Lent is nearly over; Holy Week, having just started, will soon be wrapping up. We are approaching the holiest days of the Christian year: the Paschal Triduum, the Great Three Days. After forty days wandering through the wilderness, and a week in Jerusalem, we have reached the most sacred time: the three-day long period leading up to the Great Vigil of Easter. During this time, we hit our spiritual low point followed almost immediately by our highest; we mark our most solemn fast followed by our most joyous feast.
Over these three days, we gather to worship through prayer, singing, the reading of Scripture, and the celebration of the Sacraments. We gather, depart, and gather again. The three primary services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil just after sundown on Holy Saturday form one complete liturgy.
Maundy Thursday — On Maundy Thursday, we gather to celebrate the Divine Service of the Holy Eucharist in very much the same way we would on any given Sunday. After the somber season of Lent, during which we’ve omitted the Gloria in Excelsis, it makes a triumphant return on Maundy Thursday. The bells ring out, the organ blasts away. And then: the bells fall silent. Just as Palm Sunday quickly turns to the Passion, so to does the Thursday liturgy hit a wall. The altar is stripped, and we depart in silence, without benediction or dismissal.
Good Friday — We gather again on Friday, entering in silence. Gone are the preludes, the joyous processions. Gone are the usual markings of the liturgy. After the elaborate parade of palms on Sunday and the return of the Gloria the previous night, this sparse service is all the more striking. Instead, a cross — an ancient instrument of torture — is brought in and set before us. The lights slowly fade. We leave in silence and shadow.
The Great Vigil — The sun has set and the hour grows late. As darkness encroaches, though, a spark turns into a new fire. A large and elaborate Paschal candle is lit as we process, stopping in the darkness, eyes fixed on the small bit of light. Its flame spreads during the words of the Exsultet, the great hymn praising the light of Christ. And then we sit.
We tell stories of God’s saving work throughout history, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for God’s saving work to appear again. And suddenly the lights come one! And we hear the joyful strains of the Gloria again, and the proclamation of the Resurrection, and we greet it with Alleluia, that word that has been absent since Ash Wednesday! We baptize the newest Christians into the Body of Christ and welcome them to the Altar to feast with us at the Lamb’s Feast of Victory! And finally, after three days, living into the new light of Christ’s Triumph over Sin and Death, we receive the benediction as we go forth to love and serve the Lord, singing Alleluias as we depart.