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Deepening Our Paschal Identity in Christ  
Anne C. McGuire, PhD  
   

Every spring the Church calls us together to celebrate the primary mystery of our Catholic faith: God’s saving love in the Paschal Mystery. As Catholics, we sing, we process, we listen, we reflect, we gather, we leave, we reconvene, we praise, we lament, we rejoice. We do this with Christ, with the disciples, and with the Church throughout the world. The Triduum (Latin for “Three Days”) both expresses and celebrates the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s saving death and Resurrection. Through the celebration of the Triduum, we profoundly deepen our understanding of our core identity as Christians, people who have died and risen in Christ.

In early Christianity, the identity of the community was rooted in the understanding that Jesus Christ was the mediator of the divine-human experience. All of life was rooted in who Jesus Christ was, how he lived, and what his living-dying-rising experience meant for those who called themselves Christian. Baptism, community, and eventually the ritual experiences of Triduum grew from their identity in the Paschal Mystery.

The earliest expression of this is captured in Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans (6:3 – 11), which begins with an important question: “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Paul goes on to remind us that “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.” Part of this experience of “living in Christ” takes place here and now as we deepen our union with Christ and one another. It is the ritual expression of participation in the Paschal Mystery that is proclaimed, ritualized, and owned by the worshipping community over the course of this unitive feast of Three Days, the core feast of the liturgical year.

The Triduum begins on Holy Thursday with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the community’s entrance into this experience. The focus of the liturgy is multifaceted: entrance into the Triduum, remembrance of the Passover supper, foot washing, institution of the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood. Each focus provides the community with a connection to an original biblical experience and a realization of that experience in our lives today.

The Passover ritual celebrated by Christ and the disciples is newly proclaimed in the institution of the Eucharist. It becomes Christ’s body and blood, broken and poured out for us, unifying the community in both the proclamation of the word and the reception of Holy Communion as well as in the procession with the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose. The foot washing extends the proclamation of John’s Gospel into a ritual that connects those gathered today with Jesus who celebrated this ritual and this meal with the apostles in the upper room. Jesus is not only addressing Peter and the apostles when he says, “Do you realize what I have done for you?” (John 13:12). We are all searching for understanding, hoping to adequately “realize” what Jesus is doing and saying and being for us.

On Good Friday, the focus of the liturgy is again multifaceted: the image of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, the Passion from Saint John’s Gospel, the outpouring of love in the veneration of the cross, solemn intercessions for all God’s people, and the reception of Holy Communion. In giving ourselves to the scripture story, we recall in some of our ritual movements the “stational” liturgies of the early Church in the Holy Land, during which the people visited the places of Jesus’ last days, processing from station to station (holy site to holy site), venerating relics, and immersed in prayers of remembrance. We experience these patterns of prayer and remembrance as immersion into the Paschal Mystery.

As the Good Friday liturgy begins in silence, the community continues the process of remembering its identity in Christ. Just as Jesus made use of the rituals of the Passover supper and transformed them into the Eucharist, so too the Suffering Servant of Isaiah becomes the crucified Christ, who transformed the wood of the cross by his death and Resurrection into the Tree of Life and the Cross of Glory. The veneration of a relic of the True Cross, of the wood that we “behold,” is at the heart of the assembly’s expression of faith this day. The cleansing (washing) of the feet the evening before is united this day with the cross: we are all cleansed by the blood of the cross. We know that the empty cross, testifying to Christ’s Resurrection, is the Cross of Glory and the sacrifice of Christ is transformed into a victory for all humankind. Hence, we rediscover the depth of the meaning found in the Paschal Mystery.

Death has no more power over us. Through Christ’s death, we shall be united in the Resurrection. Good Friday is a day when we identify with Jesus in his death, but not without the knowledge (both head and heart knowledge) that he has handed himself over to us in the Eucharistic bread and wine at the same time he has handed himself over to the Father. We identify with Jesus’ death knowing that the meaning of his death is incomplete without the fulfillment of the Resurrection. Good Friday, then, while at the center of the liturgical Paschal Mystery, is “to be continued” the next evening as we gather for the Easter Vigil.

This is the night. Our earliest theologians and ancient liturgical texts tell us of this night of celebration, mystery, and paschal continuity that we have inherited. It is the “Mother of all Vigils,” Saint Augustine tells us, when we proclaim Christ as our Light. It is the night of all nights when, in the joyful singing of the Exsultet, we proclaim this night as one that transcends time. This night unites the Exodus experience of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea with the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. It unites the Resurrection of Christ with “Christians everywhere” proclaiming their joy. It is a night of rejoicing in who we are: paschal Christians.

The liturgical experience of the Easter Vigil is rich with the echoes of the Holy Thursday and Good Friday liturgies and builds on their foundations. The memorable readings from scripture root us in the earliest paschal expressions of faith using a montage of images: Creation, sacrifice, covenant, death, new life, salvation, and restoration, Exodus passage through death to life, a call to rebirth through water and the spirit, hearts of stone renewed into hearts of flesh. These biblical typologies remind the twenty-first-century community that our roots are deep, giving power and life to our contemporary communities of faith.

The baptismal nature of the Easter Vigil continues to remind us of our paschal identity. We are baptized into the death of our Lord and rise with him to newness of life. Those who are baptized this night join the community of the faithful as we recall and renew our own Baptism. This is who we are and what we are to be: paschal Christians living, dying, and rising daily with Christ. The Easter Vigil proclaims this paschal character in Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist as well as in the alleluias, the festive colors, and our attitude of joyful praise and thanksgiving. We rejoice and exult together that Christ is risen and that we are privileged to share the identity of the risen Christ in the world!

Easter Sunday extends the joy of the Easter Vigil. Now the community elaborates on the proclamation of the Paschal Mystery begun at the Vigil. We rejoice! Alleluia! This is particularly evident in the Easter sequence and the renewal of baptismal promises, the sprinkling of the congregation, and the possible Baptism of additional members into the community. The Paschal Mystery is our heritage and our identity, our root metaphor and our common bond. As the entrance antiphon for Easter Sunday proclaims, the Lord has indeed arisen, alleluia!

© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609

Anne C. McGuire, PhD,
is on the theology faculty at
St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
 
         
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