Whereas Lent as a whole is chiefly catechetical and aims especially at the significance of Holy Baptism, Holy Week focuses the Church’s attention on the Cross and Passion of her Lord as the first priority, and on His Sacrament of the Altar in its close connection to His Cross and Passion. As He accomplished salvation by the Tree of the Cross, so does He now distribute the Fruits of that Tree, His Body and Blood, in the Holy Communion. This dual focus on the Passion and the Sacrament is evident, not only in the proximity and close connection between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but in the way the narrative of the Lord’s Supper figures prominently in the accounts of the Passion. The Sacrament interprets the Cross, and the Cross fills the Supper.
In general, Holy Week is marked by sober simplicity, quiet reverence, and a fasting from the Church’s usual rejoicing. But the entire week, precisely in its focus on the Passion of our Lord, is kept in the confident expectation of His Paschal Feast. The fasting and prayers of Holy Week are undertaken in the remembrance of His Cross and in the hope of His Resurrection.
The emphases of Holy Week come into profound clarity in the sacred “Triduum,” the Church’s liturgical celebration of the Three Days — from the night when our Lord Jesus Christ was handed over to His voluntary suffering and death, until the first evening of His Resurrection from the dead, when He first appeared to His disciples in the Upper Room — that is, from Maundy Thursday evening until Easter Sunday evening. The Triduum is a comprehensive and concerted celebration of the Paschal Mystery, in which the Passion, Cross, and Resurrection of our Lord are held together in the Church’s prayer and confession of Christ Jesus. Thus, Maundy Thursday anticipates and “leans into” both Good Friday and Easter, whereas the Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord recalls and distributes the Fruits and Benefits of His Cross in His Holy Supper.
Maundy Thursday serves, on the one hand, as a bookend to Ash Wednesday, a culmination and completion of Lent. On the other hand, as the beginning of the sacred Triduum, it is already a participation in the Paschal Feast, especially by way of the Supper instituted on this night. The Lord’s washing of His disciples’ feet in the historic Holy Gospel for this day (St. John 13:1-15) is not only an example of Christian love for the neighbor, but first and foremost a demonstration of the Lord’s enduring love for His own, and a depiction of their return to the significance of Holy Baptism through contrition and repentance, confession, and faith in His forgiveness of their sins. The penitential discipline of Lent thus finds its remedy and resolution here. The dust and ashes of sin and death are washed away by the Lord’s Word of Absolution, and those who have been humbled by the Law are exalted by the One who humbles Himself, even unto death, in order to serve His disciples in love with His own Body and Blood.
Good Friday stands at the heart and center of the Triduum, as surely as the Cross and Passion of our Lord stand at the heart and center of the Christian faith and life. The whole day is marked by the Church’s deepest humility and most solemn reverence. It is not that she mourns the death of Christ per se, but the sins of her own members and of the world for which He suffered and died. Accordingly, her sorrow does not lead her to despair, but to repentance and faith in the Cross of Christ. She gives thanks for His atoning sacrifice and lays hold of His redemption in the hearing of His Gospel – and in the eating and drinking of His Body and Blood.
The Good Friday Service is not a funeral for Jesus, not even in the sense that a Christian funeral is approached and “celebrated” in the hope and joy of the Resurrection. Good Friday and Easter belong together as one Paschal Feast, and so must the death of Christ be given its proper due as the Lord’s decisive victory over sin, death, the devil, and hell — accomplished at the cost of His own Body and Lifeblood. He is not a helpless victim; yet, His suffering and death are fully real. There is a stark tension and a sober expectation inherent to the entire day and its observances.
Holy Saturday in its full scope is the inverse of Good Friday and the complement of Maundy Thursday, then also the onset of Eastertide as the day gives way to night. It marks and measures the transition from the depths of the Passion to the heights of the Pascha. So Holy Saturday is an eventful day, albeit mostly quiet. It is calm in its repose and Sabbath Rest, yet already full to the point of bursting with the sure and certain hope and expectation of the Resurrection.
The Great Vigil of Easter on the Eve of the Resurrection of Our Lord is the high point of the Triduum. It continues the observance that began on Maundy Thursday and passed through Good Friday, bringing it fully into the Paschal Feast and ushering in the Great Fifty Days of Easter. This transition is poignantly unfolded in the course of the Easter Vigil, which moves deliberately from darkness into light. In doing so, it celebrates the passage of Christ from death into life and the Church’s passage through death into life with Him through Holy Baptism. The night begins with hushed anticipation, proceeds with heightened expectations, and finally crescendos in the exuberant celebration of the Eucharist. The cry rings out in the Church once more: “Alleluia!”
The Easter Vigil truly is a Christian “Passover,” that is, a celebration of the great Exodus that Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God, accomplished by His sacrificial death and brought to light in His Resurrection from the dead. All that the Lord God did for Israel in bringing His people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, He has perfectly fulfilled for all the baptized in His Cross and Resurrection. In Holy Baptism, His people have crossed the Red Sea out of slavery in Egypt and entered into Canaan through the waters of the Jordan River. As they die with Christ by their Baptism into His death, so do they also rise with Him and live with Him in newness of life. And in the Holy Communion, they eat and drink the true Passover Feast, since “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7–8). His Blood covers His House and protects His Family from sin, death, and hell. His Body feeds and sustains His people on the Way as their true Meat, their Meal of Salvation, and as their true Manna from heaven in the wilderness of this world.