In Your Midst

TRIDUUM: THREE DAYS

Spring 2002

“The Easter Triduum of the passion and resurrection of Christ is the culmination of the entire liturgical year,” wrote the Bishops of the United States in 1998. St. James Cathedral comes fully and dazzlingly to life during these great days (to be celebrated this year between Thursday, March 28th and Sunday, March 31st). For those fortunate enough to participate in these marvelous liturgies at St. James, the sacred Triduum is an extraordinary event, truly an experience of union with “the crucified, buried, and risen One.”

In This Issue:

The First Day: Holy Thursday

On the morning of Holy Thursday we gather in the East Nave for the Liturgy of the Hours, or Morning Praise. In the quiet morning beauty of the Cathedral, the ancient hymn evokes the mingled sorrow and glory of these three days which are unlike any others: 

Soon by His own false friend betrayed,
Given to His foes, to death went He;
His own true Self in form of bread
He gave His friends, their life to be.

In the evening we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Mass which celebrates Mass itself. In the words of the Third Eucharistic Prayer, “On the night He was betrayed, He took bread and gave you thanks and praise.” This supreme event commemorated at every Mass is remembered in a special way on Holy Thursday. This is the night when Christ, knowing He is about to suffer, reveals His divinity in a totally new way; and bequeaths His very Self, His body and blood, to His disciples.

St. John, in a marvelously oblique manner, describes this great gift by relating how “during the supper, Jesus… rose from the meal… and began to wash His disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel He had around Him.”

After the homily there is a stir of preparation throughout the Cathedral. Altar servers bring stools and chairs from hidden corners. As the archbishop and pastor imitate Christ by removing their outer garments, parishioners from among the congregation take their places, some at the font, some at the altar, some in the west or east aisles of the church, and take off their shoes and socks. For them this ritual of the washing of the feet can be as humbling and frightening as it was for St. Peter, who exclaimed in protest, “You shall never wash my feet!” For all those watching it is a ceremony all the more moving for its human awkwardness.

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper concludes with one of the most solemn moments of the Triduum. After communion, the lights in the Cathedral are dimmed, and the archbishop, led by cross, candles, and incense, carries the Blessed Sacrament through the church while the congregation, in adoration on its knees, sings the great hymn of St. Thomas Aquinas:

Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory,
Of His flesh the myst’ry sing,
Of the blood, all price exceeding,
Shed by our immortal King,
Destined for the world’s redemption,
From a noble womb to spring.

In spirit, we follow Christ to the garden of Gethsemane and keep watch with Him. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament continues until midnight with song, prayer, and silence, including the beautiful service of Compline, or Night Prayer, at 9:45 PM.

The Second Day: Good Friday

On the morning of Good Friday we know immediately a change has taken place from the evening before. The tabernacle is empty and the sanctuary lamp is extinguished. Morning Praise is marked by the singing of the beautiful antiphon, “Christ was made obedient for us, even to death, death on a cross.”

At noon the Cathedral is full for the celebration of the Tre Ore, or three hours. This traditional devotion of Good Friday is structured around the “Seven Last Words of Christ,” the seven statements recorded in the four Gospels as uttered by Christ as He hung on the cross. Each brief Gospel reading is followed by a meditation from a guest homilist (this year, Father Stephen Sundborg, SJ, president of Seattle University) and choral or instrumental music. The service concludes with the solemn Stations of the Cross.

The great celebration of the Lord’s Passion takes place on the evening of Good Friday. There is no entrance procession of any kind. Instead, the archbishop and priests, in red vestments, gather with the faithful. At 6 o’clock they rise, and in silence, prostrate themselves at full length before the stripped altar. The people kneel. The silence surrounding this simple act of humility and adoration emphasizes the mystery of the day’s events, events whose significance cannot be put into words.

After the solemn chanting of the passion narrative from St. John’s Gospel comes the veneration of the cross. From the west, a server enters bearing the Great Cross, adorned with a swath of red fabric. Fastened to the base of the cross by a cord is a reliquary containing a fragment of the true cross. As the cross is processed through the darkened church, three times it is lifted high while all kneel and the deacon sings out, “This is the Wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the World!” All respond, “Come, let us worship!” After the cross has reached the altar, the people stream forward from all sides of the church to genuflect and to touch or kiss the wounds of Christ.

The Third Day: Holy Saturday

On Holy Saturday morning, as we again gather for Morning Praise, there is a new mood of mystery and expectation. The icon of the Crucifixion has been replaced by an image of “the Harrowing of Hell” (the Eastern Church’s phrase for “He descended into Hell”). We follow Christ during the mysterious hours between His death on the cross and His resurrection, when He goes to release the saints of the Old Testament who have been awaiting redemption.

Throughout this day there is a bustle and stir in the Cathedral as the church is decorated for Easter. While the altar is adorned with flowers, the Elect who are to be baptized take a break from their morning retreat to participate in a rehearsal of the great rituals to take place after nightfall.

The Easter Vigil is “the mother of all Vigils,” the great Mass of Easter, the greatest Mass of the whole year. The Mass begins in darkness on the front steps of the Cathedral. It is a truly unforgettable and amazing scene when the archbishop blesses the new fire burning brightly against the spectacular Seattle city skyline beyond, and illuminating the faces of the hundreds gathered on the front steps. The great Paschal candle is lit and carried in procession through the Ceremonial Doors into the pitch-black church. The leaping flame of the Paschal candle is the only light in the Cathedral during the long vigil of readings and psalms. The Scriptures proclaimed in the darkness reach back to the creation of the world, leading up through Abraham, Moses, and the crossing of the Red Sea.

The Great Cross with gold and silver streamers and spring blossoms at Easter 2001. 
Photo by Sister Margaret Evenson.

At last, bells are heard in the dim church, and the lights, coming up with sudden brilliance, illuminate the marvelously beautiful Cathedral, the altar like a garden, adorned with lilies, hydrangea, and branches covered with spring blossoms. The Gloria is sung, and the reading from St. Paul begins with wonderful abruptness, “Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” It is a vivid experience of the joy of the resurrection.

With the singing of the great Alleluia we know Lent is over and Easter joy has begun. This moment is so unique and so holy that there is a special “Alleluia” for it, one that is sung only at this moment and at no other throughout the whole year.

Meanwhile, for the Elect about to be baptized, the Vigil is just beginning. Baptism of adults happens only at the Easter Vigil, and is the goal of long months of prayer and preparation. It is moving for all those who witness it to see them making a profession of faith, barefoot and in dark robes, on the altar, and then descending one by one into the font. After a few long moments of great suspense, they burst joyfully through the west doors of the Cathedral in white robes, symbolic of their new innocence.

The celebration of Easter continues with the Masses of Easter morning. While the Triduum concludes with the beautiful ceremony of Easter Vespers on Sunday afternoon, Easter is too great a solemnity to be confined to a single day, even a single Sunday. It continues for fifty days, and the eight days after Easter are observed as if they were a week of Sundays. The most beautiful Gospels of the year are squandered on these days of the Easter Octave. At St. James each Mass during the week is celebrated with music, and the wonderful Easter Sequence keeps repeating the good news, “Christ indeed from death is risen…Alleluia!”

Maria Laughlin is a Cathedral parishioner and author of Saint James the Greater, an illustrated history of the Cathedral’s patron.


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