Our Easter Triduum Offering

James Tolhurst FAITH Magazine March – April 2012

Fr James Tolhurst draws upon 2,000 years of tradition to help us enter into the liturgy of the Triduum. In particular, he draws out the significance of Holy Saturday, when Christ descended into hell to rescue the souls of the just from the shadow of death.

For the People of Israel, Passover was the great moment commemorating God's saving love that released them from their years of slavery in Egypt. On that final Passover, Jesus told his disciples how much he had longed to eat this supper with them before he suffered, and he would use it as an expression of the love which God has for us. Since it was not possible for us to ascend and participate in that which is his, he came down to us and participated in that which is ours, so that we could live in him and he in us.

The Lord and Servant

Yes, he was Lord and Master, but he was also the servant who would bear our grief and carry our sorrows, who would be wounded for our sins, despised and rejected, like a lamb led to the slaughter.

So that he could give them a permanent reminder of that service, having loved his own in the world he would give them the uttermost proof of his love. First, by acting as a humble servant he would wash the soiled feet of his disciples, not only to prepare them for the coming celebration but also looking forward to the time when they would sit at table with Abraham in God's banquet in heaven (Luke 13:29).

Then he would put himself in the place of the Passover lamb, for this (according to St. John's chronology) was Jesus' Passover- anticipating the liturgical feast. He would do so knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, the supreme power of intercession for the wounds of humanity and its sins, of praise and glory for all that God has made beautiful and just. He would give himself out of supreme love for us, bringing us from darkness without hope to the light of faith, from the enslavement of our sins to an eternal kingdom of love, as we say in the hymn, "No story so divine, never was love dear King... like thine."[1]

An Everlasting Offering

His very body would be given up and broken for us and his blood would be poured out for us in his passion and death. He would present that gift of himself to us, so that we could offer the service of our lives in union with him. This sacrifice would not be a "giving up", as we so often think of it, but rather a "giving to", as in the words of the Third Eucharistic Prayer: "May he make of us, an eternal offering to you, Father." And as part of that offering, we would share in his love and compassion and concern for each other in that communion which is the Church, and in God's love for all that he made, especially for humanity - which, at the dawn of creation, God saw as very good. That is the power of the Eucharist and its invitation to serve God as he deserves and offer our lives withhim and in him. Because Jesus offered his body in sacrifice, we should offer our whole selves, in union with the Son of God who was our servant, in our daily work, with our time and our best efforts each day, not given grudgingly but united wholeheartedly with his offering.

Generous Giving

We are all called to give generously: parents, in the efforts they put in for their children; young adults, in recognising that their bodies are "for the Lord" and should be considered as something holy; consecrated religious, in giving themselves in prayer out of a perfect love for God; and especially priests, who are told at their ordination that they must imitate what they celebrate at the altar. As God's holy and priestly people, we have all been consecrated by that offering of the Body of Jesus Christ... "for our good and the good of all his Church". In his body that is offered, we are offered with him. That should mean, we offer to our God the best of ourselves. We have been given the best in the gift of the only Son of God; and because he has done this out of love for us, we shouldalways show that love in our lives, for this "demands my soul, my life, my all".[2]

He Went Into the Depths for us

As Holy Saturday flows from Good Friday, so the Agony in the Garden flows from the Last Supper. Each event is intertwined with the other. The gift of that last Passover which Christ gave to his disciples began to be revealed to them in Gethsemane. What God does, he does completely: "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." (Jn. 13:1)

In his love Jesus wished to lower himself "even to the darkest corner of our lives."[3] Because he was immune from sin, we might think that there would be a barrier set up against the horror of evil, but for him there were no human distractions. Blessed John Henry Newman preached to his audience in Birmingham that Jesus
 "did not turn away His mind from the suffering as we do - (how could He, who came to suffer, who could not have suffered but of His own act ?) No, He did not say and unsay, do and undo; He said and he did; He said, "Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God; sacrifice and offering Thou wouldest not, but a body hast Thou fitted to me." (Heb. 10:7-9) He took a body in order that He might suffer; He became man, that He might suffer as man; and when His hour was come, that hour of Satan and of darkness, the hour when sin was to pour its full malignity upon Him, it followed that He offered Himself wholly, a holocaust, a whole burnt-offering; - as the whole of His body, stretched out upon the Cross, so the whole of His soul, His whole advertence, His whole consciousness, a mind awake, a senseacute, a living co-operation, a present, absolute intention, not a virtual permission, not a heartless submission...His passion was an action."[4]

The graphic manifestation of this struggle can be seen in the sweat of blood. Archbishop Goodier remarks, "Before men had yet laid hands upon Him He had poured out His blood for them."[5]

Dying He Destroyed our Death

The full reality of Jesus' gift is made clear on Good Friday. The prostration of the clergy at the beginning of the ceremony is a sign that the Son of God so humbled himself and became obedient unto death. The offering of his body and blood to his disciples will be expressed on Calvary. There his body will be broken and offered up on the cross and his blood will be poured out from the soldier's lance wound, "where sorrow and love flow mingled down."[6]

Many have fixed on the beginning of Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?" as a sign of Jesus' feeling of abandonment. But its ending is, "They shall worship him, all the mighty of the earth; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust. And my soul shall live for him, my children serve him. They shall tell of the Lord to generations yet to come, declare his faithfulness to peoples yet unborn: 'These things the Lord has done.'" This is summed up by Jesus' last cry of triumph from the Cross, "It is finished." (Jn. 19:30) As Jesus has just tasted the wine/vinegar which the soldiers have reached up to him, many today see this as the concluding act of Jesus' own Passover: the final fourth cup of wine.

The fast which marks this day was neatly described by Tertullian who pointed out that in his death the bridegroom was taken away from the Church. [7]

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Jesus' death on the cross was followed by his rest in the tomb. As God rested on the seventh day after his work of creation, so after accomplishing his work on earth Jesus also rested on "the holy and great Sabbath."

In 1556 St. Pius V ordered that the Easter Mass should be said before midday on the Saturday. This, in fact, nullified the prominence of the day. The original concept of Holy Saturday was restored when Pius XII decreed the nocturnal vigil in 1955.

The Fathers of the Church did not see Jesus as inactive in the tomb, but rather inaugurating another aspect of his redemption. It is expressed in many English texts as "The Harrowing of Hell." The Thirty-Nine Articles says simply "He went down to Hell;" the Apostles Creed says, "He descended into hell."

The Catechism of Christian Doctrine interpreted this as Limbo "where the souls of the just who died before Christ were detained."[8] St. Augustine talks in terms of Sheol (or Hades) and maintained that it included an inferior hell (where the rich man of the parable dwelt) and a superior hell (for Lazarus in Abraham's bosom).[9] St. Ephraem talks of Christ leading the dead out from hell "against death's wish"[10]

But there remains Gehenna, the place of "everlasting burning and destroying fire," (Isa 33:12) the New Testament Hell, the place from which the Church would pray that we be delivered, "from eternal damnation."[11] It is the lake of fire, and significantly "the second death." (Rev. 19:20; 20:6)

Luther held that Christ was either personally or vicariously damned.[12] Modern writers have similarly expressed the view that "God wills to know and encompass a world from which He is absent and which has no ultimate meaning or purpose. He descended into the hell that is apartness from God."[13]. Yet we know that God "cannot deny his own self" (2 Tim. 2:13) and it can be argued that Christ brought the presence of God to those who had lived before that definitive choice, which his coming involved, "for this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light." (Jn.3:19). The Catechism of the Catholic Church talks of Christ's "journey to the realmof the dead."[14]

The whole purpose was to bring the righteous souls into the kingdom won for them by Christ. As I Peter says, "The gospel was preached even to the dead." (I Pt. 4:6.) This message of freedom which Jesus first announced in Nazareth (Luke 4:18) would embrace our first parents. A Lenten liturgical text says, "To earth hast Thou come down, O Master, to save Adam; and not finding him on earth, Thou hast descended into hell, seeking him there."[15] The same theme is taken up in the reading for the Liturgy of the Hours taken from an early Christian homily, "He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in hisbonds, and Eve, captive with him."[16]

Holy Saturday should not therefore be seen merely as a prelude to the Easter Vigil but as the immediate result of the Cross and a presupposition of the resurrection.[17] The Son of Man would descend so that he could ascend in triumph; so uniting in himself the Old and New Testaments, for everything in the old law, and more particularly everything in the new, was directed towards him.[18] So he would call those who served him faithfully from Abraham, our father in faith, to Zechariah the son of Barachiah (Matt 23:35) to join him when he would drink with them the new wine in the kingdom of his Father. Christ spans the whole of creation, just as now he reaches out to those in purgatory,as he rejoices with those who have reached eternal happiness.

Our English ancestors had a profound appreciation of this Holy Day for in an arched recess of the North wall of the chancel was placed the Easter sepulchre which contained the crucifix and the consecrated hosts of Holy Thursday. The Holy Week processions in Spain also feature sculptural representations of El Cristo muerto, Christ lying in a casket. The altar of repose affords a prayerful time of reflection but of itself it does not provide any reminder of the hidden Christ in the sepulchre. There is a need to bear in mind the cost of Christ's sacrifice and not simply reverence his living presence: we must recall that we have been baptised into Christ's death so that we can rise with him. In the Easter Even (i.e. Holy Saturday) celebration in the Book of CommonPrayer, we ask, in uncomfortable terms, that "by continually mortifying our corrupt affections we may be buried with him, and that through the grave and gate of death, we may pass to our joyful resurrection."

Mother of Sorrows

This time of waiting for the Easter alleluia can be seen in relation to Mary's own anticipation. The 11th century Victimae Paschali Laudes says that she "saw his glory as he rose." Tradition talks of an encounter with her risen Son, but the hymn does not talk of the time before that happened.

It would not seem that one who followed Christ in his way to Calvary, and stood beneath the cross, was like the reproachful Mary, the sister of Lazarus who complained to Christ, "If you had been there, my brother would not have died." (Jn. 11:32) Nor was she like the clingingly emotional Mary Magdalen, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have laid him." (Jn. 20:2.17) Rather, she remained waiting expectantly, as is the case of many faithful mothers throughout the ages. But with this difference, "that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (Luke 1:45). So she waited for the miracle which she trusted God would provide. In this way Holy Saturday provides us with that opportunity to renew our faith in him who conquered sin anddeath.

The catechumens would gather in the morning to give back The Creed (redditio symboli) which had been entrusted to them during Lent. St. Augustine relates that the famous Roman orator and convert to Catholicism Victorinus

"preferred to make profession of salvation in the sight of the congregation in church in a set form of words learned and memorised and spoken from a platform...He uttered the true faith with glorious confidence, and the congregation would gladly have snatched him to their very heart."[19]

The celebration of Easter joy should be tinged with a realisation of the dearly bought victory won by Christ. Early Christians in their baptism would descend by steps[20] into the baptistry (as we know from the archaeological remains of Dura Europos) to bring home to them that they were "buried with Christ by baptism into death" (Rom 6:4). St. Ambrose points out that "baptism is a real death...[Christ] was physically buried in the earth; you are symbolically buried in the water... You were conducted by the hand to the holy pool of sacred baptism, just as Christ was conveyed from the cross to the sepulchre."[21] After baptism they would rise from "the tomb", "[having] submerged yourselvesthree times in the water and emerged: by this symbolic action you were secretly re-enacting the burial of Christ three days in the tomb."[22] Then purified from sin they would receive the white garment (cf. Rev 3:5), symbolising the outward sign of Christian dignity and the wedding feast of the lamb - looking forward to heaven itself. To this is now added a lighted candle, linked in the liturgy to the light of faith and the lamp with which the wise maidens greeted the bridegroom (Matt. 25:14).

The paschal candle which is paid particular honour in the Vigil, focuses our attention on Christ "the joyous light of the eternal Father." To this is added the placing of five grains of incense in the form of a cross to symbolise the "holy and glorious wounds" which Jesus allowed doubting Thomas to touch. The Son of God, Light from Light, bore them for us in the triumph of his resurrection to remind us of all that had gone before in his passion; for by those wounds we are healed: such is God's love for his creation, a love stronger than death:

He who gave for us his life,
Who for us endured the strife,
Is our Paschal Lamb today! [23]

[1] My Song is Love Unknown (Samuel Grossman 1624-1683).

[2] When I survey the Wondrous Cross — (Isaac Watts 1674-1748).

[3] Benedict XVI Homily at The Way of the Cross 22 April, 2011.

[4] Discourses addressed to Mixed Congregations (1849) pp 330-331.

[5] The Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ London 1965 p. 165.

[6] When I survey the Wondrous Cross.

[7]De Ieiunio CCL 1: 125 8.

[8] N. 64.

[9] Letter to Bishop Evodius 164,3 PL 33, 710.

[10] Homily on Our Lord 3. Eastertide Week 3 Friday in Liturgy of the Hours.

[11] Eucharistic Prayer I.

[12] Commentary on Psalm 22. Cf. Matt. 9:15.

[13] The Times Leader article 'Most Mysterious Day' 2 April, 1994. 13 n.632.

[14] Para 43, 440A.

[15] Ancient Christian Homily for Holy Saturday, attributed to St. Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403) PG 43.440A.

[16] The Lenten Triodion in English Translation London & Boston 1978 p. 625.

[17] Hans Urs von Balthasar Theodramatik 3 Einsiedeln, 1978 p. 381.

[18] Homify of St. Melito of Sardes On the Pasch ch.2.

[19] Confessions 8:2.

[20] St. Isidore of Seville (560-636) says that the font has seven steps: "three downwards for the three things which we renounce; three upwards for the three things which we confess", the seventh being the base. De Ecclesiasticis Officiis 25.4 PL 83.

[21] Treatise on the Sacraments q. Anne Field, New Life. Mowbray 1978 p.22. St. Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical Lectures 2,4.

[22] Catechetical Lectures 2,4.

[23] Christ the Lord is risen again! (Michael Weisse 1480-1534. Tr. Catherine Winkworth 1827-1878).

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