Three of a kind
The selfless gift of the Eucharist, the selfless death of Jesus, and the Resurrection are all one great act of love from God.
For Jesus, it was all one thing. There was no separation, no distance between the three days. Knowing what he was about to suffer, Jesus of Nazareth took bread in his hands on a Thursday evening and set into motion everything that was to follow. Christ, the beloved Son of God, rose triumphant on Saturday evening and put an end to death forever. The days are one continuous movement that secured our salvation and sealed forever the final covenant between God and people.
The combined celebrations are called the Paschal Triduum. Paschal refers to the Paschal Lamb that was central to the Jewish feast of Passover. Three of the gospel accounts tell us that the last meal that Jesus ate with his friends on Holy Thursday was the Passover meal. The Gospel of John, stressing the significance of Jesus as the Lamb of God, has the Crucifixion occurring on the day of Passover at the time when the Paschal Lambs were being slaughtered at the temple for use throughout Jerusalem.
In the Jewish tradition, Passover is the time to recall God's saving actions in the life of Israel. It marks the first covenant that God made with his people. The Lord's angel "passed over" the homes of the Jews marked with the blood of the lamb that had been sacrificed and made it possible for the Jewish people to flee the slavery of Egypt. Many years before, God had promised Abraham that his descendants would have a homeland and that they would be a blessing to all the world. The movement of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom is the fulfillment of that covenant.
Jesus came to bring a new covenant between God and his people. This covenant would be sealed not with the blood of a lamb, but with his own blood. His was the perfect offering because his offering brought more than freedom from slavery. It brought freedom from death. Jesus yielded to a death he had the power to avoid. He knew that we all will one day face the terror of death. The death he faced was more miserable than any we can imagine. He was condemned by his religion, executed as a common criminal, deserted by his friends, and suffered the slow asphyxiation of crucifixion.
On either side of this painful and disgraceful death, Jesus offered us gifts of immeasurable value. Before his death, he left us with the sacrament of the Eucharist, a guarantee of his presence among his people in a special way until the end of time. At his Resurrection, he removed the sting of death from the lives of those who believe in him and his promises.
I have attended all three liturgies-Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday-most of my life, never aware of the fact that none of them are "days of obligation." They have always been days of love. Holy Thursday is wondrous. I feel at one with the disciples as we celebrate the anniversary of the Eucharist. I cherish the time spent after the ceremony, fulfilling Jesus' loving plea to "stay and watch with me for an hour."
The Good Friday services of my youth have been shortened and simplified. The long prayers and ceremonies are gone, the clackers have all but disappeared. Yet, the essence of that day remains. The tears still flow from my eyes when I imagine his sacrifice and feel the love contained in it.
The adoration of the cross moves me to a silent contrition more sincere than any other day of the year. I look forward to rain on Good Friday because the very heavens seem to take up my tears of sorrow and shame.
Finally, I believe the most beautiful liturgy of the year is the Easter Vigil. The church is plunged into darkness, and we depend solely on the light of Christ. The deacon chants the haunting melody of the Exsultet, and we hear the history of God's fidelity to his people. Suddenly, the lights are thrown on, the bells ring, and we sing "Glory to God" with full hearts and clear understanding.
For me, it is all one thing. The selfless gift of the Eucharist, the selfless death, and the victorious Resurrection are all one great act of love from a pursuing God who could not have devised a better plan for capturing our hearts. The Triduum shoots this love into me like a powerful drug. The holy medicine lasts a whole year, and I unfailingly return for my annual dose, anxious to feel it once again.
This article appeared in the April 1999 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 64, No. 4, page 50).