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Theology for the common man

Paschal Triduum

Lent culminates in Holy Week where the details of the celebration of the salvific works of Jesus Christ are realized. It tries to follow the chronology of events registered by the Gospels. Here, the focus is on three days during which salvation was accomplished: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of the Resurrection, which constitute a single major feast called the Paschal Triduum. Let’s analyze this more closely.

Hosanna to the Son of David

Of the thirty three years of Jesus Christ’s life, three were of public proclamation and the last weekend was the most important. This started with the day we call Palm Sunday. Jesus came to Jerusalem, the religious center of the world, to die as an example of the great prophets of Israel leaving a message of salvation. The commencement of events was prepared following a specific custom: an untied colt served here as a medium of transportation. Selection of the animal was particular. According to the prophecy of Hosea, the Messiah as a royal descendant of David had to ride on an untied young donkey. A special atmosphere was felt by the crowd who came to the feast of Passover. The people, proclaiming the coming of the Son of David, spread their cloaks and palms on the road over which the Prophet passed. One could really feel an extraordinary atmosphere which announced the coming of something unusual. The people started to realize the beginning of the prophetic events of salvation. The disciples of Jesus, as John noticed from the beginning didn’t realize this until the resurrection. The gathering crowd which welcomed Him did not realize this either.

Do this in memory of me

The days after Palm Sunday Jesus spent teaching the people in the Temple area of Jerusalem and the neighboring villages. The nights were spent in the Olive Garden of Gethsemane in prayer. At last the long awaited feasts came. On Thursday He asked the disciples to prepare for the Jewish Passover which He celebrated the same evening, but with somewhat different scenery. First, He washed the disciples’ feet and later He participated in a traditional supper. The Evangelists noticed all the elements proper to a Passover supper wherein a year-old male lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs, were served in memory of the historical exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. However, during this supper they noticed two changes straying from the traditional model: a special blessing upon the bread and another blessing upon the wine. The supper itself, conducted in an atmosphere of farewell of Jesus with the apostles, according to Jesus’ words, had to be a memorial of his death for the salvation of the world. The mysterious announcement of Jesus about Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial added more questions to the ambiance. Nobody understood these signs. After supper everyone departed for Gethsemane.

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

That Thursday night Jesus’ behavior was different from other nights because He called the apostles to a special vigil in prayer. Everything became clear shortly after midnight, when a band of soldiers and guards from the chief priests and Pharisees led by Judas entered the Olive Garden to seize Jesus. The disoriented disciples dispersed fearing the worst. They came to understand the future of their Master who was hated by the religious authorities of Israel. The events of the next day passed quickly, although not for Jesus. First the high priest Annas and later Caiaphas with the Sanhedrin interrogated Him. In the end they prepared an accusation with a death sentence verdict and lead Him before Pilate, the Roman regent. Pilate, not finding Him guilty, tried to set Him free ordering only His flagellation. Then a degrading spectacle took place as they dressed Him in a purple cloak and placed a crown of thorns on His head as expressions of the royal pretensions of which He was accused. The resistance and determination of the Jewish authorities and the incited crowd caused the next trial. The bandit Barabbas was released and Jesus was destined to be crucified. The crucifixion proceeded according to the Roman custom, and according to Jewish procedure out of town, and consisted of carrying a horizontal beam bound to the shoulders of the convict to the place of execution, where he was placed on a vertical beam of the cross already fastened to the ground. Nails were then driven into his hands and feet. This kind of death left Jesus in total abandonment and deprivation where even God seemed to keep silent. The events of the paschal supper of Jesus on Holy Thursday started to make more sense.

Why do you seek the living one among the dead?

Jesus died after nearly three hours of agony. Therefore the hangmen, in spite of the ordinary practice, didn’t break His legs, as they did with the two bandits who where crucified with Him. They did, however, pierce Jesus’ side with a lance just to be sure that he was dead. Later on they removed His body from the cross and gave it to His mother. Afterwards, because the Sabbath was imminent they hurriedly prepared His body for the funeral and put Him into the tomb offered by Joseph of Arimathea. The following morning the woman (Mary Magdalene among them) went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. But the tomb was empty and the stone that locked it was taken away. Immediately they informed Peter and John who checked their testimony when they arrived at the tomb. Then they believed in Jesus Christ’s resurrection realizing that He repeatedly told them during his lifetime that He was going to die and be resurrected. Still the same day, and afterwards, Jesus appeared to the apostles, women, and some chosen witnesses explaining His salvific plan and the sense of their evangelical mission. This is the way that the Pascal feast of Jesus has been celebrated by the Church from the beginning until today.