April 2014

Celebrating the Paschal Triduum: ‘rehearsal’ for paschal living

Dare we let this year’s Paschal Triduum take us out of our comfort zone and send us on a risky journey to the peripheries, as Pope Francis would have it, asks Good Samaritan Sister Margaret Smith.

BY Margaret Smith SGS

Dare we let this year’s Paschal Triduum take us out of our comfort zone and send us on a risky journey to the peripheries, as Pope Francis would have it? In the homilies and addresses he gave at last year’s Triduum, this is what he challenged us to do. Not surprisingly, there are themes: of mercy, of taking the message of the resurrection to places where suffering is greatest and in situations most in need of trust and hope, of the transforming love and presence of God even in our darkest moments, to name but a few.

In his Easter Sunday Urbi et Orbi message, Pope Francis exhorts everyone to “accept the grace of Christ’s Resurrection… to be renewed by God’s mercy… to become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish”. He further urges that “we ask the risen Jesus, who turns death into life, to change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace”. At the Chrism Mass of Holy Thursday, we could almost predict that his homily to priests would include that graphic image of “shepherds living with the odour of the sheep”.

As we approach Easter, we might ask how these ideals of Pope Francis – all of which speak of paschal living and baptismal commitment – might be realised in the Triduum liturgies in which we remember, and ritually actualise the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection?

As we bodily enter into the liturgical expressions of foot-washing, venerating the cross and facing again the waters of baptism, we are engaging in rituals that bear and maximise the potential to form or change our attitudes, behaviours and decisions. In this sense, we can say that our annual doing of such rituals is (to borrow a useful phrase from the social sciences) a ‘kind of rehearsal’ in which we practise what it is to live as a disciple of Christ, the risen One.

We could then ask: What does it mean to kneel before another and wash his or her feet, to kneel before the wood of the cross, a cross of glory, on Good Friday, to face again the waters of baptism at the Easter vigil and renew promises, and to “accept the grace of Christ’s resurrection”? Such questions speak of mysteries into which we re-enter over the days of the Easter Triduum that we might come to know their meaning and be challenged by doing them.

To kneel before another in an act of mutual foot-washing

Pope Francis made headlines last Easter when he washed the feet of prisoners, two of whom were women, one of whom was Muslim. This already ‘shocking’, awkward and sometimes embarrassing act took on greater meaning for its inclusivity. Practice of this ritual varies greatly – from the celebrant washing the feet of 12 men in a one-way, top-down demonstration of service, to the inevitably messy practice of people washing each other’s feet at multiple stations throughout the church.

The dynamic of the scene of foot-washing in John’s gospel is that Jesus, in washing the feet of his disciples (John does not mention apostles but disciples), sets an example that they should likewise be washing one another’s feet. The message here is that service in the body of Christ is to be mutual. Key to this passage is the statement: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (13:14), and then reiterated in the following verse: “for I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15).

The action of foot-washing at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday is surely not to be an action that engages us in a mime of historical dramatisation. The whole liturgical assembly is thus challenged to enter into this action of washing each other’s feet as a sign, not only of service and hospitality, but of equality, inclusivity and radical mutuality that incorporates us into the life of Christ and, in turn, his mission. In fact, when Peter remonstrates with Jesus: “You will never wash my feet”, he is told in no uncertain terms that not to do so means that he can have no share in Christ (cf 13:8).

It is not surprising then, that there are sources from the early Church that link foot-washing to initiation. Mutual foot-washing is a baptismal act challenging us to rediscover who we have been called to be in Christ and to reclaim our dignity of being in Christ. It is in the doing of this action of kneeling before another to wash feet and then, in turn, washing the feet of another, that we ‘rehearse’ and learn what becoming a Christian ought to be.

To enter the silence of Good Friday and kneel before the cross

We simply assemble on this day, in silence and in a silent, bare space. We continue our paschal journey and gather in a faith that becomes focused on the glory of the cross proclaimed in the opening words of the Triduum: “We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…”. It is both cross and glory, death and resurrection, that are celebrated in the ritual expressions of Good Friday.

After the proclamation of John’s passion narrative, which connects us back to the foot-washing of Holy Thursday – but more importantly for this day, proclaims Jesus’ exaltation and glorification – the whole assembly is invited to enter into Christ’s death and resurrection by taking part in the veneration of the cross. At three ‘stations’ we are invited to “come and worship”, an action that anticipates and parallels the threefold proclamation of “Christ our Light” at the Easter Vigil. Cross and glory are inseparable.

This ritual act of veneration before the cross allows us the time and space to contemplate and embody the rich meanings of suffering, death and rebirth. We bring before the cross, and thus to the risen Jesus who turns death into life, the places of suffering where we find hatred, vengeance and war.

In concluding his Urbi et Orbi address, Pope Francis speaks of the need for: “Peace in the whole world, still divided by greed looking for easy gain, wounded by the selfishness which threatens human life and the family, selfishness that continues in human trafficking, the most extensive form of slavery in the twenty-first century”. We physically enter this act of veneration, calling to mind these sufferings, challenged as disciples of Christ, to bring the Easter message of hope and resurrection to those places so that we might be the “agents of God’s mercy”.

At the end of the Good Friday service, we depart once more in a silence that continues through the entire Saturday as we await the proclamation of the resurrection.

To face again the waters of baptism and renew promises

“This is the Night!” The liturgical expressions of this night abound with joy – in gathering in primal darkness and processing from darkness to light, in song and story, and in gestures of washing, signing, anointing, eating and drinking.

After the threefold proclamation of “Christ our Light” and the spreading of the paschal candle light throughout the assembly, these words “This is the Night”, ring out with extravagant joy in the singing of the Exultet. This is the night that begins another new day, a day of baptismal rebirth when we reclaim ourselves as the body of Christ, risen and alive, and all that participation in that body implies.

And then before the elect are plunged into the waters of baptism, they, and all who are assembled, will hear words that challenge and even warn us: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” (Romans 6:3). Once again, we are reminded of our identity in Christ and thus of the baptismal imperative that we live the life of Christ as disciples. In entering into the ‘dangerous’ ritual act of facing again the ‘tomb and womb’ waters of baptism and renewing once again our baptismal promises, we affirm our participation in the fullness of the Paschal Mystery through which we might “accept the grace of the resurrection” and be “renewed by God’s mercy” (Pope Francis).

To “accept the grace of the resurrection”

In his Regina Caeli address in St Peter’s Square last Easter Monday, Pope Francis prayed that “the power of Christ’s resurrection reach every person – especially those who are suffering”. But if this power is to reach into these situations “most in need of trust and hope” the grace of the resurrection must first be accepted.

The Pope continues: “Christ has fully triumphed over evil once and for all, but it is up to us, the people of every epoch, to welcome this victory into our life and into the actual situations of history and society”. Such welcome requires that we hold fast to the Easter Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist through which we participate in the life of Christ, and are kept united to Christ and his body. He urges that we let ourselves “be touched by the grace of the Risen Christ”, to let him change those aspects and attitudes that “crush life and make it seem less human” (Easter Vigil Homily).

Our participation in the paschal journey of the Easter Triduum engages us in a ‘rehearsal’ of these attitudes and behaviours that are expressions of discipleship through which we might become “instrument[s] of God’s grace”. Washing young prisoners’ feet last Holy Thursday was an eloquent homily in itself, but Pope Francis added these words: “Let us pray together, in the name of the dead and Risen Lord, and through the intercession of Mary Most Holy, that the Paschal Mystery may work profoundly within us and in our time so that hatred may give way to love, falsehood to truth, revenge to forgiveness, and sadness to joy”.

These are the revolutionary transformations that we ‘rehearse’ in the rites of the Triduum. What a risk we run when we choose to let our defences down and embark on this life-changing journey!

Margaret Smith

Good Samaritan Sister Margaret Smith is an author, educator and liturgy consultant. She holds a Doctor of Ministry in Liturgical Studies and currently teaches units in liturgical studies at Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne.

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