From its earliest days, the church has celebrated Christ’s journey from death to life with a liturgical observance known as the Triduum or Great Three Days, which begins Maundy Thursday evening and concludes on the evening of Easter Sunday — the liturgical day being reckoned from sundown to sundown. In one continuous celebration encompassing three consecutive days, the church remembers Christ’s saving acts and experiences his presence in the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. In a sense, these liturgical celebrations together constitute a three-act play.
In Act One, Maundy Thursday, Jesus’s actions reveal that discipleship means crossing the boundary from selfishness to servanthood. In the liturgy we read how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples as a symbolic enactment of his new command, “to love one another as I have loved you.” We share the meal of bread and wine so that, having become one with Christ, we might share ourselves with others in love and service. We strip the altar as a further reminder that Christ was stripped of his dignity on the cross and that our servanthood involves humility and self-denial.
In Act Two, Good Friday, our Lord’s servanthood reaches its zenith. On the cross Jesus became the lamb who was slain for sinners. There he was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:4). There he revealed the Father’s love and became the living way into the “sanctuary” (Hebrews 10:19-20) that is communion with God the Father.
Good Friday is not a funeral service for Jesus. Rather, it is a celebration of the triumph of the cross. In the Saint John Passion, Christ goes to the cross wearing the purple robe, unlike the gospels of Matthew and Mark in which the robe is removed from Jesus before his journey to Calvary. In John’s gospel Jesus is the king on his way to enthronement, for it is on the cross that God’s power is revealed and God’s enemies (sin and death) are defeated. Because God raised the crucified One, the cross is now a symbol of how God triumphs in and through our acts of service and self-sacrifice.
The third and final Act of the Great Three Days, the Resurrection Our Lord, is the grandest expression of our crossing the boundary from sin and death to new life with Christ. The singing of the hymns, the reading of scripture, the preaching, the waters of baptism, the bread and wine of communion, the prayers all point to the Easter proclamation: The tomb is empty, for Christ is risen! Like Mary Magdalene, we experience the risen Lord. Sadness and weeping come to an end. We now begin a fifty-day feast that lasts until the day of Pentecost. On that day we will commemorate the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit, the one who guides and sustains us until we pass from this world to the next.