Three mysterious words: Mystery, Passover, Paschal Triduum

Fr Stanislaw Czerwik

When we listen to the language of the Church and liturgy we often, especially in Lent and the season of Easter, come across three words: mystery, Passover, Triduum. Can we understand them? Can we interpret these words that direct our attention to the greatest mysteries of faith? As a matter of fact, the knowledge of what is hidden behind the language of the Church and liturgy is the condition to experience properly the most important days in the liturgical year. Therefore, let us reflect on these three words, which will allow us to understand and meditate what happened on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and during this unique Night, which we call Easter.


Firstly, one should recall the fundamental meaning of the word 'mystery'. It derives from the Greek verb, which means 'close the lips' and 'initiate in hidden reality, teach what goes beyond boundaries accessible to all people (non-initiates)'. Thus mystery means the place of initiation and also the sacred reality known to the initiates. In the Christian sense mystery means invisible and salvific reality of God, which in some visible way reveals itself and gives to people as well as allows them to share the live of God himself.
According to Saint Paul the mystery of salvation is God's hidden plan made in Christ from the beginning to save all people and bring everything together under Christ, as head. This predetermined plan was hidden in God and unknown even to heavenly spirits. This plan was gradually revealed through prophets and in the last days through the apostles (especially St Paul). The central event, revealing this plan of God, is the Passion, Death and Glorification of Jesus Christ. Jesus, who died and by the power of the Holy Spirit was raised to glory by God the Father, is as if the personification of this plan of God, is in himself the mystery.
Vatican II, taking the statements of St Paul (cf. Rm 16:25-27; Ep 1: 9-10; 3:8-11; Col 1:25-27), builds the framework of the teaching on God's plan of salvation. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church teaches 'The eternal Father, in accordance with the utterly gratuitous and mysterious design of his wisdom and goodness, created the whole universe, and chose to raise up men to share in his own divine life...' (Lumen Gentium, 2). We read similar words in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation 'It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will (cf. Eph. 1:9). His will was that all men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature (Dei Verbum, 2).

Passover and Paschal Mystery

The word 'passover' comes from Hebrew and Aramaic (i.e. the language Jesus spoke). One meaning of this Old Testament word, which is most interesting, is connected with the tenth Egyptian plague. We read in the Book of Exodus, chapter 12, that God would strike down all the first-born sons in Egyptian families and the Lord's angel would spare the houses of Israelites and they would escape the destroying plague. Here the Passover means powerful and merciful going of God (or his angel) through the land of Egypt, connected with the plague of killing the first-born sons (and the first-born beasts) brought on Pharaoh and his people. The Passover of God of Israel began the liberation of Israel from the slavery of Egypt.
The second meaning of the word 'passover' is related to this event. The Passover is the annual celebration of the feast, a day of remembrance of that unique and decisive intervention of God in the history of the chosen nation. This is the Passover in Yahweh's honour, sacrifice for Yahweh. The people of Israel celebrate the Passover of God and remembrance of their delivery - passing from slavery to freedom. The Jewish feast of Passover was to be a remembrance of one unique event thanks to which the chosen nation passed from slavery to freedom. However, we can speak about two other meanings of the word 'passover'. First, it is the Passover of Jesus. What is his Passover about? It is his 'passing from this world to the Father' (John 13:1). Passing from 'the condition of a slave', from humility, which the Son of God assumed himself, becoming as men are, except being sinful, to the condition of praise and glory in which he becomes the Lord of all beings and Lord full of majesty. His Passover is presented by the ancient Christian hymn to humility and raising the Son of God high (Philippians 2:6-11).
Now we can understand what 'Paschal Mystery' means. It is the mystery of salvation hidden and fulfilled in the events of the Passion, Death and Glorification of Jesus. This mystery embraces all mankind and the universe. Let us quote the words of Vatican Council II, 'The wonderful works of God among the people of the Old Testament were but a prelude to the work of Christ Our Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God. He achieved his task principally by the paschal mystery of his blessed passion, resurrection from the dead, and glorious ascension, whereby 'dying, he destroyed our death, and rising, restored our life'. [Easter Preface] For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth 'the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church' (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 5). Here we come to the fourth 'dimension' of the Passover: it is the Passover of every Christian and the Passover of the Church. Jesus died on the cross and conquered death as new Adam (new man) and the Head of all redeemed mankind. St Paul defines the resurrected Christ as the first-fruits of the dead, which means the beginning and pattern of people's resurrection that through faith and baptism were united in him in the mystery of his death and resurrection (cf. Romans 6:3-11). In 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, concerning the truth of the common resurrection of the dead, the Apostle writes 'Christ has in fact been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep' (15:20). 'Just as all men die in Adam, so all men will be brought to life in Christ; but all of them in their proper order: Christ as the first-fruits and then, after the coming of Christ, those who belong to him' (1 Cor 15:22-23).
In the resurrected Christ the mankind that he redeemed returns to God from whom it came. He is the 'first-fruits', the beginning and pattern of new creation, new heavens and new earth (cf. Revelation 21:1). We celebrate the Paschal Mystery in three cycles of time so that all men of all times could gradually share in this change - the Passover of Jesus:
(1) the daily cycle - especially in celebrating the Eucharist, which commemorates the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ awaiting his coming in glory. This truth is expressed in Jesus' commandment 'Do this as a memorial of me' (Luke 22:19). Daily remembrance of the Paschal Mystery is done in the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer that all priests and religious are obliged to offer.
(2) the weekly cycle - we celebrate the Paschal Mystery every Sunday, especially at Sunday Eucharist. We have done so since the apostolic times. As Vatican Council II teaches Sunday is 'the original feast day'... the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year' (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 106). The Holy Father John Paul II called Sunday 'the Passion of the week'.
(3) the yearly cycle - the Paschal Triduum commemorates the whole Paschal Mystery.

Paschal Triduum

Towards the end of the 4th century St Ambrose wrote about 'holy triduum' to define the days on which Christ suffered, lied in the tomb and rose from the dead. In the writings of St Augustine we find the term 'the most sacred triduum of the resurrected, buried, resurrected'. It means that Triduum embraced Good Friday (remembrance of the Crucifixion), Holy Saturday (remembrance of Christ's body lying in the tomb) and Holy Sunday (remembrance of the Resurrection). At first Holy Thursday was not included in the term 'holy triduum' although as St Augustine recollected Mass as the memorial of the institution of the Eucharist was celebrated in Hippo in the evening of that day. The post conciliar documents refer to this ancient tradition. The Congregation for Divine Worship writes, 'The greatest mysteries of the Redemption are celebrated yearly by the Church beginning with the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday until Vespers of Easter Sunday. This time is called "the triduum of the crucified, buried and risen"; (42) it is also called the "Easter Triduum" because during it is celebrated the Paschal mystery, that is, the passing of the Lord from this world to his Father. The Church by the celebration of this mystery, through liturgical signs and sacramentals, is united to Christ, her Spouse, in intimate communion' (Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts, 38).
Therefore, the Paschal Triduum begins with Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. It is as if a 'sacramental prologue' to what we are going to celebrate on the next days and at the same time it is a ritual message of the whole and only Paschal Mystery. Under the cover of sacramental signs the very mystery of Jesus' Death is personified and we remember this mystery in the liturgy of Good Friday. The Church does not celebrate the Eucharist on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. We recollect the death of Jesus and his rest in the tomb. The celebration of the Easter Vigil should not begin before nightfall; the Vigil belongs to Easter Sunday and is the climax of the entire Paschal Triduum, which is crowned by Vespers of Easter Sunday. For from the Paschal Vigil until Vespers of Easter Sunday we celebrate the remembrance of Jesus' victory over death. The period of paschal joy embraces 50 days, which the Church celebrates until Pentecost Sunday as one "great Sunday".

'Triduum Paschalne', addition to 'Niedziela' 15/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: