During his general audience on Wednesday, March 19, Pope Benedict XVI offered his reflections on the Easter Triduum, when the liturgy invites us to contemplate the mystery of the cross, acknowledge our sinfulness, and unite ourselves with Christ as he passes from death to life.
Dear brothers and sisters,
We are about to celebrate the Easter Triduum. The next three days are commonly referred to as “holy” days because they help us to relive the central event of our redemption and focus once again on the essential core of the Christian faith — the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We could consider these days as one single day because they constitute the heart and the hinge of the entire liturgical year as well as that of the life of the Church.
Having come to the end of our Lenten journey, we, too, are preparing ourselves to experience what Jesus himself experienced back then in Jerusalem. We wish to reawaken in us the living memory of the Lord’s suffering for us and prepare ourselves to joyfully celebrate this coming Sunday, “the true Passover, which the blood of Christ has covered with glory, the Passover during which the Church celebrates the feast that is the origin of all feasts,” as the preface for Easter Day in the Ambrosian rite puts it.
On Holy Thursday, the Church remembers the Last Supper during which the Lord, on the eve of his passion and death, instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist and the sacrament of the ministerial priesthood.
On that same night, Jesus left us the mandatum novum (new commandment), the commandment of love for our brothers and sisters. Before entering into the Sacred Triduum — yet closely connected to it — there will be a Chrism Mass tomorrow morning in every diocesan community, during which the bishop, along with the priests of the diocese, will renew the promises they made during their ordination.
The oils that are used when celebrating the sacraments will also be blessed: the oil of catechumens, the oil for the sick and sacred chrism. It is a very important moment in the life of every diocesan community where, gathered around its shepherd, the community reconfirms its unity and fidelity to Christ, the one eternal high priest.
In the evening, during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we recall the Last Supper when Christ gave himself to us as the food for our salvation and the medicine of immortality — the mystery of the Eucharist, which is both the source and the summit of Christian life.
In this sacrament of salvation, the Lord offers and brings about for all those who believe in him the most intimate union possible between our lives and his life. Through the humble yet very meaningful act of the washing of the feet, we are invited to recall all that the Lord did for his apostles. By washing their feet, he proclaimed in a very concrete way the primacy of love — love that expresses itself as service to the point of the gift of ourselves — thereby anticipating the supreme sacrifice of his life that will be conmsummated the next day on Calvary.
Following a beautiful tradition, the faithful bring Holy Thursday to a close with a prayer vigil and Eucharistic adoration in order to relive Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane in a more intimate way.
Good Friday is the day in which we recall Jesus’ passion, crucifixion and death.
On this day, the liturgy of the Church makes no provision for celebrating Holy Mass, but the Christian assembly gathers together to mediate on the great mystery of evil and sin that oppress humanity, in order to ponder again, in the light of God’s word and with the help of very moving liturgical actions, the Lord’s sufferings which atone for this evil.
After listening to the account of Christ’s passion, the community prays for all the needs of the Church and of the world, venerates the cross, and partakes of the Eucharist, consuming the species that were set aside during the Mass of the Last Supper on the preceding day.
Various expressions of popular devotion, such as processions and sacred drama, have arisen in our Christian tradition that seek to impress ever more deeply upon the souls of the faithful a feeling of true participation in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. They are additional ways in which we are invited to meditate on the passion and death of our Redeemer and as a way in which the faithful express their love for Christ and their participation in his sufferings.
Among these, the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) stands out — a pious devotion that, over the years, has been enriched through multiple spiritual and artistic expressions closely associated with the sensitivities of the various cultures.
Thus, shrines bearing the name of “Calvary” have been constructed in many countries that can be reached after a steep ascent recalling the sorrowful path of the Passion, thereby enabling the faithful to participate in the Lord’s ascent to the mount of the cross — the mount of love taken to the end.
Holy Saturday is marked by a deep silence. Churches are left undecorated and there is no special liturgy for this day.
While they await the great event of the Resurrection, believers keep watch with Mary in an expectant attitude of prayer and meditation. Indeed, a day of silence is needed to ponder on the realities of human life, the powers of evil, and the enormous power of good that flows forth from the passion and resurrection of the Lord.
Great importance is given during this day to taking part in the sacrament of reconciliation, an indispensable means for purifying our hearts and for preparing ourselves to celebrate Easter renewed in a deeper way.
We need this inner purification and this renewal of ourselves at least once a year.
The Easter Vigil
This Saturday of silence, meditation, forgiveness and reconciliation leads us to the Easter Vigil, which is an introduction to the most important Sunday in history, the Sunday of Christ’s Passover.
During the vigil, the Church gathers together around the new blessed fire and meditates on the great promise that is contained in the Old and New Testaments of our definitive liberation from our ancient bondage of slavery to sin and death.
In the darkness of the night, the Easter candle is lit from this new fire as a symbol of Christ who gloriously rises. Christ, the light of mankind, dispels any shadows in our hearts and spirits and gives light to every man who comes into the world. Alongside the Easter candle, the solemn Easter Proclamation resounds throughout the Church:
Christ has truly risen and death no longer has any power over him. Through his death, he has defeated evil forever and gives to man the gift of God’s own life.
In accordance with an ancient tradition, catechumens receive the sacrament of baptism during the Easter Vigil in order to highlight the fact that Christians partake in the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ’s joy, light and peace flows forth from this resplendent Easter night to fill the lives of the faithful in every Christian community, reaching into every area of space and time.
Dear brothers and sisters, during these special days, let us reorient our lives in a clear and decisive way to follow the plan of our heavenly Father with generous hearts that are full of conviction. Let us renew our “Yes” to God’s will as Jesus did through his sacrifice on the cross.
The thought-provoking liturgical rites of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the rich, prayerful silence of Holy Saturday, and the solemn Easter Vigil provide us with an opportunity to deepen the meaning and the value of our vocation as Christians that flows forth from the paschal mystery and is realized in a concrete way by faithfully following Christ in all circumstances, just as he did, even to the point of generously giving up our lives.
Remembering the mysteries of Christ also means living in a deep solidarity with the today of man’s history, convinced that all that we celebrate is a living reality for today. Let us include in our prayers those tragic situations that afflict so many of our brothers and sisters in every part of the world.
We know that hate, division and violence never have the last word in the events of history. These holy days reawaken the great hope in us: the crucified Christ is risen and has overcome the world.
Love is stronger than hate; it has won and we have to join in this victory of love.
We should, therefore, start over once again with Christ and work together with him for a world founded on peace, justice and love. Let us be guided in this task, which involves all of us, by Mary, who accompanied her divine son on the road to his passion and cross, and who took part, strengthened by faith, in the fulfillment of his plan of salvation.
With these thoughts, I extend to all of you, your loved ones and your communities my heartfelt wishes for a happy and holy Easter.