When you go to a church with a traditional liturgy like ours, there are a lot of unique words and phrases that you might hear used to describe the different parts of a worship service, the different objects used during worship, or even the different parts of the church. If you hear the word “gathering” you might know this to mean the first part of the worship service which normally includes a hymn, a greeting and a prayer. If you hear the word “chasuble” you might know that this is the garment that the pastor wears during worship that looks a bit like a poncho. And if you hear the word “narthex” you might know that this is what Lutherans call a lobby, and not a Dr. Seuss character that speaks for the trees. Now I’d like to introduce you to two new words that you might not know, “Triduum” and “Vigil”.
During the month of April we will celebrate Holy Week, that week where we meet for worship more frequently than any other week of the year and it is during that week when we will celebrate the Paschal Triduum. The Paschal Triduum is actually the name of a worship service that is celebrated in three parts which are: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. This is one of the oldest traditions in the Christians church and it is a worship service that is actually viewed to be something like a play or drama with the excitement building each day. You might already be familiar with Maundy Thursday, the day when we remember the last supper Jesus ate with his disciples, participate in foot-washing, and remember Jesus new commandment to “love one another as he has loved us.” You might also be familiar with Good Friday, the day that we set aside each year to remember the day that Jesus was crucified, reflecting on the meaning of the cross for each of us and for the world. What you may not realize is that these services are linked together so that Good Friday is actually a continuation of the service begun on Maundy Thursday. If you have been to a Maundy Thursday liturgy then you know that the service concludes with the stripping of the altar, when all of the items on the altar are removed and the lights are dimmed. As the liturgy concludes there is no sending, no blessing, no postlude, everyone just leaves in silence. The reason for this is that the service isn’t over yet because it continues the next day as we celebrate Good Friday. Likewise the Good Friday liturgy ends in silence as well because the service still isn’t over. The conclusion of the Triduum, the final part of the service, is on Saturday night at the Great Vigil of Easter.
This brings us to our second of the two new words, vigil. You may be familiar with this word and think of it as a time when individuals come together to pray in a “prayer vigil” for something or someone in particular. This is one use of that word but another use is to refer to the liturgy on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday when we gather as a church to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. In the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, we read that it was “early in the morning, while it was still dark,” that the resurrection of Jesus was discovered. It is for this reason that for centuries Christians have gathered on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday to celebrate the moment of the resurrection, with as much pomp and circumstance as possible.
The Vigil service begins with the lighting of a fire outdoors as well as the lighting of candles for everyone as we light the paschal candle and celebrate the light of Christ for the world. We then process into the sanctuary which is still in darkness and hear several well known readings from the Old Testament including the creation of the world, the parting of the read sea and the story from Daniel about the three men who were protected from the furnace of blazing fire. We retell these stories to remember that God has been present with humankind throughout all of history, and that God’s grace has been extended to us in many different ways. After the Old Testament readings are completed we hear a reading from the New Testament before then turning to the Gospel reading. It is at that moment, while singing Alleluia for the first time since the start of the season of Lent, that the lights in the worship space are turned on, the candles on the altar are lit and we see that the altar is adorned in white. The lilies have been put out, the Alleluia banners are hung, and the church is ready for Easter. After the resurrection story is read, and the sermon heard, we move to the font, where we remember that the grace of God has been poured out onto each and every one of us in the waters of baptism. The service then concludes with the celebration of Holy Communion, another example of God’s grace poured out to us in the body and blood of Christ. After communion the service concludes but the celebration doesn’t stop because the banquet continues in a church fellowship like you’ve never experienced. As we gather together to feast on delicious deserts, to drink champagne and sparkling cider, we celebrate the end of the season of Lent, the beginning of the great fifty days of Easter, and the victory of Christ over the powers of sin and death.
If you have never experienced the full Paschal Triduum, attending the services on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I invite you to join us this Holy Week and to see this incredible drama played out in front of you. Though it may be a new experience for you to attend worship services in the days leading up to Easter Sunday, it is a practice that you won’t regret and perhaps may look forward to experiencing again year after year.
May the grace and peace of Christ be with each of you as we finish our Lenten journey and begin the great feast of Easter.
If you would like to join us for worship this holy week, you can see our worship schedule here.