The forty days of Lent come to their dramatic conclusion with Holy Week—or Great Week, as it is known in the East—and it is a week that is liturgically unlike any other. In fact it is the nucleus and cradle of the whole development of the Church’s year, and it leads to the celebration of Easter Sunday as well as to the joyous solemnity of Eastertide, the fifty-day time of rejoicing in the Resurrection of Christ.
The origins of the liturgical rites of Palm Sunday are traced to Jerusalem, wherein the triumphal entry of the Lord into the city was reenacted each year with special solemnity by the Christians there. It was celebrated in the mid-afternoon, and began on the Mount of Olives, at the shrine-church erected on the site of the Ascension. Descending from thence into the city, the faithful gave forth their praise of Hosannas and waved their palm branches as the Bishop of Jerusalem rode upon the donkey. The ceremony spread throughout the East, and then to Rome. In its Roman adaptation, the Passion of St. Matthew was sung (as it is today), and it was adorned with magnificent hymns such as the Gloria laus, composed by Bishop Theodulf d’Orleans (†821), and the Ingrediente Domino. The former is sung as the processional cross knocks upon the church door (the cross opens heaven to men), and the latter as the procession enters the church, after which the Mass would begin. It was a widespread custom for the little Gospel and blessing of palms to take place in one location apart from the parish church, such as a rural chapel, and for the procession to then make its way toward the parish.
The Sacred Triduum is the complex of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. St. Ambrose refers to it as the triduum (three days) in which Christ “suffered, rested, and rose” (et passus est, et requievit, et resurrexit). The Sacred Triduum contains the most impressive ceremonies commemorating and reliving these actions of the Lamb of God. In addition to the Masses—of distinctive types (in Coena Domini, Presanctified, and Vigil)—there are also the ceremonies of the Divine Office and related devotional exercises. Regarding the former, the most distinctive part is the Office of Tenebrae, i.e., the Matins and Lauds of each day. For many centuries, the liturgical days of the Triduum were balanced between Mass in the morning and Tenebrae in the evening (as the light of day gave over to the shadows of night), which was the night office anticipated for the following day. The current use, after Pope Pius XII, is rather for Tenebrae to be celebrated each day in the morning, and the Mass in the evening.
Like Palm Sunday, the ceremonies of the Sacred Triduum developed in Jerusalem. The faithful there would ceremonially relive all of the events of the Passion on the places and at the times when they took place. The Spanish pilgrim-nun Egeria wrote of these ceremonies in her pilgrimage diary, which she composed in AD 381-384. She refers to two Masses on Maundy Thursday, one in the large Basilica as a Lenten Mass, and the second celebrated beside it on Mount Calvary, at the foot of the Cross, as the commemoration of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, even though the site of the Cenacle was located some distance away.
Rome in earlier centuries also used an earlier Lenten Mass, which was for the reconciliation of the penitents and which was later abrogated. In addition, on this day the Chrismal Mass was added for Cathedrals or any place in which a Bishop will bless Holy Oils. The principal Mass in the Roman liturgy for Maundy Thursday, however, is that which is termed in Coena Domini (in reference to the Last Supper); it is celebrated with exceptional solemnity. The hour for the celebration of this Mass varied over the years between Sext and None, i.e., between noon and three o’clock, but eventually came to be celebrated on the morning of Maundy Thursday until it was restored to the evening by Pope Pius XII.
The most important characteristic of the Mass in Coena Domini is the transfer of the Blessed Sacrament to the ornately-decorated altar of repose, traditionally called The Sepulcher. Transferred there to the accompaniment of the sequence Pange Lingua, the Eucharistic King receives homage from the faithful for some hours after the Mass, and the altars of the church are stripped. Another distinctive characteristic of Maundy Thursday is that which gives the day its name: the Maundy, that is, the washing of feet. It is historically a clerical custom. In the Apostolic Palace, and in later years at St. Peter’s, on the afternoon of this Thursday, the Pope washed the feet of twelve priests, in imitation of the action of Our Lord Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, when He washed the feet of the twelve Apostles. At the time of St. Gregory the Great, an angel miraculously appeared among them, which led to the custom of including thirteen priests. The ceremony was eventually developed such that it was a complete liturgy of its own, with chanted lessons, and was carried out not only by the Pope, but by bishops in their residences as well. It was approved as an optional rite for parishes by the legislation of Pius XII, whereby it can be inserted into the Mass in Coena Domini after the Gospel, with the recipients of the washing being twelve laymen.
The primitive source of the origin of the rites of Good Friday once again are from Egeria, describing the ceremonies of Jerusalem toward the close of the fourth century. The faithful there would make their pilgrimage to each of the holy sites through the day, starting on Thursday evening at the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane, then on Friday to the Cenacle—where the scourging pillar was kept as a relic—and onward to Golgotha, where they venerated the relics of the True Cross. Each of these visits included a liturgy of its own.
For Rome, the Gregorian Sacramentary traces the outline of the papal ceremonies, but covers mainly the texts employed. In the eighth century, the veneration of the True Cross became more developed in the papal liturgy. The Pope would lead a procession from the Lateran to the Basilica of the Holy Cross, acting as thurifer, walking before the relic which was held by a deacon. The ceremonies of the parish churches of Rome, however, were a bit different; those were the ones that spread later through the West and are those known altogether as the Mass of the Presanctified, with the reading of the Passion, the solemn prayers, adoration of the Cross, and Holy Communion (which from the thirteenth century until the reign of Pius XII was received by the priest alone). The adoration of the Cross is accompanied by the Greek texts of the Improperia. The term “Mass of the Presanctified” refers to the fact that there is not a Mass celebrated, properly speaking, but rather a liturgy in which the Holy Eucharist consecrated the day before is venerated and received.
This day is consecrated to the Easter Vigil, which St. Augustine called “the mother of all holy vigils”. The Vigil originally was celebrated beginning on the night of Holy Saturday. In later centuries, it was moved earlier in the day, eventually settling into the morning hours of Saturday, with the fast being broken at noon, the Vigil having by then concluded; during the pontificate of Pius XII it was moved to the evening hours once again. The third-century Syrian Didascalia Apostolorum provides an ancient synopsis of the rite: “You shall come together and watch and keep vigil all the night with prayers and intercessions, and with reading of the Prophets, and with the Gospel and with Psalms … until the third hour in the night after the Sabbath; and then break your fasts…. And then offer your oblations; and thereafter eat and make good cheer, and rejoice and be glad, because the earnest of our resurrection, Christ, is risen. And this shall be a law to you forever, unto the end of the world.”
The Easter Vigil benefitted from two subsequent expansions on this primitive template. The first was the celebration of baptisms at the Vigil, which was mainly due to the Peace of Constantine (AD 313), after which the many converts were baptized solemnly at the Vigil each year. This gave a distinct imprint to the whole rite (as described more in depth in our article “Baptism and the Easter Vigil”, The Angelus, March-April, 2014), by including the procession to the baptistery accompanied by the Litany of the Saints, consecration of the font, and the baptism and confirmation of the catechumens.
The second expansion consisted of the introduction of a typical lamp-lighting ceremony, called a lucernarium, which is seen also in Vespers according to some rites. (It is traditionally accompanied by the hymn Phos Hilaron, a panegyric on the “joyous light of the Father’s eternal glory.”) For the Easter Vigil, though, the lucernarium was to take on an even greater significance, as a new fire would be freshly kindled with flint and the main candle lighted would be the ornately decorated Paschal Candle; both the new fire and the standing Candle are representative of the Resurrection. The Praeconium paschale or Exultet, the unique proclamation composed for this, which St. Jerome calls the carmen cerei, is at the same time a paean to Paschal Candle itself and a recapitulation of the whole theology of the Vigil, which it describes in part in the following terms: “Let the angelic choirs of heaven rejoice; …this is the Paschal solemnity, in which that true Lamb is slain; …this is the night which purged away the darkness of sinners by the light of the pillar; …this is the night in which Jesus Christ rose victorious from the grave, destroying the bonds of death; O happy fault (O felix culpa!) that merited so great a Redeemer! …O truly blessed night (O vere beata nox!) which alone deserved to know the time and hour in which Christ rose again from the grave! O truly blessed night…in which heavenly things are united to those of earth! Receive, O holy Father, [this Candle] nourished by the melting wax, which the mother bee produced for the substance of this precious lamp.”
The Exultet is seen in the parochial liturgy of Rome in the seventh century and in the papal liturgy in the eleventh century. The collect for blessing the new fire as well as the Lumen Christi procession appear in the Pontifical of the twelfth century. For seven centuries, beginning in the thirteenth, a three-branched candle was used for the procession, whereas the Paschal Candle was lighted during the Exultet in its own elaborate stand, without having been carried in. Besides being ornately decorated, the candle was sometimes of very great size. The Paschal Candle of Westminster Abbey once reached the weight of eight hundred pounds during the medieval era. In cases such as those, a smaller decorated candle (the size of most modern Paschal Candles) was blessed alongside the Paschal Candle and it was this candle that was carried to the baptistery for the blessing of the font. The Paschal Candle is a liturgical symbol of the Risen Christ which is exclusive to the Office ceremonies and Masses of Paschaltide. It remains on the Gospel side of the sanctuary until Ascension Thursday, at which time it is retired, and its cereous successor reappears at the Easter Vigil the following year.
It is at the Mass of the Easter Vigil that the Alleluia returns, and in fine form, with its triple and ascending intonation. Alleluia is the recapitulation of the Resurrection in one single word. The pontifical ceremonies contain the solemn announcement of the subdeacon, “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum, quod est: Alleluia!—I announce to you good news, which is: Alleluia!”
Originally, the lengthy Vigil itself contained the single Mass for the Resurrection, as is still seen in the Eastern liturgies. But it was not long before a second Mass was added to the morning of Easter day. St. Augustine attests to this practice in North Africa in his day, as he preached a sermon at the morning Mass notwithstanding his fatigue from the Vigil ceremonies of the preceding night, which he points out to the faithful. In Rome, St. Leo the Great preached at the Vigil alone; the texts for the morning Mass appeared later there, in the seventh century. A later but felicitous addition to the Easter Mass was one of the four sequences maintained by St. Pius V for the 1570 Missal: the famous Victimae Paschali laudes, attributed to Wipo of Burgundy (†1048) and set to music so often by the Renaissance and Baroque composers. The whole Easter Mass is pervaded through and through with Paschal rejoicing: RESURREXI, et adhuc tecum sum, alleluia!—I arose, and am still with Thee, alleluia!