The Easter Triduum is to the year what Sunday is to the week -
the heart and foundation of our Catholic faith, worship, and
practice. How can baptized Catholics prepare for this premier
feast, especially those of us charged with preparing the Triduum
liturgies for our parishes? A thoughtful exploration of the symbols
of the Triduum can deepen our understanding.
Humans engage in rituals to bring meaning to their lives. The
symbols and symbolic actions of the Triduum express our
identity. Through them, we are incorporated into a community
of Christian believers. God works through the symbols to
beckon our participation in that mystery, especially through
the sacraments, the privileged means whereby God acts in our
midst to continue his work of redemption.
The challenge for a parish and its leaders is to allow the
symbols of the Triduum to speak clearly. The faithful, by their
participation in these symbols, are strengthened to renew their
baptismal promises and live as Christ lived - as priest to serve
God's people, as prophet to proclaim God's word, and as king
to lead people into the reign of God.
Sacramental symbols express multivalent meanings.
For example, the water of the font embodies two images
simultaneously: womb and tomb. The first image comes from
the early centuries of the Church in the East in which Baptism
was understood as rebirth and was associated with Jesus'
Baptism in the Jordan. In the Church of the West, the tomb
image (which overshadowed the womb image of the East from
about the fourth or fifth century onward) emanated from
Paul's letter to the Romans in which he associated Baptism
with death leading to new life. Both images, womb and tomb,
are encompassed by the symbol of water. What better way to
express the womb image than to be baptized in enough water
to completely cover the person waiting to be born? What better
way to express the tomb and participation in Christ's death and
Resurrection than to be baptized in enough water in which a
person could drown?
Through a process of anamnesis (a Greek word for a
remembering that makes the event present), the symbols and
ritual actions of Holy Thursday - and every Eucharist -
make present (provide access to) the Lord's paschal supper with his
friends. Feet are washed and gifts are offered for the poor. On
Good Friday we venerate the cross and at the Easter Vigil we
tell stories of faith and salvation, of death and Resurrection.
We feast on his Passover made present as we eat the Bread of
Life and drink the Cup of Salvation. Through all of these symbols
and actions, we participate in the work of making Church.
What can we learn about our identity through these symbols?
Community We are the people of God who acknowledge
the life and presence of Christ in the community. We join the
brokenness of our lives to the broken body of Christ manifested
in the Christian community. We encounter him anew as
the community sings its song and tells its story.
Cross We are people of the cross who recommit to our participation
in its power. The Holy Thursday introductory rite
reminds us of the great sacrifice of Christ on Calvary: "We
should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is
our salvation, our life and our resurrection; through him we
are saved and made free." The cross invites us to participate
in Christ's ongoing work of redemption in the world. What
greater meaning can we find for the suffering in our lives?
Light and Fire We are people who, like Christ, light the
way for others. The symbol of light and fire reminds us that
through this annual celebration of Christ's death and Resurrection,
we are strengthened to go out and illumine the path of others -
to light the blazing fires of conversion.
Word The story comes alive in the telling and we become
participants. We are people of the word. We become aware that
we too have a part to play in salvation's story. We are invited
to participate in God's ongoing work of re-creation, as did
Abraham, Moses, Noah, Isaiah, and Paul before us. Nourished
by God's word, we become what we receive. We become God's
living word in the world for yet another year.
Water As the newly baptized are immersed in the waters of
death and Resurrection, we stand with them and renew our
own baptismal commitment to live as priest, prophet, and
king. This is so important that the Church sets forth baptismal
preparation (Baptism for the elect and the renewal of baptismal
promises for the faithful) and penitential preparation as
the primary agenda of Lent. In order to embody the intended
fullness of this renewal, leaders must challenge the parish to
make this Lenten focus clear and, in turn, the sprinkling rite
during Easter. Longtime Catholics sometimes express envy of
those who are baptized by immersion as adults. Would this be
so if the symbol of sprinkling during the sprinkling rite with
the waters of new life were more robust?
Oil As the oil is generously applied on the neophytes, we remem-
ber that the anointing of the Spirit is what strengthened us for
our baptismal life. We are people of the oil (holy chrism), so
difficult to wash off; its power continues to anoint us for our
baptismal mission in the world.
Bread and Wine At every Eucharist we are nourished by
the body and blood of Christ, the saving victim, whose blood
was shed for our salvation, so that we can go out into the world
and nourish others. We return week after week in order to be
filled and strengthened in and through Christ.
Similarly, our strength for a lifetime commitment to discipleship
is renewed in the Eucharist of the Triduum. We are
reminded that Eucharist is intended to strengthen us to go out
in service to our neighbor as Christ went out to wash the feet
of others - day after day and month after month.
Each year God gives new life to the Church through the full and
robust use of the dominant symbols of the Triduum. Within
every symbol is a word that invites participants into ongoing
conversion that ultimately leads to apostolic action. The
work of liturgical and catechetical ministers is to provide fertile
ground for such conversion and action to flourish. This can
happen through the breaking open of these symbols.
Through the symbols of the liturgy, our identity in Christ
is affirmed and our life in Christ is regenerated. There would be
no Church without the water of Baptism, the oil of Confirmation,
and the bread and wine of Eucharist. In other words, God
forges our identity in his Son by use of sacred signs and symbols,
which pour out his saving grace on his faithful people. We
are people of the word who are transformed by God's power to
be the word of God for others in the world. We are people of
the cross who embrace its power and go forth to live and die
for others as Christ lived and died for us.
The challenge for ministers is to prepare the rites so that
the symbols are fully expressed. Mystagogical reflection on the
Triduum symbols can offer those who prepare and serve at the
Triduum liturgies a renewed understanding from which to work.
Such a gathering could be conducted around a single symbol
or a group of several. Let's imagine a mystagogical reflection on
the symbol of oil. A flagon or bowl of oil, a crucifix, and a Bible
might be placed in the environment. The group could begin
with the sign of the cross and an opening prayer. Because oil is
the sacramental symbol by which the Holy Spirit is conferred,
the opening prayer for Pentecost would be especially appropriate.
Scriptures might then be proclaimed: "The Lord God has
anointed me and has sent me to bring Good News to the poor,
to give them the oil of gladness" (Isaiah 61:1- 3a, 6a, 8b - 9).
Other suitable passages include Joel 2:23a, 26 - 30a; Hebrews
2:23a; 3:1- 3; Ephesians 1:3a, 4a, 13 -19a; Luke 4:16 - 22; and
John 14:15 -17. Participants might then encounter the oil experientially,
dipping their fingers into the bowl, rubbing it into
their skin, and responding to the following questions: What does
this oil evoke in you? What are its properties? How does it feel,
taste, smell, look? In what way do those properties speak to us
about the Holy Spirit? How do the properties of oil, the sacramental
symbol of oil, and the inherent gift of the Holy Spirit invite
us deeper into the mystery of Christ's death and Resurrection?
Invite the group to read and reflect on Consecratory Prayer A
for the Consecration of the Chrism (found in Appendix II of
Such a reflection process might lead to questions about
transformation and discipleship: in what way does anointing
with chrism invite us to become what we receive - to go out
into the world, to lay down our lives for others, and to offer
the Spirit of Christ to those who hunger and thirst for meaning?
Questions like this are appropriate, not only for those who
are recently anointed but also for those who anamnetically
remember (a remembering that makes the event present) or
even imagine their own anointing through their participation
in the celebration of the sacraments of initiation. This sort of
mystagogical reflection process could be presented around any
of the Triduum symbols.
Easter Eucharist invites us to die and rise with Christ for
another year. We approach the table of rebirth and of death and
Resurrection, aware of the price that is being asked, but knowing
that we go out with fresh memories of Christ's pasche made
present to strengthen and sustain us. We become what we have
received: new life. We go out renewed, redeemed, broken, and
poured out. We become food for a world starving for the living
Christ and embody Christ's Paschal Mystery in the world.
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