Practical Preparation For Palm Sunday And The Paschal Triduum, Part 2
The three holiest days of the Christian year begin at sunset on Thursday of Holy Week and end with sunset on Easter Sunday. The most important thing going on everywhere in the Christian world during this time is a single act of worship spread across the three days; each service takes us deeper into the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising.
Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. This Mass celebrates all Masses, for it remembers the meal at which Jesus established the Eucharist. As we begin, the altar is bare: no covering, no candles, no flowers, so we can watch later as it is “vested” to become the place where the Eucharist is celebrated. The tabernacle behind the altar is empty, and its door is open.
The procession includes people carrying three oils that were blessed earlier in the week by the Archbishop: oil for cleansing and healing, perfumed oil for anointing. They are the oil of catechumens, to anoint those preparing for baptism; the oil of the sick, to anoint those facing serious illness of one kind or another; and sacred chrism, the perfumed oil to bless the baptized, ordain priests and bishops, and bless altars and churches.
In imitation of Jesus’ action described in the Gospel at this Mass, we will be invited to have our feet washed and to wash the feet of another person. This act of service is also an act of humility. By letting our feet be washed by someone else, we acknowledge our dependence on others. If you’re going to participate in this event, you may want to dress with easy-to-remove stockings and shoes that may be easily slipped off.
Finally, this Mass does not end; we are not dismissed. Rather, we are invited to join a procession with the hosts consecrated for use on the following day, and those who want to stay and pray in silence are invited to do so. Our celebration remains open, waiting for the next celebration that will deepen the meaning of what we have celebrated so far.
Good Friday: Celebration of the Passion of the Lord. On this one day, throughout the Christian world, there is no celebration of Mass. Instead, there is a solemn service of readings, intercessions, honor given to the cross, and a brief Communion service.
The procession enters in silence, and we all kneel in silent prayer, until we stand for the opening “collect” (a spoken or chanted prayer that “collects” or summarizes any prayers we have prayed in silence). The Liturgy of the Word is similar to the one on Palm Sunday: It includes a proclamation of the Passion by three readers, to which we respond with sung acclamations.
The homily is followed by the “Solemn Intercessions,” an ancient form of petitioning God on behalf of the Church and its leaders, believers and non-believers, the world and its leaders, all those in need, and the sick and the dead. These prayers are a little more verbose than we’re used to at Sunday Mass: The priest
-presider chants a petition, then the cantor adds a prayer which concludes with “Let us pray to the Lord.” And we sing our prayer: “O God, hear us, hear our prayer.”
Following a collection to support the sites associated with Jesus’ life and death in the Holy Land, we give special honor to the cross. After we honor “the wood of the cross” together, we are invited to come forward individually to touch or kiss or genuflect as we see fit before this symbol of death that has become a sign of life. During the veneration, one of the songs that we use is called “The Reproaches.” Sometimes this chant has been interpreted as being critical of the Jews. In fact, though, it uses biblical imagery to bring us face to face with the results of our own sins and failures. We are God’s people, the people of the cross, and so God addresses us: “My people, what have I done unto you? Or in what have I offended you? Answer me!”
The service ends with a simple Communion service, using the hosts consecrated the night before. We are blessed, but not formally dismissed, because we have deeper parts of the mystery to explore and celebrate.
Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord: Vigil in the Holy Night. This is the night! This oldest part of the Paschal Triduum takes us back to the beginning, to the basic structures of Christian worship that express the very heart of our faith. The service begins when it is completely dark, and the first part of the service is a celebration of the gift of light—from the very dawn of creation to the light of the risen Christ that leads us into the rest of the liturgy. Be prepared to share in this service of light by going outside (in good weather), holding a candle, and sharing light with those around you.
The second part of the service is an extended liturgy of the Word—more readings from Scripture and more psalm responses and more praying than we’re used to. The readings, like the service of light, take us from creation to the resurrection: the whole story of salvation. Be prepared to listen and absorb the meaning.
The third element of this very special night is another “back to the beginning” moment: the beginning of our life in the Church through the three sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist). We pray for and celebrate new members of the community; we renew our own Baptism. As part of this ritual, we will be invited to come to the font, sign ourselves with water or receive that sign from someone else, and sign the person behind us. (As on Holy Thursday, this is an act of service that is also an act of humility, as we accept the sign of the cross from someone else.)
The fourth part of this holy night is a festive celebration of the Holy Eucharist. We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!
Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord: Mass during the Day. For one reason or another, not everyone can participate in the great Easter Vigil, so the other
Masses of Easter include at least some of the elements from the Vigil. These include a renewal of our baptismal promises, sprinkling with holy water, and, of course, our song: Alleluia! In fact, our celebration ends with a special dismissal with a triple Alleluia.
Come prepared to sing.
Of course, Easter Sunday is just the beginning of fifty days of celebration, unfolding what the Paschal Mystery means for us and
for our world. So on to Pentecost!
Practical Preparation For Palm Sunday And The Paschal Triduum, Part 2
Holy Week includes some of the most important celebrations of the Christian year. These are also among the most complex of our celebrations, so we offer this practical guide to understand and prepare for these rites.
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
The title for this Sunday that begins Holy Week identifies the two parts of the Mass that are different from other Sundays. The first is the blessing and distribution of palm branches. This practice, like many other elements of the Holy Week celebrations, began in Jerusalem and spread to other places as a way to participate in the events of Jesus’ last days on earth, in this case, by carrying branches like those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. When you enter the church, an usher or greeter will offer you a branch. Once we’re ready to begin, you will be invited into the narthex (vestibule) for the story of Jesus’ entrance and the blessing of these branches. Then, singing God’s praise, we will follow the cross to our places for the rest of the Mass.
The other unique element of this Sunday is a proclamation of the story of Jesus’ suffering and death—his “passion”—as recounted in one of the Gospels. On other Sundays, the Gospel is proclaimed by just one person, a priest or deacon. On this Sunday, three people tell the story, scene by scene, and we respond to their proclamation by singing a refrain. Those who can do so are asked to stand through the reading, as we usually do for the Gospel, but those who cannot do so may sit. So come prepared to listen carefully to this key story of our faith and to join in the sung response that unites us to the story here and now. If you want to prepare for Palm Sunday by reading the Passion in advance, you will find it in the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 22, verse 14 through chapter 23, verse 56.
THE PASCHAL TRIDUUM
Unusual words in this title. “Paschal” (PASS-call) comes from the word for “Passover” in various languages. Passover is the great feast of the Jewish year: the celebration of God’s liberation of the slaves from Egypt. It has been borrowed by Christians to name what we believe happened to Jesus Christ and therefore to all of us at Passover in about the year 30 in our calendar. It was the “new Passover” as Jesus passed from life to death to risen life and invited all of us to join him. “Triduum” (TRIH-doo-um) is an easier word to explain: It comes from the Latin for “three days”—a three-day ritual celebration of Christ’s Passover.
These three holiest days of the Christian year begin at sunset on Thursday of Holy Week and end with sunset on Easter Sunday. There are devotional events that take place during these days—Stations of the Cross on Friday and the blessing of Easter foods on Saturday—but the most important thing going on everywhere in the Christian world during these three days is a single act of worship spread across three days. Now, this act of worship looks like three different liturgies, but, in fact, there is no ritual conclusion to the services on Thursday and Friday. It’s as if they are left open because the meaning of these rites is not complete until the celebration of Easter, especially at the Paschal Vigil.
Learning from Catechumens
There are several words we use that are jargon for many people, that is, words that they don’t exactly understand but they hear a lot from church “professionals.” Such words might include “liturgy,” “narthex,” “ambo,” and others. One particular set of these words derive from two Greek words: “kata” (down or across) and “ekhos” (sound or echo). These give us such words as “catechesis” (passing down something orally), “catechist” (someone who does this passing down), “catechism” (a collection of such teaching), “catechumen” (someone who receives such teaching) and “catechumenate” (the time for such communication). (Note: “catechumen” in current Church use is reserved for someone who has never been baptized; people who have been baptized in a Christian tradition other than the Catholic tradition are called “candidates” for full membership in the Catholic Church.)
The season of Lent is a particular time to hear such words. During Lent, catechumens who have been working with catechists for a long time—maybe even years—move into the final phase of the catechumenate, the time of election. These people have been “elected” to receive the sacraments of initiation—Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist—that will make them full members of the Church.
How did they get there? Well, the General Introduction to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) says that the “initiation of catechumens is a gradual process that takes place within the community of the faithful. By joining the catechumens in reflecting on the value of the paschal mystery and by renewing their own conversion, the faithful provide an example that will help the catechumens to obey the Holy Spirit more generously.” The catechumenate is “a spiritual journey of adults that varies according to the many forms of God’s grace, the free cooperation of the individuals, the action of the Church, and the circumstances of time and place.”
So the catechumenate is a process in which people learn about what it means to be a Catholic Christian. The way they learn is not only by studying what we believe but also experiencing how we believe, that is, by how we put our faith into practice in worship and in daily living. They learn that the life of faith is also a life of ministry and service.
But here’s the challenge for the rest of us: Can we learn from the catechumens and the catechumenate? You see, the catechumenate is designed to make catechumens life-long learners. Learning, reflection, and growth don’t stop when the catechumens become the elect at the beginning of Lent or even when they participate in the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist) at the Easter Vigil. Accepting the challenge of the catechumenate to continue being formed in the faith and its implications for all of Christian life doesn’t stop for those who have been catechumens. Never.
Can we learn from the catechumens, as they learn from us? Can we copy them in making catechumenal formation a way of life: learning, being formed, deepening commitment, plunging more deeply into ministry? Can we accept the challenge of welcoming the elect into our community? Because if we do that, they will challenge us to grow, to keep learning, to go deeper.
Go Fast! (Say What?)
“Fasting”: You know, choosing to go without all or some food and drink for a limited amount of time. A lot of people today choose to fast as part of a dietary or health program. “Abstaining” is a similar thing: choosing to go without a particular food for a certain amount of time. For instance, for health or dietary reasons, people may choose to avoid red meat or sugar.
In the Catholic tradition, fasting (and abstaining) as religious practices are associated with particular days and seasons or with preparation for sacramental Communion. They didn’t begin that way, however. Fasting and abstaining began long ago as a way to keep the community alive. At the end of winter or in the spring, before newly sown crops could be harvested, food supplies often ran short. For the good of everyone, those who were strong enough chose not to eat full meals or certain foods to make sure that other, weaker members could survive—frequently, the youngest and oldest members.
Because this practice was, of its nature, care for people other than oneself, it quickly took on spiritual meaning. Fasting, as an act of self-sacrifice or spiritual focus, has become part of just about every religious tradition on the planet. In many of those traditions, fasting by the stronger members came to be associated with particular occasions or practices.
The very English word “fasting” indicates something of its spiritual meaning for Christians. It is not a translation or a transliteration of earlier languages such as Latin or Greek. Rather, it is a work that translates the sense of the word in those older languages. “To fast” comes from the Old English fæstan, related to similar words in German, Dutch, and Old Norse. This word means “to make firm; establish, confirm, pledge.” So rather than translating the Latin word jejuno (which means something like “to shrink the intestine,” “fasting” captures the meaning of Latin observare, “to hold onto or keep faithful to.”
Although fasting was very strict in Roman Catholicism for many centuries (as it still is today in many Eastern Churches), the practice has been relaxed in recent decades, while the popes have emphasized the need for believers to choose, to observe this practice as a personal choice, a commitment rather than a mere legal observance. Of course, there are required times of fast and abstinence, but they are few, and the rules are clear.
Roman Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This fast means only one full meal and two small meals that don’t equal the large meal, with no solid food taken between meals. These two days and all the Fridays of Lent also are days of abstinence (no meat) for Catholics who are older than 14.
There is another fast required of Catholics. Everyone preparing to receive sacramental Communion is required to fast from all food (except medicine and water) for one hour before receiving Communion. (The rule doesn’t apply to people who are sick or who require food for health within that hour.)
So hold fast to the fasts as a way to deepen fidelity to our faith and also, as in its origins, a way to provide food for those who need it more than we do.
Catholic Gymnastics: Stand, Sit, Kneel, Walk. Repeat.
People who have visited other churches know that people in many of those churches don’t get nearly as much exercise as Catholics do at worship. In some churches, the congregation sits for most of the service; in others (particularly churches in the Byzantine tradition), the congregation stands for most of the service. So why do Catholics mover around so much?
We do it because we believe that we bring our whole selves to worship: body as well as mind and spirit. We share with other churches the belief that ours is an incarnate faith, a faith that is embodied in our eating and breathing and speaking, in the blood pumping in our veins, in our muscles and bones. We carry forward the Incarnation of Jesus Christ into our own time and our circumstances.
And we put that belief into practice in the way we worship. The gestures and movements we use have entered our worship practice at different times of our history, but each of them now has a special meaning and is appropriate for the way we use them.
Stand. Standing is the oldest prayer posture in our practice. Jews stood for worship in the Temple, and the earliest Christians stood for the Eucharist. In fact, our Eucharistic Prayer II, based on one of the oldest models of such praying that we have, calls the congregation the “circumstantes”—the people “standing around” the altar. (Our current English translation of this word thanks God for the opportunity to “be in your presence.”) The Eastern Churches of the Byzantine and other traditions have retained this ancient practice, and the people stand for the Eucharist.
Sit. Once, upon a time, the only person to sit during Mass was the bishop. He did this because teachers, in the early years of the Church, sat, while their students stood. The bishop had a special chair: the “cathedra.” This practice was modeled not only on teachers in schools but also the rabbis in synagogues. In the synagogues, at the time of Jesus, rabbis sat to teach. Jesus refers to this special chair in synagogues as the “chair of Moses.” In some synagogues, the congregation also sat during the readings and the teaching, but this practice wasn’t followed among Christians for many centuries. Eventually, chairs were introduced in Catholic cathedrals and churches for the ease of the congregation and so they could concentrate on the readings and homily instead of on their aching legs.
Kneel. Kneeling was introduced into western Christian practice in about the fifth century, but its use was limited to penitents—people who had committed major sins and were enrolled in the “order” of penitents during Lent. While everyone else stood, they knelt. Slowly, this sense of being sinful people spread, along with the practice of private and repeated confession and reconciliation, so more and more people began to kneel. These days, we kneel especially for most of the Eucharistic Prayer in deference to the mystery of the sacrament that we celebrate, and we kneel occasionally for special occasions at certain times of the year.
When Does Mass Begin . . . And End?
The rite itself is clear about when (and how) Mass begins and ends. Mass usually begins with song and the Sign of the Cross. This is the model for Sundays and great feasts. The song accompanies the opening procession, and “when the entrance chant is concluded, with everybody standing, the priest and faithful sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross.” Sometimes, such as when there is a Baptism at Mass, other rites replace this model. At weekday Mass, if an entrance chant is not sung, then text of an “antiphon” may be recited. (An “antiphon” is a Scripture quote usually intended to be set to music for the congregation to sing, alternated with the choir or a cantor singing verses of an appropriate psalm, so this amounts to reciting a text that is intended to be sung.)
Mass ends, the ritual says, in a reverse of the way it begins, with the Sign of the Cross, presented as a blessing by the priest (or bishop) and a dismissal. Then the rite says, “the priest venerates the altar as usual with a kiss and, after making a profound bow with the lay ministers, he withdraws with them.”
So Mass begins with a procession, followed by the Sign of the Cross, and it ends with the Sign of the Cross, followed by a procession. Because the first procession is usually and ideally accompanied with singing, it has become the practice to accompany the procession at the end of Mass with singing as a way to balance the beginning and the end of the celebration.
Even though we may sometimes be running late or have to leave early for a legitimate reason, if we want to participate fully, consciously, and actively in Mass, we should be there from the beginning and not leave until the end. To do otherwise, except in extraordinary circumstances, may suggest that we’re not quite as involved as we could be.
There’s one more question: When does Mass begin and end for me? In a way, Mass begins for each of us when we make the decision to go to church to join other believers in celebrating Mass. That initial decision may be intensified when we look over the readings for the day or think abut what the season of the year means to me (Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter, for example) and how I am living it.
Mass ends for each of us when we reflect on what we have just shared and how we will live over the coming days in the light of that experience—how we will live as Christians who share the Eucharist and understand themselves to be the Body and Blood of Christ wherever they are and whatever they do.
What is My Obligation on Sundays and Holy Days?
Most Catholic Christians have heard that the “Sunday obligation” involves going to church on Sundays and holy days “of obligation” (that is, those special days that should be treated like Sundays). They may also have heard that this obligation is a Christian adaptation of the commandment given by God to Moses to “keep the Sabbath day holy.”
In fact, Church law is a little more specific about what Catholic Christians should do on Sundays and holy days. Canon 1247 of the Church’s set of laws offers this rich description of what is expected of us. Here is an English translation of the Latin original (with italics added):
“On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass. Moreover, they are to abstain from those works and activities which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.”
So it’s not just a matter of getting yourself into a pew on Sundays and other holy days. The challenge offered by the Church is to participate (fully, consciously, actively, as the Second Vatican Council put it) in the act of worship on these days. We come not simply as observers but as participants, taking on those rights and responsibilities proper to people who are baptized and share fully in communion.
Further, we should do what we can on these days to make sure we are prepared to participate this way, by setting aside anything that keeps us from giving ourselves fully to this central act of worship. This doesn’t mean that we have to give up soccer practice or Sunday afternoon football or a cookout with friends, but it does mean that we need to keep things in perspective, in balance, so that Sunday Mass receives its proper attention. Also, the Church encourages us to relax, to slow down and take things easy, as much as we can, knowing that the Lord is in control and we can let go of some of our ordinary anxieties and worries, at least for one day.
St. Joseph parishioner Gordon Truitt holds a doctorate in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. He has been involved in liturgical renewal at the parish, diocesan, and national levels for more than forty years.
ASK GORDON. Do you have a question about liturgical practice in general or about the way we do things at Saint Joseph? Pose your question here, and we’ll try to answer it.