Traditionally, in the Jewish faith, the high holy days are known as Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). As one website put it, these are the heavy hitters of the Jewish year. Likewise, in the Catholic faith, the Holy Days of Obligation, along with every Sunday, because Sunday is enough, are the high holy days for Catholics. Although they may not be listed anywhere specifically, I would argue that the days in which we are about to enter can also be, and should be, considered high holy days as well.
Beginning tonight and concluding late Saturday night, the Catholic world starts what is known as The Sacred Triduum – Holy Thursday (Mass of the Lord’s Supper), Good Friday (Celebration of the Lord’s Passion/Stations of the Cross) and Holy Saturday (Easter Vigil). The culmination of these three days brings us to the Sunday of all Sundays – Easter Sunday, the day where Our Lord Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead.
If Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the heavy hitters of the Jewish faith, then we must say the Triduum and Easter Sunday are heavy hitters in the Catholic faith.
As I stated previously, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the day Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Priesthood while he celebrated the Passover Meal with the Apostles and established the new Passover (see Luke 22:14-23) begins the Sacred Triduum. The Institution of the Holy Eucharist is the major element we commemorate on this great day. From this day forward, we have Jesus present in the Church – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
During this Holy Mass, we also reenact the washing of the Apostles feet. This action by Jesus in John 13 is an act of humility and points to the humiliation that he would receive on the cross. He is displaying heroism as the servant-king for the Apostles. The washing of the Apostles feet mirrors the washing of Aaron and his son’s feet by Moses in the Book of Exodus, as they become the first of the Levitical Priests. If this is the case, foot-washing can been seen as a sign of priestly ordination. The apostles receive a “part” in Jesus where the Levitical priests received a “portion” of God alone.
On Good Friday, we commemorate the day our Lord willingly gave himself in the perfect sacrifice for our redemption. As the lambs were slaughtered in the Temple; so Jesus is slaughtered on the cross. Jesus becomes the New Lamb of God – he is both sacrifice and victim. As it has been since the most ancient days of the church, the Holy Mass is not celebrated on Good Friday. The only sacraments that are permitted on this day are Penance (Reconciliation) and Anointing of the Sick. During the Celebration of the Passion of the Lord, we hear the readings (Cycle A, B, C) from Isaiah 52:13—53:12, Psalm 31, Hebrews 4:14-16 5:7-9 and the Gospel of St. John 18:1—19:42.
After a short homily or time in prayer, the Liturgy of the Word ends with “The Solemn Intercessions” which are For the Holy Church, For the Pope, For all orders and degrees of the faithful, For the unity of Christians, For the Jewish People, For those who do not believe in Christ, For those who do not believe in God, For those in public office, and For those in tribulation.
After the Solemn Intercessions, there is Adoration of the Holy Cross. The priest(s), deacons and/or altar servers, process with a cross which has been covered with a purple veil (purple is the color associated with penance and was also worn royalty and more than likely the color of the garment the Roman soldiers put on Jesus). As the cross is brought forth and held before the altar, the priest (assisted by the Deacon and/or altar servers) uncovers a little of the cross each time by chanting the words – “Behold the wood of the Cross” (Ecce lignum Crucis) and all chant is response – “Come let us adore” (Venite, adoremus).
After the Adoration of the cross, an altar cloth is spread on the altar as is a corporal and the Missal put in place. The Blessed Sacrament is brought from its place of keeping (from the conclusion of Holy Thursday Mass to this point, the Holy Eucharist is not kept in the Tabernacle). The Our Father is either chanted (or recited). After this, Holy Communion is distributed to the faithful during the celebration of the Lord’s Passion. Since the Holy Mass is not celebrated on this day, more hosts should be consecrated during the Mass on Holy Thursday. Once Communion has ended and the prayer over the people is recited – all depart in silence.
We now come to my favorite part of the Sacred Triduum – The Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil is the Mass where the elect (formerly catechumens) and those seeking full communion (candidates) are welcomed into the Catholic Church. For 2 ½ years, I was privileged to work with the adults of our parish in preparing them to receive the Sacraments on this night. It is a blessing that is incredibly difficult to put into words, especially watching the adults who are baptized. Although I am no longer involved in the daily duties of preparation, I still teach these individuals during the year.
As the Sacred Liturgy begins, there is the Blessing of the Fire and the Preparation of the Candle. After the candle is prepared, the Easter Proclamation is recited. During the Liturgy of the Word, we hear the seven Old Testament readings of Salvation History accompanied with seven Psalms in response, an epistle from Paul, and then the Gospel Reading. For those of us that love the Sacred Scriptures and Salvation History, this Mass is by far the best set of readings for the entire year. After the readings, we chant the Gloria (the lights come on brighter) and we can finally say Alleluia again.
After the homily is given, the Baptismal Liturgy begins which includes the Litany of the Saints, the blessing of the baptismal water, the Rite of Baptism (the Elect come forward with their Godparents), and the Renewal of Baptismal Promises by the faithful. If you never seen an adult received the Sacrament of Baptism, I encourage you to attend the Easter Vigil. It’s a moving experience!
Once everyone is baptized, the newly baptized along with those seeking full communion (they make a Profession of Faith) receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. Once all have received Confirmation, the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins and Mass continues and concludes as usual. The newly baptized Catholics and the newly professed Catholics for the first time receive Jesus Christ – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist. As the Easter Vigil comes to a close, the Church finds herself in the Easter Season looking 40 days ahead to the Ascension of Our Lord and 50 days to another great feast (and high holy day), Pentecost Sunday.
On Easter Sunday, we celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection over sin and death. We cannot have the Resurrection without the Crucifixion. The Paschal Mystery – Passion, Death, and Resurrection is now complete. Jesus Christ has Risen from the Dead!
The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1169 states, “Therefore Easter is not simply one feast among others, but the “Feast of feasts,” the “Solemnity of solemnities,” just as the Eucharist is the “Sacrament of sacraments” (the Great Sacrament). St. Athanasius calls Easter “the Great Sunday” and the Eastern Churches call Holy Week “the Great Week.” The mystery of the Resurrection, in which Christ crushed death, permeates with its powerful energy our old time, until all is subjected to him.”
I would really encourage you to attend these high holy days if you haven’t done so before. If you have been in the past, but haven’t been in some time, I would hope you attend. To really see Easter Sunday at its fullest, you should participate in the days proceeding. There really is nothing else like it in the liturgical year. We have truly entered the High Holy Days of Catholicism.