While the secular world puts more emphasis on Christmas, Easter is properly considered the most important day in our church year. Christmas, as the birth and incarnation of our Lord and is properly recognized as the second most important day of the church year. The birth of our savior, Jesus Christ, is important because it inaugurates a new age leading to Jesus' ministry culminating in his Crucifixion and Resurrection. As God's plan comes to fulfillment at Easter, we do not celebrate it as a single day but as a Holy Week, beginning on Passion (Palm) Sunday, and celebrated as the Easter Triduum of three days. While the final three days each have their own liturgies, Pope Benedict XVI said we need to consider them as a single day (http://www.zenit.org/article-22115?l=english). To understand the Easter Triduum we need to reflect on each individual celebration and exam how they build upon one another.
Jesus was a good Jew, raised in the Law and rituals of the Israelite people. He kept the Jewish feasts. The most important feast of the year was the Passover Feast. Appropriately, the Crucifixion and Resurrection are set into motion with Jesus' celebration of the Passover as the Last Supper. The Passover celebrates God freeing the Israelites from the Egyptians under the leadership of Moses. Fittingly, our first reading is taking from the story of the Exodus. In the Passover, God freed his people from slavery to the Egyptians. Through his Crucifixion, Jesus frees us from our sins.
The reading from 1 Corinthians is seen as an Institution Narrative (cf. Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20). In the gospel institution narratives, Jesus celebrates the Passover meal, adding the words, "This is my body" and "This is my blood." Paul repeats these words demonstrating that they were not just metaphors spoken by Jesus but as an "institution" command to celebrate the Eucharist when he said "Do this in memory of me."
The gospel reading for Holy Thursday is the story of the Washing of the Feet. Tradition understands the washing of the feet of the disciples as the "institution" of the priesthood. It is important to see a connection of the institution of the Eucharist to the institution of the priesthood as priests are presiders of the Mass.
Of the three days of the Triduum, Good Friday is the one I find most meaningful for me. The gospel is always the passion narrative from the Gospel of John. It is in the final day of Jesus' life that God's plan reaches its climax. Jesus is condemned to death, beaten, scourged, and hung up a cross. The first reading is taken from the Fourth Servant Song of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah writes "Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, while we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; but the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all." I see this as a central premise of why Jesus died on the Cross. Jesus is a fulfillment of the Suffering Servant Oracle. He takes the punishment for our sins upon himself. This is why Jesus suffered and was crucified. Holy Thursday sets this is motion and then the Resurrection of Easter shows us that not even death can defeat Jesus.
Many people spoke of the images of the movie The Passion of Christ as gory. They were and that is what Jesus went through for us. I think sometimes the image of Jesus beaten and scourged, hanging upon the Cross, is exactly what we need to visualize when we think about our sins.
For the same reason, the Stations of the Cross are my favorite devotion. In the Stations we remember what Jesus went through for us.
The above is a complete list of readings for the Easter Vigil. The pastor is allowed to choose a smaller number of readings. However, the reading from Exodus, two other Old Testament Readings, the reading from Romans and the gospel reading of the year must always be read.
The readings from the Old Testament serve to tell the story of Salvation History and the covenant relationship God offers us. The first reading from Genesis is the first creation story of how God is the Creator. The second reading is the story of Abraham's call to sacrifice of Isaac. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son but it is enough for Abraham to be willing to sacrifice Isaac. But God stops Abraham. When God's own son, Jesus, is called to sacrifice himself of the cross, he does so for the forgiveness of sins. What God did not require of Abraham, God did himself.
The reading from Exodus tells story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and the reading from Ezekiel speaks of the new covenant God will offer us. It is the new covenant that God offers us in Jesus. We are no longer bound simply by the Law but rather the covenant is now written upon our hearts by the dwelling of the Holy Spirit within us.
The gospel reading is taken from the Resurrection story from the gospel of the year. It tells of the empty tomb.
After the readings and homily, the Church welcomes people who have answered the call of Jesus in their lives through baptism and reception into the church. The church understands that it is through the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus that we enter into new life so the Easter Vigil has traditionally been the time to receive converts into new life in the Catholic faith.
At the Easter Vigil (and Easter Sunday) the faithful who have already been made members of the body of Christ are called to renew our own baptismal promises. We are asked the following questions to which we are called to respond I do:
Then the people are sprinkled with Holy Water reminding us of our baptismal waters. In our baptism we are called to serve one another. May we always fulfill that call.
The Triduum as One Event
Each celebration of the Triduum is a significant event by itself. Combined, they are the fulfill of our faith. On Holy Thursday, Jesus transforms the Passover into the celebration of the Eucharist. On Good Friday, he fulfills the prophecies by dying for our sins on the Cross. It is the Resurrection that we celebrate on Easter that shows us that Jesus' Crucifixion was not a defeat. The Resurrection shows that not even death holds power over God. Jesus lifts the dread of death from us by dying for our sins and promising us our share in the Resurrection in the Kingdom of Heaven for all who believe and live according to God's will.
"He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay."
"A clean heart create for him, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit." Psalm 51:12
Renewal of Faith