The Triduum (Were You There?)

7 Apr

A well-known African-American hymn opens with the verse:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh!
Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

These words are quite appropriate, I believe, as we enter into the Triduum, the three days during which we celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The word “Triduum” is Latin for “three days”. These three days are the most holy time of the Church year. This weekend, therefore, we ask ourselves if we were present as the Lord gave Himself up for us on the Cross. Are we present in order to partake in the gift of the Resurrection also?

Good Friday’s Gospel reading begins with Jesus leaving with his disciples to go across the Kidron valley into a garden. (cf. John 18:1) Jesus’ enemies approach, traveling along the same valley. It is likely given the topography- one could see a wide expanse of the valley below from Gethsemane- that Jesus saw those coming to arrest Him, led by the apostle-turned-traitor, Judas Iscariot. Nonetheless, He would have known His fate, even without physically seeing it unfold, because He is God. He knows our deepest intentions and thoughts: “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me… For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:4-5, 13)

The Son of God knows all that is within us, good and evil. He knows that we fear sharing in His Cross. We would prefer to run away, to deny repeatedly that we know Him, to fall asleep in the garden, or to betray Him outright. Jesus knows that some of us are unclean. (cf. John 13:10) Yet He washes our feet, bowing down to serve us like a slave. (cf. John 13:5, Philippians 2:5-11) We still don’t comprehend the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. We, like Peter, initially refuse to have our feet washed, only to ask afterward that the Lord wash our hands and head also. (cf. John 13:9) Jesus assures us: “Later you will understand.” (John 13:7)

We will understand that the mission of Christ is one of forgiveness and of healing. We will understand that His suffering and death are a necessary part of our salvation. We long to celebrate the Resurrection, but we are warned not to reject our own daily crosses, without which we have no share in God’s glory:

“Jesus has many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few cross-bearers. Many desire His consolation, but few His tribulation. Many will sit down with Him at table, but few will share His fast. All desire to rejoice with Him, but few will suffer for Him. Many will follow Him to the breaking of the bread, but few will drink the bitter cup of His Passion. Many revere His miracles, but few follow the shame of His cross.” (The Imitation of Christ, II, 11)

Kingdom and Cross, consolation and tribulation, feast and fast, joy and suffering, Passover and Passion all go together. This is the Catholic- complete- life. This is the life of living in the world and of living for that which transcends the world. Living it entails humbly praying to God that we do not become too excited in joyful times, but remain focused on the even greater joy of Heaven. In times where God has seemingly abandoned us, when consolation is distant and faith is arid, prayer is equally critical.

Thus, Jesus prays for us on the Cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Our Lord forgives us, insignificant sinners that we are, and He calls to His glory. In the same spirit of forgiveness, He accepts the penitent thief who says in faith, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42), with the reply of forgiveness, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) At Our Lord’s word, the wretched robber became a saint.

In the same way, our wretchedness is transformed into reconciliation with God and into salvation. Were you there when they crucified (Our) Lord? How did we participate in acts of betrayal and of cowardice? Nonetheless, we are forgiven as was the thief. By the Lord’s death and Resurrection, we boldly hope for life everlasting.

Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Oh!
Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?

Less than a week ago, we were commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday, the hymn could be heard: “The King of Glory comes; the nation rejoices!” In such little time, the mood has changed drastically. Now we cannot rejoice as our gaze is fixed upon the crucified Christ. But He who is fastened to the tree is still the same King of Glory. Palm Sunday and Good Friday are not two disconnected historical events. The opening sentence of Good Friday’s first reading attest to that. We read: “See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights.” (Isaiah 52:13) The reading then closes with another affirmation of the suffering Servant’s glory:

“Hence I will grant whole hordes for his tribute,
he shall divide the spoil with the mighty,
for surrendering himself to death
and letting himself be taken for a sinner,
while he was bearing the faults of many
and praying all the time for sinners.”
(Isaiah 53:12)

The Gospel of John also speaks of Jesus being “lifted up” into glory. (John 8:28 ) The Cross surely doesn’t appear glorious, but we must pass through its darkness to see the light of the Resurrection. Jesus gives us an example by which we are to follow Him. (cf. John 13:15) We, too, are to surrender ourselves. We, too, are to make ourselves small before God and accept our suffering as Christ did. We, too, must be prepared to patiently bear others’ faults, to pray for sinners, and to forgive. Then we shall be healed as Christ healed the ear of the high priest’s slave, Malchus, even in the midst of His own great trial. (cf. Luke 22:51) We will then rise again as Christ did.

In the meantime, we are given the responsibility to care for and to love one another. Jesus gives His mother into the hands of the Apostle John, saying: “Here is your mother.” (John 19:27) Likewise, He gives wives into the hands of their husbands and children over to their parents so that they may be cherished. Jesus gives John into our hands as into the hands of Mary: “Woman, here is your son.” (John 19:26) We are asked to accept this difficult but essential task as Mary did.

Mary the Mother of God, her sister Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, and John the Apostle were the only people close to Jesus who witnessed His death according to John’s Gospel. We, like John and the three women, are often called simply to “be there”. A true witness to Christ doesn’t hide in sorrowful times. But the Lord forgives us and loves us anyway when we disown Him, since He is aware of our weaknesses, having lived among us. We might ask, then, as Pontius Pilate did, “What is truth?” (John 18:38 ) Jesus reminds us that He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6) John and the women knew that the Way to Heaven went through the Cross. Jesus turns the tragedy of death into glory. He asks us, like John and the women, to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and to follow Him. (cf. Mark 8:34)

Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Oh!
Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?

“It is finished.” (John 19:30) Christ has died. The horrible end has been reached. A Roman soldier comes, and, noticing that Jesus is already dead, doesn’t break His legs but pierces His side. Scripture tells us that “at once blood and water came out”. (John 19:34) The blood of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, offered up as a sacrifice to atone for our sins, and the water of the Sacrament of Baptism, by which we die to sin and are reborn in Jesus Christ, are intermingled. In St. John Chrysostom’s Catecheses, he wrote: “As God…took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church.” St. John Chrysostom also noted: “Now the water was a symbol of Baptism and the blood, of the Holy Eucharist. The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: (the Victim was sacrificed) and I have been saved by (Him).”

Joseph of Arimathea was a secret follower of Jesus, St. John’s Gospel says, “because of his fear of the Jews”. (John 19:38 ) Joseph overcame his fear, joining Nicodemus to carry Jesus’ body along with burial spices from the Cross to a tomb. In that tomb, Our Lord would be hidden for three days. In commemoration of the period between Christ’s death and Resurrection, the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the Tabernacle and the light marking it is extinguished until Easter. Jesus had warned us that He would be taken from us. The Lord said, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” (John 12:35-36)

Our Master had suffered His agony in a garden. Now the Light of the World was hidden in a tomb that was also in a garden (cf. John 19:41). But this is not the end. We know the joy that awaits us now that we have witnessed the Cross. The women who had stood in faith at the foot of the Cross went to the tomb and, seeing it empty, returned to tell the disciples. However, Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb and wept. Jesus asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (John 20:15) In Luke’s Gospel, a similarly perplexing question is asked of those present: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:5)

There is confusion even amid the joy of the Resurrection. Those who first bore witness to the Risen Christ “did not understand the scripture, that He must rise from the dead.” (John 20:9) Neither do we fully understand the mystery of the Resurrection or Christ’s promise to His followers of a share in it. We approach such an occasion as we did the Lord’s Passion- with fear and trembling, but in awe. Nevertheless, we are present at the Passion and at the Resurrection, waiting in joy and in hope. God will soon reveal to us what we don’t yet understand. For now, we remember Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross. We stand watching. We believe, as in the Nicene Creed, in “the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

Lord, by your Cross and Resurrection, You have set us free. You are the Saviour of the world.

WRS

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