The first mention of “the most holy triduum of the crucified, buried, and risen Lord” is in the fourth-century writings of St. Augustine.Bobby Gross. Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009) Kindle Edition. But the New Testament contains evidence that Jesus’ earliest disciples recognized the great significance of the three days between Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection. The whole of the Christian faith is founded on the action of these three days, with Maundy Thursday instituting the Eucharist; Good Friday, the sacrificial death of Jesus; Holy Saturday, the victory of Christ over death and hell; and ultimately, Easter Sunday’s celebration of new creation. The sections that follow will explore each day in terms of Scripture and history, the church’s life and liturgy, and finally the meaning and significance of the day’s events.
02. Maundy Thursday
The Paschal or Easter Triduum begins on the evening of Holy Thursday, with Vespers. Jewish days began at dusk, after all, and this evening was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or Passover. Harmonizing the Gospels’ accounts gives us the following timeline of events for Thursday, from when the meal would have begun through the early morning:
- Jesus sends his disciples to prepare the Passover meal in a “large upper room” (Luke 22:12).
- Jesus celebrates Passover with his disciples, eating the traditional meal.
- After they’ve eaten, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.
- Jesus explains that one of them will betray him.
- Jesus institutes the Eucharist, connecting the bread and wine of the meal to his own body and blood, broken and spilled in fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice.
- Judas leaves the group before the rest, either before or just after the Eucharist.
- Jesus predicts that all the disciples will fall away, and that Peter’s denial will occur before morning.
- Jesus teaches and encourages his disciples for the difficult days ahead.
- The disciples go with Jesus to a garden at Gethsemane, where Jesus prays intently three times (once, Luke writes, sweating blood). He surrenders himself to the will of the Father.
- Judas, accompanied by soldiers and community vigilantes, kisses Jesus to identify him, and Jesus is arrested.
- During the ensuing pre-trial at the high priest’s house, Peter denies Jesus, and then the Jewish authorities deliver Jesus to the Roman governor.
Historically, the church’s celebration of Holy Thursday has focused on the Last Supper (especially Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet and the institution of the Eucharist) and Judas’s betrayal in the garden of Gethsemane. Both events are defined by how they relate to love, which is Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ (John 13:34, and a likely source for the word maundy).
The church made a shared meal part of its worship at least through the first century. But the problems that led to discontinuing the practice arose almost immediately. St. Paul mentions the communal meal—the agape meal, or “love feast”—in his first letter to the Corinthians (ca. AD 55). He writes, though, to correct their selfish practice: “Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk. . . . I will not praise you for this!” (1 Cor. 11:20-21, 22b, NETScripture quotations marked (NET) are from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996–2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com Used by permission. All rights reserved.). Similarly, St. Jude writes a decade or so later, condemning false teachers as “hidden reefs at your love feasts” (verse 12, ESVUnless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). As late as Ignatius (ca. AD 110), the love feast and the Eucharist still seem combined in some form.[/note] By the time of Justin Martyr (ca. AD 150), Christian worship has taken a more recognizable form, with the Eucharist celebration following a service of Scripture reading, prayers, and exhortation.
Jesus had illustrated the new, upside-down order of the kingdom by washing his followers’ feet, and some of his followers continued the practice. Beginning in the patristic era, a priest or bishop washed the feet of those he led, “communicating the message that Christianity reverses the social order and calls on all people . . . to see their lives as lives of servanthood.”Robert E. Webber. Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Church Year (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 127. The Eucharist reminds us of our connection to the whole body of Christ, one loaf (1 Cor. 10:17); the foot-washing illustrates our humility and vulnerability toward one another. It’s an invitation to love “to the uttermost,” which meant love “not just in humble, self-effacing service, but . . . [in willingness] to die for one another.”See the study note on John 13:1 in The NET Bible, Full Notes Edition (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, L.L.L.C, 2005), 2070.
That willingness to die infuses with meaning the central mystery of what occurs in the upper room: the Eucharist. The disciples had likely eaten the Passover meal every year of their lives to that point—the lamb, the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs, all reminders of their national history and God’s promises. It might even have seemed ironic to eat such a meal, commemorating their rescue from an oppressive foreign power, while they lived under the rule of another oppressive power. But they were sharing the meal of deliverance with the new Moses, the new deliverer, though they hadn’t fully absorbed that reality yet. Some in the room may still have expected a political liberation at this point.
At least until Jesus broke the bread and passed the cup. Both are simple acts of communion, but he connected them to his coming death. The disciples remembered this meal—and continued to live out the meal, take this meal together—because Jesus invested something familiar to the disciples with cosmic significance.
He then gives them a new command—in Latin, mandatum, which may give us the origin of maundy. “Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34–35). In other words, he expected their lives to be energized and even characterized by the kind of love he displayed in washing their feet (“he now loved them to the very end,” John 13:1).
Central to Jesus’ instructions about the Eucharist is his command to “do this in remembrance.” The Eucharist allows us to remember Jesus’ sacrifice for what it is, a cosmic Passover that encompasses not just the Jewish people but the whole world. And when we remember, we not only call Jesus to mind, but we also “re-member” him, tracing the threads of God’s constant fidelity from the skin clothing he made for Adam and Eve to the death of his beloved Son that will clothe his children with righteousness.
The disciples will forget his instruction almost immediately. Judas uses a kiss, a gesture of friendship and love, to betray Jesus to his enemies. The entire group of friends scatters, abandoning him. Even Peter, the “rock,” fulfills Jesus’ prediction and denies even knowing him.
But Jesus’ Passion is just beginning. Maundy Thursday has shown us the whole redemption drama, showing us the weakness of the disciples, God’s grand plan and purpose, and the resolute faithfulness of the Son. Jesus will indeed love his disciples eis telos, “to the end.” The Greek word telos suggests more than a simple conclusion to action; it also suggests a glorious and motivating aim. Jesus loves them until the end of his earthly ministry, yes. But he also loves them toward a specific cosmic purpose, loving them so that they will remain “in the most intimate communion with Him for eternity, sitting at table with Him, eating and drinking in His unending kingdom.”Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, Vol. II, Worship. (Crestwood Tuckahoe, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2016), https://www.oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-church-year/holy-thursday (accessed April 12, 2022).
Practice: Attend a Maundy Thursday service, either at your own church or a church in your town.
Reflect: “Maundy Thursday,” by Malcolm Guite (published in Sounding the Seasons)
03. Good Friday
The Friday of Passion Week was not at first called “Good” Friday. The popular name “Good Friday” comes from the Middle English sense of the word, good, which was “holy, or pious.” Before the fourth century, the church simply remembered Friday of Holy Week as “Passover,” and later, “the Passover of the Cross.” It has been called the “Friday of the Passion of the Lord” (Roman Catholic), “Great and Holy Friday” (Orthodox), and “Long Friday” (Scandinavia). But whatever its name, the Friday of Holy Week takes us with Jesus from trial to suffering to death.
Again, we attempt to see the day through all four Gospel lenses.
- At the conclusion of his trial before the Jewish leaders, Jesus is taken to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
- Pilate questions Jesus, looking for a way to release him without angering the Jews. When that fails, he attempts to pass off his judgment to Herod, who questions and humiliates Jesus before returning him to Pilate.
- Pilate offers to release a prisoner in honor of Passover: Jesus or Barabbas, a rebel and murderer. The crowd chooses Barabbas, and Pilate condemns Jesus to death by crucifixion.
- Pilate’s soldiers brutally flog Jesus, further humiliating him, then have him carry his cross to Golgotha. When he faints on the way, the soldiers enlist the help of Simon of Cyrene.
- Jesus is crucified between two thieves, and the soldiers gamble for his clothes.
- Jesus speaks several times from the cross, and he leaves his mother in St. John’s care. At noon (the sixth hour), darkness descends.
- At three (the ninth hour), Jesus cries out and dies. There is a great earthquake, and the temple curtain tears from top to bottom, and Matthew records that some dead saints come out of their tombs (Mt. 27:52–53).
- Because the Sabbath (Saturday) begins at dusk, the bodies had to be removed beforehand. A soldier pierces Jesus’ side with a spear to make sure he is dead.
- Joseph of Arimathea requests Jesus’ body, and Joseph, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, another Mary, and some additional unnamed women prepare the body and place it in a nearby garden tomb. They seal the tomb with a stone and return to their homes for the Sabbath.
Early Good Friday services were essentially a journey with Jesus. The faithful began with the Thursday vigil and continued their devotion through the night. The church remembered and enacted Jesus’ charge to “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Mk. 14:38, ESV). The fourth-century pilgrim Egeria records that the faithful spent the night in and around Gethsemane, reading passages from the Gospels and offering prayers and hymns, before returning to Jerusalem and processing to Golgotha. They then spent a few hours at home before gathering again at noon. They convened again to venerate the “true cross,” a remnant of the cross discovered by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. From noon to three, pilgrims observed the “three hours,” the hours Jesus and the world spent in darkness. They hear readings from throughout the Scriptures, with the express purpose that “through all those three hours the people are taught that nothing was done which had not been foretold, and that nothing was foretold which was not wholly fulfilled.”
One can see in Egeria’s account an emphasis on both words and deeds, and both have carried on into modern Good Friday observances. While Egeria’s account makes all the words of Scripture the focus of the “three hours,” modern versions of the Three Hours’ Agony or the Great Three Hours emphasize Christ’s seven last words, the words he spoke from the cross.
- “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34, KJVScriptures marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible.)
- “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39–43)
- When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25–27)
- “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:33–34)
- After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. (John 19:28–29)
- When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)
- “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:44–46)
In addition to Jesus’ words, congregants began very early to follow the Via Dolorosa (today called the Stations of the Cross), walking the road Jesus would have followed out of the city to Golgotha. Tradition added several stations until the medieval version included fourteen events, but nine of these events come from Scripture and form the core of the observance.
Another observation Egeria mentions is the Veneration of the Cross. Fourth century Christians believed that St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, found fragments of the True Cross in Jerusalem. (For more on this history, see the article on the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.) So the Bishop of Jerusalem presented the relic of the cross so that pilgrims could venerate it. The Orthodox and Catholic churches make a significant distinction between worship and veneration, a distinction generally misunderstood by Protestants. As Robert Webber has noted, however, Christians who venerate the cross do not honor the wood itself but consider it an icon of Christ, who was crucified “for us and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed).
Good Friday is a near-perfect mingling of sorrow and joy. In a narrative that moves from trial through torture to death, we cannot escape feelings of sorrow, especially if we are able to see our own sinful position. The Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, saw this in his Commedia, set during the Easter Triduum. He descends through Inferno on Good Friday, passing through the circles of hell with Virgil as his guide. He meets increasingly striking displays of punishment, so that one might expect the center of hell to be the most lurid of all. Instead, he finds at the heart of evil not grand misguided power, but “a small, hard, cold kernel of self, transcendentally small, just this side of emptiness.”Anthony Esolen. Inferno. (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 489. Good Friday brings us face-to-face with our own self. We can see ourselves, then, join Jesus in death, being “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20).
At the same time, Good Friday invites us to see God’s tremendous grace and mercy in the cross of Jesus Christ. But Paul’s declaration does not end with death, because our death in and with Christ brings life in and through him. Good Friday is thus not an end but a miraculous beginning for us individually and the whole church. As Gregory of Nazianzus writes,
Many indeed are the wondrous happenings of that time. . . . Yet no one of them can be compared to the miracle of my salvation. A few drops of blood renew the whole world, and do for all men what the rennet does for the milk: joining us and binding us together.On the Holy Pasch, Oration 45.1. https://sites.google.com/site/wwwtangaannaikgfcom/jesus-way-of-c (accessed April 12, 2022).
We are bound and joined in Christ’s death; he has made sure of it.
Practice: Attend a Good Friday service at your church or another local church. Consider visiting a church with a Stations of the Cross installation.
Watch: The Stations of the Cross, with Bishop Robert Barron
Read and Reflect: “Good Friday,” by Christina Rossetti
04. Holy Saturday
About Holy Saturday, we can say little from the Scriptures. The Nicene Creed does not mention a place of the dead, merely saying that Jesus “died and was buried.” The much later Apostles Creed contains the statement “he descended into hell,” or “descended to the dead,” which has been a source of controversy. The clause draws on an interpretation of Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:19.
From a human perspective, and the perspective of his followers, the emphasis of Holy Saturday must be that Jesus actually died, was actually entombed. His disciples may have held onto the possibility of a miraculous deliverance right up to the end. Not even John assisted Joseph of Arimathea in the burial—whether out of despair or fear or some other reason, we do not know.
One of the most provocative images of the disciples on Saturday is Eugene Burnand’s Holy Saturday (1907–1908). Albert Edward Bailey, writing in The Gospel in Art, sees “not a ray of hope on any face.”Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Art (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2009). Peter’s head is in his hands; John wears a pained expression. “What that ‘Holy Saturday’ meant to these bewildered disciples in anguish, deep-seated longing, and unspoken sorrow, only those who have loved much and lost can ever know.”The Gospel in Art. They had seen Jesus’ power to heal and raise the dead, had heard him teach about his suffering and resurrection, so they faced this paradox of the Lord of Life given over to suffering and death. They imagined the Lord of the Universe confined in a small tomb.
This paradox finds expression in the Matins canticles sung in the Orthodox church.
“Thou who didst establish the measure of the earth, Jesus, King of the Universe, today art held by a narrow grave.”
“He who empties the tombs is placed in a new grave.”
“He who amongst all mortals is beautiful is seen as dead; He who made the natural universe beautiful.”
“The Lord of all creation lies beneath our eyes: He is dead.”A Monk of the Eastern Church [Fr. Lev Gillet], The Year of the Grace of the Lord, D. Cowen, trans. (Crestwood Tuckahoe, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 159.
While the tomb is central, the liturgy of the church has seen it not as a place of death and decay, but as a source of life and liberation. Like the “kernel of wheat” Jesus mentions in John 12, he “falls into the ground and dies.” And just as he predicted, his “planting” in death will “bear much fruit.” He will be, as St. Paul writes, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).
Holy Saturday’s celebration is divided in tone. The first part of the day belongs to Jesus’ Passion. The Son of Life has departed, descending to the depths and experiencing death. Some theologians see a parallel to God’s resting on the Sabbath after the work of creation, as Jesus’ work on the Cross makes the world and humanity anew.
The second part of the day leans toward the Resurrection, the “eighth day” that sees Jesus victorious over the grave and death and hell. He descended to the dead, yes, and defeated death from the inside. The vespers chants intone the grave’s lament: “Today hell laments and cries out: Better than I had not welcomed Him who is born of Mary. He has put an end to my power. He has broken my doors of bronze.” The icon for Holy Saturday, although it’s called the icon of the Resurrection (Anastasis), depicts Jesus standing on the broken doors of hell, which form a cross. His hands are stretched out to Adam and Eve, liberating them from the prison of death. This action animates the New Testament hymn recorded by St. Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O grave, where is your sting?”
Holy Saturday encapsulates the arc of the Christian life. Faced with the broken world, the apparent absence of God, we may be tempted to despair. But by the grace of the given Word, we know where God is. He is at work, making all things new, bringing the not-yet kingdom into the here and now.
Watch: Holy Saturday: An Animation
Look: The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Tomb, Eugene Burnand, 1898.
Read and Reflect: “An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday”
The bidding prayer at the Christmastide “Festival of Lessons and Carols” invites participants to “prepare . . . to hear again the message of the angels, in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass.” Holy Week invites us to do something similar with the Passion of Jesus, the final earthly struggle that is his work of new creation. We may watch and listen as Simeon’s prophecy about Jesus—that he will “be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and . . . a sign that will be rejected” (Greek, “a sign of contradiction”)—comes to pass. Despite the promise of hope and reconciliation, Jesus’ coming presents difficulty to anyone who would follow him. He is a skandalon, a potential stumbling block. To some he is peace; to others, a sword. This final week, and particularly the final days of the Easter Triduum, heighten the tension of the Gospels. The disciples who followed him into the city faithfully run and hide in fear after his betrayal in the garden. The same crowds that welcome Jesus with hosannas on Palm Sunday cry, “Crucify him!” on Good Friday. The disciples who saw Jesus call Lazarus from the tomb spend the promised “third day” behind locked doors, emerging only when Mary Magdalene brings news that he’s risen. In short, the Easter Triduum poses to us a Pilate-like question about Jesus, “Is this your king?”
Eugene Burnand. Holy Saturday. 1907-1908. Musee des Beaux Arts, La Chaux de Finds, France.