The Easter Cycle
The early Church's annual calendar began and ended with the celebration of Pascha ... "Easter" ... the "Big Sunday." Easter celebrates the central event in our salvation. It is the highest of the Church feasts. It is the oldest Christian festival.
The Easter cycle consists of the six Sundays of Lent, the seven Sundays of Easter, and Pentecost Sunday. The inseparable relationship between Cross and Resurrection in our Christian / Catholic Faith declares the unity of this cycle. We observe Lent in anticipation of the Resurrection. We celebrate the Easter weeks remembering the cost of the victory of the Cross. Finally, Pentecost recalls the outpouring of the Holy Spirit ... God's gift that empowers us to be impassioned witnesses to the crucified and risen Christ.
Lent: The Way of the Cross to Easter
Lent is the preparation period for the Easter cycle. It was initially a time of preparation for the Sacrament of Baptism. Today, that focus is renewed as catechumens move closer to Baptism and as they and Candidates involved in the Rite of Christian Initiation move closer to full membership in the life of the Christian community. With them, we, "the Faithful," remember our own Baptism.
The forty days are not literally forty. This number evokes all of the other uses of "forty" in Sacred Scripture. These are the days of Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday. They are days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In these ways we try to become as fully as possible the baptized people we are, living by the Gospel - and so we prepare also to baptize those who have chosen to become Christian, the Elect.
Ashes and Other Symbols:
Our journey toward Easter begins on Ash Wednesday. We gather in community to remember with story and ashes. The ashes we wear on that day remind us of the dust and debris of our lives, that we are temporary creatures on earth, but that we are still special in God's eyes.
At the liturgical services on Ash Wednesday, we the call that echoes our Baptism: Convert, turn around, "return to Me with your whole heart" (Joel 2:12). In the Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18), Jesus gives us the guidelines for this forty-day retreat. We are to give alms, pray, and fast. We are to do these things not in a glum or showy way, but in a spirit of generosity. In receiving ashes, we are reminded again of our baptismal commitment: "Repent, and believe in the Gospel."
Symbols of the Lenten season serve as strong reminders of the beginning of something new and different. Purple vestments, banners, bulletin, and altar covers are just a beginning. The major environmental effect we observe in church is that of emptiness, sparseness, the absence of flowers, and other living things. Penitence and reconciliation become more prominent in our liturgical services. We don't say "Alleluia" nor do we say "Glory to God in the highest." Liturgical music becomes more subdued. We practice the devotion of Stations of the Cross and abstain from eating meat on Fridays.
The liturgy of Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord has dual purposes. On one hand, it is the remembrance of the glorious entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with great pomp and circumstance. On the other hand, recalling the Passion story reminds us of the gravity of the Cross. The liturgical color is red, and the deathlike environment of Lent takes on a hopeful hue with the green of palms.
"On Palm Sunday, the Church recalls the entrance of Christ the Lord into Jerusalem to accomplish His Paschal Mystery" (Roman Missal). "Entrance" is the key to understanding the liturgy of Passion (or Palm) Sunday. We enter into Jerusalem with Christ. We enter into our holiest week. We enter into our final preparation for the Easter feast.
What do we do from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday?
The Three Days are between the Forty days of Lent and the Fifty days of Easter. The Triduum (Latin for "three days") begins Holy Thursday night and continues through Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The climax of the Church's whole year is in darkness between Saturday night and Sunday morning. The Church keeps vigil, baptizes the Elect, and celebrates the Eucharist. The Three Days conclude on Easter Sunday afternoon.
As mentioned above, Holy Thursday brings to an end to Lent. That night we begin the three (3) days that are the center of our year. Why are these days so important? What do they mean to you? The Triduum asks and invites all of us to make these three days different from all the days of the year.
The Three Days, this Easter Triduum, is the center, the core of the year for Christians. These are days to save and to savor. Adults in the community are invited to plan ahead to that the whole time from Thursday night until the Easter Vigil is free of social engagements, free even of work, free of entertainment, free of meals except for the simplest nourishment. We are asked to fast during Good Friday, and to continue fasting, if possible, all through Holy Saturday as strictly as we can, so that we come hungry and full of excitement to the Easter Vigil. We make Good Friday and Holy Saturday free for prayer and reflection and preparation and silence. The Church is getting ready.
Whether you are young or old, currently active in the Parish or not, please set these days aside. All of us should know that our presence at the liturgies is not just by invitation. We are all needed here. All of us need this whole community together on its greatest days.
On these three days, we gather a number of times with each other. Together we hear some of the Church's most beautiful prayers and Scriptures and we make some of our finest music. Please check the Parish's schedule and make plans to take part in the various liturgies and other gatherings of Holy Thursday night, Good Friday afternoon, and Holy Saturday. Above all, come on Saturday night for the Vigil.
We Begin as Holy Thursday Ends ...
Thursday evening we enter into this Triduum together. After listening to Sacred Scripture, we witness the washing of feet. The Priest-Celebrant goes down on his knees with a pitcher of water, a basin, and towels. Jesus gave us this image of what the Church is supposed to look like, feel like, and act like.
Next we take up a collection, but not the usual collection (which is for the Church and the poor). The liturgy makes it clear that tonight's collection is only for the poor. So bring the money you have saved with Lenten fasting. Like the washing of feet, this is a rehearsal for Christian life. Then we celebrate the Eucharist as Christ did at the Last Supper. That is why tonight's liturgy is called the Mass of the Lord's Supper. Jesus gave us the Eucharist and Jesus gave us the Priesthood when He told the Disciples to "Do This in Memory of Me."
The evening Liturgy has no ending. Whether we stay and pray awhile or leave, we are now in the quiet and peace and glory of the Triduum.
And we continue through Good Friday and Holy Saturday ...
We gather quietly on Friday and listen to Sacred Scripture, including the Passion of the Lord from Saint John's Gospel. We pray at length for all the world's needs. It is most sober liturgical service of the Church year. It is restrained and straightforward. The Altar is bare, without cloths, candles, or cross. It is a day of fasting. There are no greetings, genuflections, opening songs, or processions. We simply come and prostrate in humble submission before the Word and the glorious Cross of Christ.
Then there is another once-a-year event. The holy Cross is held up in our midst and we come forward one by one to do reverence with a kiss or a bow or a genuflection. All the while we sing, not only of sorrow but of the glory of the Cross.
We continue in fasting and prayer and vigil, in rest and in quiet through Saturday. This Saturday for us is like God's rest at the end of creation. It is Christ's repose in the tomb.
Until the Night between Saturday and Sunday ...
Hungry now and full of excitement, the Church gathers in the darkness and lights a new fire and a great candle that will make this night bright for us. We listen to some of the most powerful Scriptures in our Bible: the stories of Creation, Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Miriam and the crossing of the Red Sea, poems of promise and rejoicing, and the Gospel of the Resurrection.
Then we pray to all of our saints to stand with us and we go to the font and bless the waters. There the Elect coming into the Church renounce evil, profess the faith of the Church, are baptized and anointed. All of us renew our baptismal promises. For us, these are the moments when death and life meet, when we reject evil and give our promises to God. All of this is in the communion we call the Church. So together, we go to the Altar and celebrate the Easter Eucharist. Easter Day begins and we are ready for Fifty Days of rejoicing.
The Fifty Days are the days of the Easter Season, from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. They are the time of birth, marriage, festival, and feasting. They are like the wedding of earth and heaven, Christ and the Church. The early Church allowed no kneeling and no fasting during this time and they sang "alleluia" constantly. It is Easter!
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2000.
Helmes, Jeremy, Three Great Days: Preparing for the Liturgies of the Paschal Triduum, Liturgical Press, 2016.
Laughlin, Corinna, Kristopher Seaman, and Stephen Palanca, Guide for Celebrating Holy Week and the Triduum, Liturgy Training Publications, 2016.
Liguori Publications: Catholic Updates for Lent, Holy Week, and The Liturgical Year, 1990, 2012, 2015
Liturgy Training Publications: The Three Days to Save, 2009.
The Roman Missal