Today, Christians in the West begin what is called the Easter Triduum. “Triduum” is Latin for “three days” and it refers to the observance of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. They are, without a doubt, the holiest days in the Christian calendar and they lie at the core of our identity as Christians.
“Triduum” is more a liturgical expression than a theological one. The role of liturgy is to focus us, to make us remember in the biblical sense.
In the Bible, God is often called upon to “remember.” At the Last Supper, Jesus institutes the Eucharist and tells the disciples to “do this in my remembrance” (Lk 22:19). When God is asked to remember in the psalms, it is not an indication that God has somehow forgotten. Remembrance, zakar in Hebrew, means to bring something into effect, to make it present in a dynamic and concrete way. When the psalmist prays, “Remember me, O Lord” (Ps 106:4), it is the same as praying, “Save me, O God!” (Ps 69:2). Remembering is a way that makes you powerfully and salvifically present.
The Triduum calls us to remember or to make present three central events in salvation: the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ. These are three distinct events that happened in a specific place and time. They are not set in the atmosphere of “once upon a time,” but rather on a concrete day in the history of humanity — in the Hebrew month of Nisan just before Passover, while Pontius Pilate was Roman procurator in Judea. The liturgy stresses the concrete, that is, the very incarnational nature of these three events.
While the liturgy focuses and makes present, it often does not show the full theological sweep of things. Therefore, while Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are central to the Christian message of salvation, they do not exhaust that message.
Theologically, we speak of the one, great saving act of God in Christ. We find it to some extent in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. However, the Gospel of John and some letters of Paul refer to, in Greek, the katabasis and anabasis, the “coming down” and “going up.” The one, great saving act of God is indivisible: It begins with the Incarnation (coming down) of the eternal Word — his life, teaching, death, resurrection (going up), ascension and exaltation at the right hand of the Father (cf. Phil 2:6-11).
In John’s gospel, Jesus says no one goes up (anabasis) to heaven except the one who has come down (katabasis), and he speaks of the Son of Man being lifted up (Greek hypsoō), so the believer can have eternal life (3:13-15). Later in John’s gospel, Jesus states: “When I am lifted up (hypsoō) from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” The evangelist adds, “By these words he indicated the kind of death he would die,” that is, crucifixion (12:32-33).
The lifting up of Jesus in crucifixion in John’s gospel is related to how Jesus, having finished the Last Supper, declares, “Now is the Son of Man glorified” (13:31). Written in the past tense (Greek aorist), the one, great saving act of God is both coming to fulfillment and is, in a sense, already accomplished. The lifting up on the cross is the beginning of the “lifting up” that leads through the ascension to the exaltation of Christ at the right hand of the Father. It is theologically and salvifically one act.
Although the one, great saving act of God in Christ can be broken down, observed and celebrated in discrete points of time — from the Annunciation to Pentecost — it is basically one act of God. It is the saving act of God in Christ through the Spirit.
In a sense — an especially important sense — it is like a magnificent mosaic, composed of hundreds of pieces and hundreds of colors. We can focus in and marvel at any small section of it. However, it is the whole mosaic that shows the magnificence of the entire scene. So, too, with the Triduum. We focus in on specific events that took place in a specific place and time.
However, on Easter Sunday we need to stand back and get a broader look at the whole picture: Jesus of Nazareth, incarnate Word of God, born of Mary, crucified, died and buried, has been raised from the dead — raised, lifted up and exalted as Christ and Lord at the right hand of the Father, sending the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 16:7) on all who believe and are baptized.
The Triduum helps us to focus, but ultimately we need to stand back and see the whole “mosaic” — in its cosmic power and glory — as the one, saving act of God in Christ.