An interesting interpretation of the modern liturgies for the Triduum is to consider all three as one single worship service that happens to be broken up across three days. Before I get into the full explanation, this merits breaking down a bit:
- By “modern liturgies” I mean what we’ve got essentially in the 1979 and 2019 Prayer Books. They’re new, or modern, to the Prayer Book tradition. If you take a longer view of history, they can also be seen as restorations of pre-reformation liturgical tradition, conformed to the Prayer Book ethos and style.
- The Triduum, in case it needs clarifying, is the three-day sequence of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. (The Great Vigil of Easter is not part of the Triduum; it’s the beginning of Easter.)
So, since this sequence begins tonight, let’s look at how these three services can be understood as a single worship service. I encourage you to take a look at them for reference.
Part One: Maundy Thursday
The Maundy Thursdayservice begins like most any Communion service: with the Holy Week Acclamation, though the Entrance Rite’s usual progression of penitence & praise (that is, the Summary of the Law/Kyrie/Decalogue and the Gloria in excelsis) is replaced with a special address, the fourfold “This is the night…” The Collect & Lessons & Sermon follow, as normal. Things really diverge from the norm after that, though. Instead of the Creed we get the option of the Foot-Washing. It might be a little pretentious to say this, but the priest(s) washing the feet of the congregation is a bit like an enacted Creed, demonstrating the servanthood of Christ in his own ministry. The liturgy continues as usual with the Prayers of the People, through the Holy Communion, after which point the next big shake-up takes place: the Stripping of the Altar. In this ritual (which is not broken down in any great detail in the Prayer Book), the holy table is denuded of its vessels, candles, linen cloth, and anything else upon it, and perhaps also “washed” with palm branches. It’s a symbolic act that points to a few different things – the stripping of Christ before his crucifixion, the abandonment of Christ by his friends, the rejection of God by the world he created. This is emphasized further by the lack of Blessing and Dismissal at the end. Instead, “The Congregation departs in silence.”
But wait, there’s more! The Additional Directions note:
Consecrated elements to be received on Good Friday should be kept in a place apart from the main sanctuary of the church. They may be carried to that place at the end of Communion on Maundy Thursday, prior to the stripping of the Altar. An appropriate hymn or anthem, such as “Now my tongue the mystery telling,” may be sung.
This sets us up for the Good Friday portion of the Triduum liturgy, where the celebration of the Eucharist is specifically not appointed. The altar will remain in its stripped state for the rest of the Triduum liturgy; the bread and wine consecrated on Thursday will have to last for Friday as well. Also, the fact that the Maundy Thursday service doesn’t really “end” kind of indicates that there is more to come. The Stripping of the Altar and the departure of the clergy without a word rather implies that things are not as they should be. Christ is in custody – will we not keep watch just one hour?
Building upon that, there is also a tradition of a Vigil at the Altar of Repose. It is not mentioned or directed in the Prayer Book, mainly because it does not strictly speaking qualify as “common prayer”. Basically, it’s a time of constant prayer throughout the night, giving a liturgical-devotional expression to St. Peter’s waiting outside the gates while Jesus was tried before the High Priest and Herod and Pilate. It also fills in the gap between Part One and Part Two.
Part Two: Good Friday
Where the Maundy Thursday doesn’t really end, the Good Friday liturgy doesn’t really “start” either. Check out the initial rubrics:
On this day the ministers enter in silence.
All then kneel for silent prayer.
The Officiant rises and may say All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way,
People And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
If you ignore the fact that a night and a morning has passed, one could easily see this as “the next scene” of the story where the Maundy Thursday liturgy left off. The Collect & Lessons that follow conform to the normal pattern, as does the sermon, but then come the Solemn Collects. In the historic Prayer Books, Good Friday had three Collects of the Day, which sort of encapsulated the idea that got expanded into the Solemn Collects we have today. What we’ve got here is a repeated sequence of bidding, silence, collect. There are 10 iterations of this pattern, covering prayer for unity of the Church, the Bishops of the Church, the Clergy and People, leaders of government, those who are preparing for Holy Baptism on Easter, deliverance from evil and suffering, for the repentance of heretics and schismatics, the conversion of the Jewish people, the conversion of all peoples, and grace for a holy life in each of us.
Then follows the Devotions before the Cross. This is comprised of a series of Reproaches and Anthems, the former set in the voice of God accusing (“reproaching”) his people for their history of unfaithfulness, and the latter taking up words from the Scriptures to express our faith in Christ’s work of redemption upon the Cross. As I mentioned the other day with regard to the book of Lamentations, this is an opportunity to approach the crucifixion and death of our Lord from a penitential angle one normally perhaps would not consider on one’s own.
After all that, the Confession & Absolution follow, with the Lord’s Prayer, and the distribution of Holy Communion which was reserved from the evening before. But then, instead of the usual thankful Post-Communion Prayer, we get this Collect (which is to be used at the end of the Good Friday service no matter what elements of the service are used or omitted).
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, Cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Give mercy and grace to the living; peace and rest to the dead; to your holy Church unity and concord; and to us sinners everlasting life and glory; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
If there is one statement that could summarize Good Friday, it is this prayer – “set your passion, Cross, and death between your judgment and our souls“. At least, that’s my opinion.
But still, the liturgy doesn’t really end… the rubrics state “No blessing or dismissal is added.” and “The Ministers and People depart in silence.” The Triduum hasn’t worked itself out completely yet.
Part Three: Holy Saturday
Just like Good Friday, this day’s worship service doesn’t have a proper beginning either. Literally, this is how it starts:
The Officiant says Let us pray.
It’s the Collect of the Day. And it’s followed by the lessons; the Gospel recounts the burial of Jesus. Even the homily is optional. In the context of the Triduum, there isn’t really anything left to be said; Christ has said his piece, been abandoned, arrested, tried, and crucified. In the liturgical re-living of those days, there isn’t really much left to “do” on Saturday, we’re just sort of milling around wondering and waiting for something to happen.
After the homily comes one of the most moving anthems in the Prayer Book, Man born of woman has but a short time to live. It has four stanzas, the first three of which are originally from the Committal in the historic Prayer Book funeral rite. (Our own burial rite also makes use of this anthem.) After the anthem comes the Lord’s Prayer and – finally – the closing sentence, or grace, or blessing, from 2 Corinthians 13:14. This is the traditional verse that concludes the Daily Office, and signifies the end of the the Triduum liturgy, an ending that neither Maundy Thursday nor Good Friday provided.
The Triduum thus has much to commend itself when conceptualized as a single worship service broken up across the three days. It begins in a solemn, but still familiar and normal manner, but then takes a dramatic turn in the Foot-Washing and a sudden downward pitch in the Stripping of the Altar. After a pause, Good Friday brings us back together with Jesus only to hear him crucified in the Gospel, prompting us to turn to serious and considered prayer and to face God’s reproach for our many evils that brought about the Lord’s death. Despite being fed with the reserved Sacrament one more time, we still come to an abrupt and awkward silence in which we plead the Cross of Christ and await an answer… an answer that does not come, for when we regroup on Saturday, Jesus is still dead and in the tomb. All we can do is lament and mourn, though the Scripture readings do hint at what he is doing in his death.
The Triduum, therefore, is a liturgy like no other. Rather than leading us upwards and onwards into the love of God and sending us out into the world rejoicing to do his will, the Triduum leads us downwards into the depths of our sinfulness, all the way to the grave. The Triduum shows us the dead end of earthly life without Christ.
It will take something different, something completely new – a new fire – to bring us back out of the pit where the Triduum leaves us…