins with the singing of the Passion narrative from St John’s Gospel. Then we all kneel and kiss the feet of the Christ, nailed to a large wooden cross. Then we quietly receive the holy Sacrament, reserved from last night’s Mass, and leave the church in silence, having stripped the altars bare of all adornment. We are actors in a powerful play, not yet allowed to show that we know the end of this story and should really be shouting for gladness.
This shouting comes on the third day when all the purple veils are removed from images in the church, flowers are placed on every altar and before every shrine, and the vestments are either cloth of gold or rich material covered with flowers. This is where it has all been leading, the vindication of the Son of God by his being raised from the dead by the Father in the power of the Spirit. We symbolize this by kindling new fire in the darkness and lighting the large Paschal Candle from it. This is then carried into the darkened church and saluted three times on its way to the altar, with the proclamation: “The Light of Christ”. The Deacon then sings the Exultet, a hymn of praise to God for his gift of the light of Christ in his resurrected life. We then bless the waters of Baptism in the Font, and sprinkle the congregation as a reminder of their own baptism into the Body of Christ. Then the First Mass of Easter is celebrated, full of Alleluias and joyful hymns of praise.
There was a time which I remember from my youth, when the Easter Vigil ceremonies did not include the Mass at the end, but just ended with a joyful Easter hymn. Sometimes I think this was a good idea, since for me Easter has always been a morning experience. Whereas it seems just right to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord in the middle of the night, I am not so sure of the evening Mass for Easter. However, whenever we offer the Easter Mass, we can rejoice that what we are celebrating is Christ’s victory over death and therefore our victory over death. As long as we have shared his sufferings out of love of our friends and neighbours, we can be sure that his Resurrection has changed our lives from limited and restricted periods to an eternity of everlasting love and joy.