Liturgy Matters — Symbols of the triduum

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Dr. Judy Bullock
Dr. Judy Bullock

The Easter triduum — Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter — that we will be celebrating this week is the culmination of the entire liturgical year.

Just as the Paschal Mystery is like an exquisite gem that we examine from different facets there are many symbols within these liturgies that express the depth of this great mystery and our rich faith. Here are just a few of those we experience in the triduum liturgies.

Washing of the Feet

One of the most poignant symbols during the triduum is the ritual act of washing feet during the Holy Thursday liturgy. Recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus performed this shocking ritual act of washing his apostles’ feet which normally would have been the work of slaves. This ritual act is not intended to be an exact reenactment of the Last Supper. However, even today there is no substitute that communicates love and humble service as effectively as washing another person’s feet.

Adoration of the Cross

The triduum begins on Holy Thursday with this introductory antiphon: “We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered.”

This focus on the “glory of the cross” is highlighted on Good Friday when we have the opportunity to adore and venerate the cross. Keeping in mind that this day is not meant to be a funeral for Jesus, it is the glory of the cross as the symbol of our salvation that we honor.

This procession or gathering around the cross is our opportunity to meditate on these mysteries and to offer some sign of veneration with a kiss, a genuflection, a bow or a touch.

Lighting the new fire and Paschal Candle

One of the reasons that the church insists that the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday begin after the light of day has faded away, is to effectively celebrate the lighting of the new fire, the end of darkness, the light of Christ. If possible, a blazing fire is prepared outside the church.

The new paschal candle is then brought to the priest, where he marks it by cutting a cross into it and forming the Greek letters Alpha at the top of the cross and Omega at the bottom. He then inserts the numbers of the year, 2014, between the arms of the cross. During this carving he says these extraordinary words that encapsulate the entire Paschal Mystery, “Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. All time belongs to him and all the ages. To him be glory and power through every age and for ever. Amen.”

Five grains of incense commemorating the five wounds of Christ may then be inserted into the candle in the form of a cross.

The priest then lights the paschal candle from the new fire saying, “May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” A server carrying a thurible or censor with burning incense, leads the procession into the church followed by the deacon carrying the paschal candle. The deacon stops at designated locations as he moves down the aisle singing, “The Light of Christ,” and all respond, “Thanks be to God.”

From this candle everyone in the assembly is given light for their own individual candles. This is one of the most beautiful images we have in this liturgy from the one light of Christ; one by one all receive his light until the darkness is no more.

Throughout the Easter season the paschal candle remains in the sanctuary near the ambo as a reminder of this glorious season. On Pentecost the paschal candle is moved to a place near the baptismal font.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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