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Those three days: a resource for the celebration of the Easter Triduum

30 November, 1999

John McCann and Pat O’Donoghue are priests involved in organising the liturgy at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. They have put together a practical collection of “dos and don’ts” to help celebrate the Easter Triduum with devotion.

pp 81. Veritas Publications 2002. To purchase this book online go to www.veritas.ie


  • Those Three Days – Introduction
  • Thinking about the Triduum as a Whole
  • Holy Thursday – Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper
  • Holy Thursday – Masses with Children
  • Mass of the Lord’s Supper – Sacristan’s List
  • Music Resources – Mass of the Lord’s Supper
  • Holy Thursday – Hour of Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament
  • Good Friday – What’s good about it?
  • Good Friday – Morning Prayer
  • Good Friday – The Celebration of the Lord’s Passion
  • Music Resources – The Celebration of the Lord’s Passion
  • Celebration of the Lord’s Passion – Sacristan’s List
  • Good Friday – A Way of the Cross
  • Good Friday – Scriptural Stations of the Cross
  • Good Friday – Liturgy of Compassion around the Cross
  • Liturgy of Reconciliation around the Cross
  • Holy Saturday – Morning Prayer
  • Easter Vigil – Sample Words of Introduction
  • Celebrating the Easter Vigil


Those Three Days is a practical collection of resource material for use in the preparation and celebration of the liturgies of the Easter Triduum.  It provides useful advice and suggestions for planners, music ministers, sacristans, celebrants and participants.

The authors point out that what we are celebrating is a unified three-day event which culminates in the Paschal Vigil.  It is the ‘summit of the liturgical year’.  From the discussion we understand that not only does each piece of  the ritual carry a significance, but the whole ensemble holds a rich content of faith.

The most striking section is that entitled Thinking about the Triduum as a Whole; the rich spiritual content and the tension of passion-resurrection is brought out in a wonderful paragraph headed The Unity of the Triduum. The days are not Thursday to Saturday, but Friday, Saturday and Sunday – the liturgical day beginning the previous evening with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. We’re urged observe the Triduum Fast, to make Holy Saturday  a day “waiting by the tomb” and to give our attention to the baptismal dimension of the Paschal Vigil.

Finally the authors stress that the celebration continues for fifty days – the original meaning of Pentecost – and suggest practical ways how to do this.  Eminently practical, eminently spiritual.



There is something to be learnt from the fact that many churches are thronged for the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion, in some form or other, on Good Friday. The drama of the Way of the Cross captured in image and word and the act of veneration seem to touch people who may not form part of the weekly celebration of the Eucharist.

Those who may not understand the meaning of the word ‘Mandatum’ may, however, live their lives in that model of service without making an explicit connection with the this distinctive ritual of the Holy Thursday liturgy.

Vigil is experienced by people who queue up all night for those precious concert ticket, though, they probably do not make the connection with the Easter Vigil and what it could mean.  Even the word ‘triduum’ is not in the vocabulary of many who would, however, understand the idea of a ‘three-day event’.

The presentation and celebration of ‘Those Three Days’ needs to be done in such a way that it captures the attention of those who are hungering for spiritual nourishment and yet do not find their way to participate in the celebration of the most important days in the Church’s calendar.

To return to the Good Friday experience, it seems that the act of veneration is the high point. Participation and an identification with the reality of life may be the key factors here. The question then is how to translate this observation, if true, to the other liturgies of the triduum.

Those Three Days is a practical collection of material for use in the preparation and celebration of the liturgies on the days of the triduum. The principal liturgies are explored and helpful ideas shared. There are resources for music ministers, sacristans and celebrants. This collection also contains resources that would be useful for groups preparing at a spiritual level for the celebration of the Easter Triduum.

New material includes two liturgies for celebrations around the cross and a Way of the Cross. The Old Testament readings of the vigil are the subject of another prayerful and reflective resource for all involved in the celebration of this liturgy. There are ideas for a Mass with Children on Holy Thursday and for the service of prayer that evening.

Our hope is that you will find it helpful, whether as a celebrant, a minister or a participant in the liturgies of these grace-filled days.  Farm out the preparatory tasks to as many groups as possible depending on your human resources.  Use the material as a source of spiritual enrichment on the Lenten journey so that the different dynamics of the various liturgies will come through.



Before one goes into the ‘nuts and bolts’ of each celebration within the Easter Triduum, it is good now and then to stand back from it all and look at the triduum as a whole.  It’s good to ask questions: Which are the most important celebrations of the triduum?  What are the priorities?  What is the overall shape of the triduum?

The Importance of the Triduum
In the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II, the Easter Triduum is seen as the ‘most solemn of all feasts’ and the ‘summit of the liturgical year’.  It deserves the very best we can give it.  People will expect celebrations that are truly uplifting and profound.  Generally they are quite happy to take time at things in these holy days.  People don’t want authentic celebration to be sacrificed on the latar of ‘practicality’.  Given the importance of these celebrations, parish liturgy groups might well begin to prepare for them even at the beginning of lent, or earlier.

The Unity of the Triduum
The earliest paschal celebrations among Christians were almost certainly on a single day, coinciding with the date of the Jewish Passover.  Fairly soon, this feast was probably preceded by two days of fasting.  By the time of St Augustine, the meaning of the three days was articulated as referring to three distinct moments within the Christian Passover:  Christ crucified, buried and risen.  With the advantage of pilgrimages to the Holy Land, the desire to relive in situ each moment of the final events leading up to the death of Christ led to a further emphasis on each distinct event.  The traditional Stations of the Cross are a classic example of this.  This brief historical sketch shows two values at work within the triduum: first, the (earlier) unity of the celebration, and, second, the (later) diversity of moments.  Both approaches are legitimate and are ideally held in tension.  If we err on any side today, it is probably in the direction of splitting up the celebration too much into its distinct moments.  And yet there are signs of that fundamental unity everywhere in the liturgical rites: on Good Friday we hear the passion according to John, which interprets the passion very much in the light of the Resurrection as a triumphant moment; on Good Friday, too, our reception of the Eucharist might alert us to the fact that we celebrate the death of one who is now risen and with us; the paschal candle is ritually marked by the wounds of Christ – it is, in a sense, ‘bloodstained’; the Easter Vigil is no easy triumph but, like the appearances by the risen Jesus in the upper room, shows the scars of death.

The Days of the Triduum are Friday, Saturday, Sunday
The interpretation of the triduum as referring to Christ crucified, buried and risen corresponds to the three days: Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  We have a tendency to see the triduum as ‘Thursday to Saturday’.  This is probably a remnant of the days when all the celebrations were anticipated by many hours, with the Easter Vigil happening on saturday morning, and coresponding celebrations on Thursday and Friday mornings.  When the timing of the days gets mixed up, the practical outcome is that Holy saturday as a celebration of Christ buried disappears.  There is no ‘waiting by the tomb’.  To remedy this, we include in this resource book some material for use on Holy Saturday morning.

The Vigil is the High Point of the Triduum
The vigil is the last of the major celebrations of the triduum (the celebrations do, however, continue into the rest of Sunday, with other celebrations of the eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours).  Being the last celebration, it is in danger of getting the least prepartaion, when energies are beginning to run out.  It is important then to get the priorities right from the beginning; in the advanced planning, it is the vigil that needs the greatest amount of work and resources.

The Sacramental Dimension of the Triduum is All-Important
The celebrations of the triduum are not just a mental recalling of past events.  It’s not in the last analysis an attempt to recreate scenes that were lived almost two thousand years ago.  It is above all an action in which we ourselves are marked by the dying and rising of Jesus.  The purpose of the triduum is that the pattern of his paschal mystery is imprinted onto our lives.  Through our acceptance in faith of God’s word and our participation in the sacraments, we too die and rise with Christ, even now.  This explains the emphasis on Baptism within the Easter vigil.  New candidates are plunged into the death and resurrection of christ at the font.  Those of us who are already baptised renew our commitment to live fully this journey of life-through-death, and we are even sprinkled with baptismal waters as a tangible reminder.  The Vigil Eucharist crowns our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus: when we participate in his body and blood given for humanity, we too pledge to give ourselves and to be part of his sacrificial gift.

Let’s Not Forget the Triduum Fast
From the earliest times fasting was part of the triduum.  Although Lent, with its various liturgical and ascetical practices, finishes on Holy Thursday, the solemn fast of the triduum then begins.  The Vatical II Constitution on the Liturgy put it this way: ‘The Paschal fast must be kept sacred.  It should be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday, and where possible should be prolonged throughout Holy Saturday so that the faithful may attain the joys of the Sunday on the resurrection with uplifted and responsive minds’ (110). For those who are working hard to prepare the liturgies, some wise moderation in fasting suggests itself; but one imagines that by and large we are more likely to err in the opposite direction and forget the fast altogether.

The Celebrations Continue for Fifty Days
The earliest Christian references to ‘Pentecost’ use it to refer not so much to the fiftieth day (now Pentecost Sunday) as to the whole fifty days of Easter.  They are, in a sense, one big long Easter Sunday.  This is reflected, for example, in the name given to the Sundays after Sunday: no longer are they called ‘Sundays after Easter’, but ‘Sundays of Easter’.  The readings throughout this season from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John reflect brightly the light of the Resurrection.  Some thought might be given to finding various of keeping the sense of festivity alive:

  • The paschal candle is kept lighting at all liturgies.  After Pentecost Sunday it is removed to the baptistry and only appears in the sanctuary thereafter for funerals.
  • Look at how the church building is decorated.
  • Replace the penitential rite with the blessing and sprinkling of water on Sundays.
  • Consider singing the Gloria more often during this season.
  • Be more lavish in your use of traditional liturgical signs: candles, incense, music, et.
  • This is the ideal time for communion under both kinds.
  • Plan an ‘Easter Garden’, either inside the church (but away from the altar) or outside.



What are We Celebrating Tonight?
While every Mass recalls in some way the Last Supper, this evening’s Mass remembers the Last Supper in a particular way: this was the moment when Jesus gave us the gift of the Eucharist and the priesthood; he also gave us the teaching and example of humble love. As such, this celebration touches a precious moment in the life of Jesus that is profound, mysterious and yet intimate. We will, therefore, want to celebrate this liturgy with particular love, gratitude and care. Tonight’s celebration must, nonetheless, be seen within a larger context. It is part of a triduum whose climax is the Easter Vigil. The Vigil Eucharist is, in a sense, the Eucharist of the triduum, and should be experienced as such. The Vigil Eucharist should be marked by even greater solemnity and should be even more lavish in its celebration. To put it rather mundanely: we need to keep something in reserve for the Easter Vigil. It is no harm to remember, too, that Good Friday is, strictly speaking, the first day of the triduum. Holy Thursday evening is the threshold of Good Friday, just as the Easter Vigil is the crossover into Easter Sunday, the moment of ‘passing’ from fast to feast, from death to glory. The giving of Christ’s body, handed over for us, and his blood, poured out for us, speak of his generosity unto death. The Last Supper and the Cross belong together.

The Introductory Rite
As people gather, a short music practice will help them to participate more fully. Some brief comments about the celebration may be helpful, to give people a ‘map’ of what will happen. Let’s not, however, start trying to explain everything. The symbols of the triduum are eloquent and speak to us on many levels – too much explanation will rob them of their power. If well done, the symbolic actions of these days will have their effect, even if they are not fully understood. There is always more to a symbol than what is immediately available to our intellectual grasp. As always, comments, notices or music practices are best conducted from a place other than the ambo, which is sacred to the Word of God.

The entrance procession moves from the sacristy through the church (going outside if necessary). The procession might be ordered as follows:

  • Thurible and incense bearers
  • Cross bearer
  • Two candle bearers
  • Other ministers, as needed
  • The Book of Gospels, carried by a reader
  • Concelebrants
  • The presiding priest

If the parish has an aumbry (a special receptacle for the Holy Oils), the oils blessed at the Mass of Chrism could also be carried in procession and placed therein. The oil bearers could walk in the procession after the candle bearers.

The presider kisses and incenses the altar in the usual way. The solemnity of the occasion also suggests the use of incense at other moments of the liturgy: the Gospel, the Preparation of the Gifts and the Procession to the Place of Repose.

Hopefully the Gloria will be sung this evening, and thus it might be preferable to recite the penitential rite. This part of the Mass is, after all, only introductory. Version C (vi) of the penitential rite seems particularly suitable, as it includes the words, ‘Lord Jesus, you feed us with your body and blood’.

The singing of the Gloria is traditionally accompanied by the ringing of bells and vigorous instrumental playing. The use of musical instruments thereafter is discreet. If there are young altar servers, bells are best removed from their orbit, lest they sound again before the Easter Vigil!

The Liturgy of the Word
This evening’s readings present quite a challenge to the ministers of the word. The first reading in particular may come across as a rather irrelevant account of obsolete ritual prescriptions, and yet when properly understood it adds new depth to our understanding of the Eucharist. The Passover meal, described in this reading, is a solemn act of remembrance. It recalls liberation from slavery, a new beginning, a journey into new life, with the blood of the Passover Lamb serving as a sign of God’s protection. The story of the liberation from the slavery of Egypt was to be a sign to each successive generation of the God who saves. Each Passover meal was a symbolic entering into the primordial event of the Exodus, a new experience of the saving presence of God and, as such, a basis for future hopes. The meal was in memory of the Exodus. The words of Jesus ‘Do this as a memorial of me’, recounted in the second reading, take on new force when we realise that the Last Supper took place within a Passover context. The saving event that we now enter into is Jesus’ own exodus to the Father. The liberation is from sin. Jesus himself is the Passover Lamb, given by God as a pledge of his continued presence and protection. The Gospel views the Last Supper from a different, though not unrelated, angle. Just where we might expect to find the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist, the Gospel according to John gives us the story of the washing of the feet. This eloquent action on the part of Jesus is clearly an example to be imitated, but it has also been said that, like the Eucharist, it is a prophetic sign of the servant death of Jesus. In this light we might say that, by washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus communicates through his actions what he communicates through his words in Mark 10:45:

‘The Son of Man himself came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

It is interesting to note, too, that Peter, who had difficulty in accepting Jesus’ predictions of his passion and death (Mk 8:32), is also the one who has difficulty in accepting the washing of feet. Tonight’s readings might provoke us to ask: do we really accept the gift that Jesus gives us in these three days, let alone imitate it?

A Gospel Procession
A procession with the Book of Gospels seems appropriate to the solemnity of the celebration. It will be necessary for the Lectionary to be removed from the ambo before the procession, to make room for the Book of Gospels. The thurible and incense are brought to the presider at the chair, and he puts incense into the thurible. A deacon, concelebrant or, in their absence, the presider himself, goes to the altar and, taking the Book of Gospels, carries it solemnly around the sanctuary to the ambo, preceded by incense and candles. The book is incensed after the people acclaim the Gospel in the words ‘Glory to you, Lord’. Those with candles and incense remain around the ambo until the Gospel reading is finished and then return to their places. In a small church it may be wise to keep the thurible in another room when not in use – consideration needs to be given to those who have respiratory problems and to singers.

A Drama of Service: The Washing of the Feet
The rite of foot-washing, which may take place after the homily, is the only instance of dramatic representation in the Roman liturgical books at present. Dramatic, quasi-theatrical representations of the events of salvation history appeared within the liturgy in the Middle Ages and were perhaps an attempt to overcome some of the deficiencies of the liturgies of that era. The approach of the renewal of the liturgy since Vatican II has been to address the deficiencies of the liturgy by modifying the liturgy itself rather than by inserting pieces of drama. Whenever there is a perceived need for drama this may in fact point to the need for a deeper renewal of sacramental life in the Church (as it did in the Middle Ages). Nonetheless, this small piece of liturgical theatre still remains with us. A few pointers may be helpful:

  • Liturgical planners should resist the temptation to enact the foot-washing during the Gospel reading itself. The proclaimed text has its own way of communicating and carries many levels of meaning. The ‘acting out’ of the scene only presents some aspects of the text, and will obscure other layers of meaning if done simultaneously.
  • It is a good idea to ensure that those whose feet are washed are broadly representative of the whole community.
  • The presider takes off the chasuble for this rite. Not only is this practical, it also mirrors the actions of Jesus who ‘removed his outer garment’.
  • Chairs need to be provided for each of those whose feet are washed. In some churches a simple way to do this is to have each person sitting on a light chair in front of the front benches, from the beginning of Mass. When the time comes, each person simply lifts their own chair a few feet into the sanctuary and turns around to face the congregation. People who are elderly or disabled may need assistance. As a gesture of love, the washing of feet should be done with a certain generosity:
    • Warm water (!), possibly perfumed with bath oils
    • Beautiful jug and basin
    • Plenty of towels (good hygiene!)
  • The rite is accompanied by appropriate song. Music planners will get an idea of what is needed by looking at the texts proposed in the Missal. If there is congregational singing at this point, it seems a good idea to pick music that does not necessitate looking down at a participation sheet; otherwise the congregation will be looking at their sheets instead of at the rite itsel£

General Intercessions
The general intercessions follow the washing of feet, or, if this does not take place, they follow the homily.

Preparation of the Altar
In preparation for the Eucharist, the corporal, chalice and water are brought to the altar from the side. The Missal is placed on the altar. This brief moment of preparation serves to articulate the movement from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It is preferable not to bring any vessels of bread or wine to the altar from the side. This will take away from the presentation of these gifts, which should come from among the congregation.

A Real Act of Service: the Collection for the Poor
The Missal suggests a procession of gifts for the poor at this point of the liturgy. This could be seen as a real act of service that puts into practice the ideals presented in the Gospel and the washing of the feet. There could be a collection in the usual way for a special cause, and the money could be brought forward. This could also be linked with other gifts collected in the preceding days or weeks, for example, Trócaire Lenten boxes, gifts of food or clothing for the needy. This approach also serves as a model for any non-eucharistic gifts that may be envisaged for Masses on other occasions. The gifts of bread and wine for the Eucharist are the last to be brought forward.

The Eucharistic Prayer
The Preface is that of the Holy Eucharist 1.

The sung acclamations are particularly important. Consideration might be given to singing version (c), ‘When we eat this bread…’, as it is based on this evening’s second reading. This version would
make even more sense if communion is to be received under both kinds. While Eucharistic Prayer I may be too long for some congregations, it does have some special texts for use at this Mass, and so is worth considering. The texts in question are to be found in the Missal after the Prayer over the

The Communion Rite
This Mass is a very suitable occasion for offering communion under both kinds to the congregation. For details, see the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, nn. 240-252.1

It is always timely to reflect critically on the kind of bread we use for the Eucharist, and no more so than this evening. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal tells us that the bread used by the priest should ‘appear as actual food’ and that it should be ‘made in such a way that the priest can break it and distribute the parts to at least some of the faithful’.

This evening is also a particularly appropriate time for the Eucharist to be brought to those who are sick and housebound. The consecrated bread is brought to them directly from the altar.

Transfer of the Blessed Sacrament
Within the Catholic Church the Eucharist is reserved after the eucharistic celebration so that communion may be brought to those unable to attend Mass and so that further prayer may take place in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. This devotion derives from the Mass and is directed towards further communion with Christ. These aspects of our eucharistic faith and practice are given special emphasis by the solemn reservation of the Eucharist which takes place this evening. This is reservation, not exposition, of the Blessed Sacrament. (1)

We also need to be careful that we do not impose other interpretations on this simple action. There was a time, for example, when the place of reservation was allegorised as a representation of the tomb of Christ, and indeed some of the tabernacles used (and still in use!) were designed to look like a casket. A more modern temptation is to try to turn the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament into a representation of the Garden of Olives. The focus here is on the Eucharist itself, with all the far-reaching consequences of this great gift.

After the Eucharist has been received, a ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament is left on the altar, and Mass concludes with the Prayer after Communion. The priest incenses the Blessed Sacrament and then receives the humeral veil. The Blessed Sacrament is then carried in procession through the church to the place of reservation. The order of procession is as follows:

  • Cross bearer
  • Two or more candle bearers
  • Other ministers
  • One or two thurible bearers with burning incense
  • The priest, carrying the Blessed Sacrament

During the procession a eucharistic song is sung.

When the procession arrives at the place of reservation, the ciborium is placed in the tabernacle, the door of which is left open. The priest incenses the Blessed Sacrament again. The door of the tabernacle is then closed. After a period of silent prayer, all rise, genuflect and return to the sacristy in silence.

There is no solemn blessing or dismissal to conclude this liturgy. This may be a relic of earlier centuries, when such elements were generally absent from the Mass, but it also points to the unity of these three days: the liturgy is not over, and will not conclude until the joyful Alleluia, Alleluia at the end of the Easter Vigil. 1. It may also be helpful to consult diocesan guidelines or other pastoral resources. The Dublin Diocese, for example, published some helpful materials in Recognising The Lord: Jubilee Resource Book 3 (Dublin Diocesan Jubilee Committee, 2000).


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