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The Triduum Liturgies  
Mary Birmingham  

The Easter Triduum is to the year what Sunday is to the week - the heart and foundation of our Catholic faith, worship, and practice. How can baptized Catholics prepare for this premier feast, especially those of us charged with preparing the Triduum liturgies for our parishes? A thoughtful exploration of the symbols of the Triduum can deepen our understanding.

Symbols and Rituals of Belonging
Humans engage in rituals to bring meaning to their lives. The symbols and symbolic actions of the Triduum express our identity. Through them, we are incorporated into a community of Christian believers. God works through the symbols to beckon our participation in that mystery, especially through the sacraments, the privileged means whereby God acts in our midst to continue his work of redemption.

The challenge for a parish and its leaders is to allow the symbols of the Triduum to speak clearly. The faithful, by their participation in these symbols, are strengthened to renew their baptismal promises and live as Christ lived - as priest to serve God's people, as prophet to proclaim God's word, and as king to lead people into the reign of God.

Sacramental symbols express multivalent meanings. For example, the water of the font embodies two images simultaneously: womb and tomb. The first image comes from the early centuries of the Church in the East in which Baptism was understood as rebirth and was associated with Jesus' Baptism in the Jordan. In the Church of the West, the tomb image (which overshadowed the womb image of the East from about the fourth or fifth century onward) emanated from Paul's letter to the Romans in which he associated Baptism with death leading to new life. Both images, womb and tomb, are encompassed by the symbol of water. What better way to express the womb image than to be baptized in enough water to completely cover the person waiting to be born? What better way to express the tomb and participation in Christ's death and Resurrection than to be baptized in enough water in which a person could drown?

Through a process of anamnesis (a Greek word for a remembering that makes the event present), the symbols and ritual actions of Holy Thursday - and every Eucharist - make present (provide access to) the Lord's paschal supper with his friends. Feet are washed and gifts are offered for the poor. On Good Friday we venerate the cross and at the Easter Vigil we tell stories of faith and salvation, of death and Resurrection. We feast on his Passover made present as we eat the Bread of Life and drink the Cup of Salvation. Through all of these symbols and actions, we participate in the work of making Church. What can we learn about our identity through these symbols?

Community We are the people of God who acknowledge the life and presence of Christ in the community. We join the brokenness of our lives to the broken body of Christ manifested in the Christian community. We encounter him anew as the community sings its song and tells its story.

Cross We are people of the cross who recommit to our participation in its power. The Holy Thursday introductory rite reminds us of the great sacrifice of Christ on Calvary: "We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection; through him we are saved and made free." The cross invites us to participate in Christ's ongoing work of redemption in the world. What greater meaning can we find for the suffering in our lives?

Light and Fire We are people who, like Christ, light the way for others. The symbol of light and fire reminds us that through this annual celebration of Christ's death and Resurrection, we are strengthened to go out and illumine the path of others - to light the blazing fires of conversion.

Word The story comes alive in the telling and we become participants. We are people of the word. We become aware that we too have a part to play in salvation's story. We are invited to participate in God's ongoing work of re-creation, as did Abraham, Moses, Noah, Isaiah, and Paul before us. Nourished by God's word, we become what we receive. We become God's living word in the world for yet another year.

Water As the newly baptized are immersed in the waters of death and Resurrection, we stand with them and renew our own baptismal commitment to live as priest, prophet, and king. This is so important that the Church sets forth baptismal preparation (Baptism for the elect and the renewal of baptismal promises for the faithful) and penitential preparation as the primary agenda of Lent. In order to embody the intended fullness of this renewal, leaders must challenge the parish to make this Lenten focus clear and, in turn, the sprinkling rite during Easter. Longtime Catholics sometimes express envy of those who are baptized by immersion as adults. Would this be so if the symbol of sprinkling during the sprinkling rite with the waters of new life were more robust?

Oil As the oil is generously applied on the neophytes, we remem- ber that the anointing of the Spirit is what strengthened us for our baptismal life. We are people of the oil (holy chrism), so difficult to wash off; its power continues to anoint us for our baptismal mission in the world.

Bread and Wine At every Eucharist we are nourished by the body and blood of Christ, the saving victim, whose blood was shed for our salvation, so that we can go out into the world and nourish others. We return week after week in order to be filled and strengthened in and through Christ.

Similarly, our strength for a lifetime commitment to discipleship is renewed in the Eucharist of the Triduum. We are reminded that Eucharist is intended to strengthen us to go out in service to our neighbor as Christ went out to wash the feet of others - day after day and month after month.

Each year God gives new life to the Church through the full and robust use of the dominant symbols of the Triduum. Within every symbol is a word that invites participants into ongoing conversion that ultimately leads to apostolic action. The work of liturgical and catechetical ministers is to provide fertile ground for such conversion and action to flourish. This can happen through the breaking open of these symbols.

Through the symbols of the liturgy, our identity in Christ is affirmed and our life in Christ is regenerated. There would be no Church without the water of Baptism, the oil of Confirmation, and the bread and wine of Eucharist. In other words, God forges our identity in his Son by use of sacred signs and symbols, which pour out his saving grace on his faithful people. We are people of the word who are transformed by God's power to be the word of God for others in the world. We are people of the cross who embrace its power and go forth to live and die for others as Christ lived and died for us.

The challenge for ministers is to prepare the rites so that the symbols are fully expressed. Mystagogical reflection on the Triduum symbols can offer those who prepare and serve at the Triduum liturgies a renewed understanding from which to work. Such a gathering could be conducted around a single symbol or a group of several. Let's imagine a mystagogical reflection on the symbol of oil. A flagon or bowl of oil, a crucifix, and a Bible might be placed in the environment. The group could begin with the sign of the cross and an opening prayer. Because oil is the sacramental symbol by which the Holy Spirit is conferred, the opening prayer for Pentecost would be especially appropriate. Scriptures might then be proclaimed: "The Lord God has anointed me and has sent me to bring Good News to the poor, to give them the oil of gladness" (Isaiah 61:1- 3a, 6a, 8b - 9). Other suitable passages include Joel 2:23a, 26 - 30a; Hebrews 2:23a; 3:1- 3; Ephesians 1:3a, 4a, 13 -19a; Luke 4:16 - 22; and John 14:15 -17. Participants might then encounter the oil experientially, dipping their fingers into the bowl, rubbing it into their skin, and responding to the following questions: What does this oil evoke in you? What are its properties? How does it feel, taste, smell, look? In what way do those properties speak to us about the Holy Spirit? How do the properties of oil, the sacramental symbol of oil, and the inherent gift of the Holy Spirit invite us deeper into the mystery of Christ's death and Resurrection? Invite the group to read and reflect on Consecratory Prayer A for the Consecration of the Chrism (found in Appendix II of the Sacramentary).

Such a reflection process might lead to questions about transformation and discipleship: in what way does anointing with chrism invite us to become what we receive - to go out into the world, to lay down our lives for others, and to offer the Spirit of Christ to those who hunger and thirst for meaning? Questions like this are appropriate, not only for those who are recently anointed but also for those who anamnetically remember (a remembering that makes the event present) or even imagine their own anointing through their participation in the celebration of the sacraments of initiation. This sort of mystagogical reflection process could be presented around any of the Triduum symbols.

Easter Eucharist invites us to die and rise with Christ for another year. We approach the table of rebirth and of death and Resurrection, aware of the price that is being asked, but knowing that we go out with fresh memories of Christ's pasche made present to strengthen and sustain us. We become what we have received: new life. We go out renewed, redeemed, broken, and poured out. We become food for a world starving for the living Christ and embody Christ's Paschal Mystery in the world.

© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609

Mary Birmingham
is Director of Liturgy and Music at Ascension parish in Melbourne, Florida, and a team member of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate.
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