Father Anthony Marques, Special to the Catholic Virginian

The preeminent liturgical celebration of the year is upon us: the Sacred Paschal Triduum. “Paschal” is derived from the Hebrew, Greek and Latin words for “passover” and refers to Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. “Triduum” is based on the Latin tres (three) and dies (days).

The Triduum commemorates the event of salvation — Christ’s “passover” from death to new life — that was accomplished over the course of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Why, then, does the Triduum begin on Holy Thursday? Does that mean that there are four sacred days, rather than three?

Holy Thursday is not a historical reenactment of a fourth day — the eve of Christ’s Passion. Instead, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper recalls the institution of the Eucharist, the sacrament containing Jesus’ saving work that unfolded over the following three days.

The Triduum is a three-day period (72 hours) that includes parts of four calendar days, beginning on the evening of Holy Thursday and concluding on the evening of Easter Sunday. The first “day” of the Triduum starts Holy Thursday evening with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and ends at midnight.

The second “day” of the Triduum begins at midnight on Good Friday and ends at nightfall on Holy Saturday. Good Friday commemorates Jesus’ death on the cross, in the sense of his victory — he brings the power of death to an end by his own death. Holy Saturday recalls Christ’s descent into hell — the abode of the dead, not the state of eternal punishment.

On Good Friday and Holy Saturday, Mass is not celebrated; the Church “abstains” or “fasts” from the eucharistic sacrifice in observance of Jesus’ death. As part of the Celebration of the Passion of the Lord on Good Friday — this liturgy is preferably celebrated at 3 p.m., although a different time may be chosen — Holy Communion from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is distributed to the faithful.

In keeping with this solemn, sober character of this time, Catholics are obliged to abstain from meat and to fast on Good Friday, and are encouraged to do the same on Holy Saturday.

The third “day” of the Triduum begins at nightfall on Holy Saturday with the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night. This first Mass of Easter Sunday heralds the Resurrection of Christ by celebrating the sacraments of Christian initiation: unbaptized adults receive baptism, confirmation, and first Communion as the Church’s “fast” from the eucharistic sacrifice comes to an end. Mass on Easter Sunday, followed by Vespers (Evening Prayer), concludes the third “day” of the Triduum.

Notably, the Sign of the Cross is made at the beginning of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and not again until the final blessing at the Easter Vigil. This practice indicates that the liturgies of the Triduum — the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Celebration of the Passion of the Lord, and the Easter Vigil — constitute a single celebration.

In this profound and beautiful way, the Church renews the “passover” of Christ, which is also called the Paschal Mystery, so that her members come to new life.

Father Marques is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Richmond.