With the celebration of Passion (Palm) Sunday, the Church begins its annual immersion into the mysteries of Holy Week. Christians around the world, from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to local parish churches in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston prepare to follow the Way of the Cross through the Passion, the Death and ultimately the Resurrection of the Lord.
Holy Week marks the pinnacle of the Church’s liturgical year, culminating in the celebration of the Paschal Triduum, which begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday evening and ends with the celebration of evening prayer on Easter Sunday, the holiest day of the year.
This holy day is actually the first of a season of fifty days, celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus and ending with His glorious Ascension into heaven and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. These mysteries are the foundation of our Christian faith, as Paul recognized: “if Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching; empty, too, your faith.” (1 Cor 15:14)
Nonetheless, for the Christian, the glory of Christ’s Resurrection is reachable only through the mystery of His Passion and Death, which is the focus of meditation for Holy Week.
In the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, in preparation for the Paschal Triduum, the Chrism Mass is normally celebrated on the Tuesday of Holy Week.
At this Mass, in which the priests of the Archdiocese will also gather to renew their promises, the holy oils will be blessed and consecrated. These are subsequently sent to parishes and will be used in the upcoming year for the celebration of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders and the Anointing of the Sick.
On Holy Thursday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is held in the evening and begins the Paschal Triduum.
This Mass commemorates the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood, rooted in Christ’s commands to “love one another” (Jn 15:17) and to “do this in memory of me.” (Lk 22:19) To this end, many priests will perform the optional ritual of the washing of feet, which imitates the example of Christ who humbled himself to wash the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.
At the end of this Mass, the Eucharist is carried by the priest in solemn procession through the church until it arrives at a special place of repose where the faithful are encouraged to spend time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Meanwhile, the altar in the church is stripped bare and crosses are veiled or removed from the sanctuary.
On Good Friday, the only day of the year on which the Mass is not celebrated, the faithful instead receive Holy Communion from sacred Hosts consecrated the previous night.
The liturgical celebration focuses on the suffering and Death of the Lord as the Passion narrative from the Gospel of John is proclaimed and the Holy Cross is adored and presented before the people for veneration.
Calling to mind the time in which Christ was in the tomb, Mass is not celebrated again until the Easter Vigil, which takes place after nightfall on Saturday.
The faithful gather after sundown to celebrate this lengthy Mass, consisting of four parts, which in ancient times would last throughout the night until sunrise as Christians kept “vigil” for the Easter dawn.
In the first part, the Lucernarium, the faithful assemble around a blazing fire, which represents a new creation. The new paschal candle is lit from this fire, and in turn is used to light smaller candles held by the priest and the people as they process into the dark church. The celebration of light climaxes with the singing of the Easter Proclamation which announces the victory of the Light of the World over the darkness of sin and death.
The Liturgy of the Word follows in the second part, consisting of seven readings from the Old Testament (in some places reduced to three) and two from the New Testament (the epistle and the Gospel). These readings span salvation history from creation through the Law and Prophets, highlighting the fulfillment of God’s promises.
In the Baptismal Liturgy, the third part, all the faithful renew their baptismal promises and are sprinkled with the new water.
Finally, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the faithful celebrate the fullness of the Paschal Mystery by offering sacrifice to the Lord and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the new and everlasting covenant.
Later year in the Archdiocese, over 1,800-plus catechumens and candidates will be brought into the Church through the sacraments. In this sacrament, water is blessed and catechumens, who have prepared through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), are baptized and confirmed. In some places, candidates for full communion (those converts who are already baptized) will also make a profession of faith and be confirmed.
Throughout Easter Sunday, the Church celebrates the Resurrection of the Lord.
The Paschal Triduum ends at sunset with the celebration of Evening Prayer, but the paschal candle will remain prominently displayed in the sanctuary for the next fifty days. This pillar of light will remind us that the long night of sin and death is over and that our Lord Jesus Christ stands revealed as the Light and Salvation of the world.