Readings of the Easter Triduum – Year B – 2024

These three days form one celebration of our gift of everlasting life through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus our Christ. The liturgy begins on the evening before his arrest and crucifixion with the gift of the Eucharist which he tells his disciples is the way he will live in and among us until the final moment when all creation is renewed and brought together in the Father, Son and Spirit.

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jump to Holy Saturday (Easter Vigil)
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Holy Thursday/Maundy Thursday. The ‘Last Supper’ and the Gift of the Eucharist

The readings can be found here.

supperExodus 12:1-8, 11-14
This reading is the Older Testament background for the feast of the Passover. Although presented as instructions given in Egypt, it seems to be the ‘liturgical directions’ for the celebration of the Passover feast once the people were settled in Israel. Two originally separate feasts were joined and celebrated as the great liberation from servitude. Both names are used in the gospels: ‘Feast of the Unleavened Bread’ and ‘Passover’, the meal with a sacrificial lamb representing deliverance of the last plague when the Israelites were spared the death of their first-born sons by the blood of the sacrificed animal. Death had ‘passed over’ the sons of the Hebrews while striking the Egyptian oppressors. It was a common belief of that time that blood sacrifices had the effect of saving human lives and this was part of the religious background of the Hebrews. Christians now see that Jesus’ self-offering of his life made real what had been symbolised in the older rites: reconciliation with God after our sinfulness has separated us from his love.

Psalm 115:12-13, 15-18
This psalm links two themes that have taken on a particular Christian resonance for the Last Supper and the crucifixion to come: the ‘cup of salvation’ – for us the Eucharist cup – and the precious value of the death of a holy one. Jesus’ death is the ultimate ‘sacrifice of thanksgiving’.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Although the first three gospels give an account of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, the reading chosen for this night to discuss the institution of the Eucharist is taken from St Paul. He does not give all the historic details found in the gospels, but writes a reminder to the disunited Corinthians of the core meaning of Jesus’ gift of his body and blood which is now shown by the bread and wine. The last words seem a conclusion, telling us of the way we take into ourselves the sacrifice of Jesus.

John 13:1-15
washingJohn does not tell of the giving of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and instead has the symbolic action of the foot-washing. Earlier in the gospel, John has given even more explanation of the reality of the sacrament than the other three Gospels, see chapter 6. His community would know that the Eucharist had been given at the meal, but writing at a later time, he sees their need for another teaching, which has meaning for present Christians as well.

Jesus waits till the ending of the meal, rather than the usual time of arrival when the feet were dirty, and that in itself signals that what he is going to do is symbolic. At a time of wearing sandals on dusty roads, it was a custom for a host to offer a foot washing to the guests. This was a task performed by a slave/servant, probably one of the least important of the household. This explains Peter’s protest: he does not think it right for Jesus to do for him a task so lowly. He assumes a hierarchy of the most important person being the one served, and taking the important place.

Jesus does not deny that he does have the position, telling them that while they are right to call him ‘Lord and Master’. But he has shown something about the kind of ‘Lord and Master’ he is. And it is not the kind the world expects and honours – even still. Moreover, Jesus is deliberately identifying himself with enslaved people – as the Philippians reading from Palm Sunday tells us, he chose to take the position of those who are held in bondage.

Furthermore, and equally hard to take in, they are to take this as a model for their own attitudes and reactions. As Matthew 20:28, tells us, Jesus had summarised this when he said, ’I came not to be served, but to serve and give my life for all.’ While the church takes that Jesus’ command to celebrate the Eucharist is to be repeated over and over, this is the only day of the year in which foot-washing is re-enacted. ‘Wash one another’s feet’ is a symbolic way of saying ‘do whatever services fellow humans have need of’ however lowly it may seem. We usually do not have to literally wash other’s feet, but we have to be aware of what their needs are and how we can help. This is far more demanding that a ceremonial re-creation.

While such service is directed first to those in positions of authority or prestige (and those who want that position!) it also is a challenge for every disciple. I like the description of Catherine Doherty: ‘Christians are people of the towel and the water.’

For prayer or reflection:
As we saw on Palm Sunday, the passage from Philippians 2 shows Jesus choosing to identify with those who are ‘enslaved’, instead of clinging to divinity. Here again, in a very different way, John’s story from the Last Supper makes the same point. How can I find solidarity with those who have tragically lost control of their lives – and how can I become a ‘person of the towel and water’ for them?

Good Friday – the Passion and Death of Jesus

The different kind of Messiah-King Jesus came to be, can be traced from the beginning of the scripture, as Jesus himself said. So our readings show how this had been foretold in the words and actions preserved in the Older Testament.

The readings can be found here.

crucifixionIsaiah 52:13-53:12
This is the ‘Song of the Suffering Servant’, the most profound expression in the Old Testament of the meaning and value of the suffering of the innocent and of those who are persecuted for their dedication to God’s service. The opening words ‘be lifted up’ are used in the Gospel of John for Jesus on the cross. Echoes of this passage are found in various parts of the gospels. I find it a moving description more for meditation than comment.

Psalm 30: 2, 6, 12-13, 15-17, 25
There are also in this psalm ‘pre-echoes’ of the Passion, and the words, ‘Into your hands I commend my spirit’ are quoted by Jesus at his death in Luke’s gospel.

Letter to the Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9
The writer of this Letter sees Jesus’ death as making him the High Priest of the new covenant, an advocate that knows the depth of human temptation and suffering and so always ready to help us. We are reminded that it was through Christ’s death that our salvation comes.

John 18:1-19:42
These comments are mostly on how John differs from the other three gospels. Much of John’s writing stresses the symbolic nature of what words and actions show us about the deep mystery of Jesus as both human and God, and of how he brings our humanity into the closeness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We have been noting in recent weeks how John uses dramatic confrontations to explain Jesus’ person and his message, and this will be evident all through the passion account. John has chosen to stress not so much the weakness which was spoken of in the Letter to the Hebrews, but to show Jesus’ total command of the entire event, even at the moment of his death. The use of misunderstanding, as so often in John, allows clarification; and the use of irony and allusions to the Old Testament are other John techniques all present in the passion account.

One scene that may be more symbolic than factual is during the arrest of Jesus in the garden: when the arresting party says they seek ‘Jesus the Nazarene’. In the Greek text his response is simply ‘I am,’ and although this could mean (as translated) ‘I am he’, it also echoes the divine name of the Old Testament, where God says, ‘I AM.’ Jesus previously used this divine title for himself in John 8:58. The soldiers fall to the ground like the awe of those who have witnessed the presence of God. They can only arrest Jesus after he has made his control of events clear. Peter is only in this gospel identified as the one who brings out a sword and has again a lesson in what Jesus’ messiahship means. Naming the one injured may be because he was later a known disciple, but it has a note of irony that a relative of Malchus later accused Peter of being a disciple.

Caiaphas: John refers to what he reported, in 11:49:52, where the decision of the Jewish authorities was made to have Jesus put to death. Caiaphas’ words of worldly expediency were that it is better to put one man to death to prevent an uprising and many deaths, but John shows ironically a description of Jesus’s death saving all people, and so he calls it a ‘prophecy’.

John shows Jesus in control of the proceedings both before Annas and Pilate. The long dialogues with Pilate are full of misunderstanding and irony, common traits in John. Pilate’s inscription over the cross shows the irony of a King whose reign begins with his being killed.

‘The disciple whom Jesus loved’ (or ‘the Beloved Disciple’) is a figure only in John, and never given a name. There is unending speculation on who it actually was, with no agreed identification. It may have been a real person, or a symbolic role as the ideal disciple, or could be both – one disciple who comes to represent us all. If we think he/she as a picture of the perfect follower, John is contrasting that to the failings of the actual disciples, such as showing Peter’s misunderstandings and his denial of being a disciple during the trial scenes. The beloved disciple is given the care of Jesus’ mother (who is never given a personal name in this gospel) and she then will be mother of the disciple. The Church sees this passage as making Mary the mother of all Christians, which fits the kind of symbolism frequent in John.

A subtle symbolic aspect is the garment of Jesus woven in one piece – that suggests the garment of the high priest, and is like the previous reading from Hebrews of Jesus entering ‘the sanctuary’ of heaven as the high priest. Hyssop holding the sponge is not realistic as it is a floppy plant but was used for ritual sprinkling for purification, so likely symbolic. The translation says, ‘gave up the spirit’ which could mean the separation of body and soul at death, but could be translate ‘handed over the Spirit’, as Jesus had promised at the Last Supper (16:7ff).

The incident of the soldier piercing the side of Jesus is only in John and it obviously was intended to have deeper meaning than just proving his death, but the significance has been debated. John may have intended it to have multiple resonances. Blood and water representing the sacraments of the Eucharist and baptism is one interpretation. As breath and heart signify human life, it shows the full reality of Jesus’ death. John gives us one quotation that links to the Passover (‘not a bone shall be broken’) and in his timing of the Passion, Jesus’ death occurs at the hour of sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the temple. ‘Accomplished’ has the sense that now Jesus has done what he came to do by his freely offered death.

To Joseph of Arimathea at the burial, John adds Nicodemus; both were secret disciples. Nicodemus figures in chapter 3 in the discussion of baptism, and this subtly links Jesus’ death with the life given to the disciples. All the gospels have a pause over the next day after Jesus is left in the tomb.

For prayer or reflection:
Can I truly give my life, my spirit, into God’s hands without hesitation?
You might like to try this prayer that is one my (Gwen’s) favourites, with obvious echoes of Jesus’ words from the cross:
Father, I abandon myself into your hands.
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you.
I am ready for all; I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures;
I ask no more than this, my Lord.

Into your hands I give my spirit;
I offer it to you, with all the love of my heart.
For I so need to give myself to you,
To surrender myself completely to you,
Without reserve – and with boundless confidence:
For you are my Father.

There is a long celebration of the resurrection, beginning with a vigil on Saturday night, and then another mass for Sunday morning.

The Easter Vigil

vigilThe readings can be found here.

The liturgy of the vigil night goes back to the early church, and expresses the eagerness of Christians to start celebrating Easter as soon as possible. It was the traditional time for admitting ‘catechumens’ (new members) into the church and this practice has been revived in modern times. It is a time when parishes may bring forward those who are being baptised or joining the church and receiving the sacraments.

Many of the ceremonies specifically recall events in the Old Testament which are seen as foretelling all that Jesus was and came to do. They begin with the new fire, and the lighting of the Paschal candle, with the theme of Christ the Light of the World. Then come readings.

In the liturgy of the Easter vigil, there are eight readings before the Gospel; but in many parishes some selection happens to shorten the length of the service. All are followed by a response from a relevant psalm. These together tell the whole story of salvation, from the very beginning of creation, to the ups and downs of God’s relationship with His people, until an interpretation from St. Paul of baptism and sharing in Jesus’ death.

1: Genesis 1:1-2:2
This is the beginning of our Bible, going back to the moment before there was anything of the world and the universe but only the presence of God. It is a poetic meditation rather than scientific explanation. The dramatic words, ‘Let there be light!’ are a tie to the ceremonies of fire and candle just preceding the reading. It also fits with the idea of the early Church that baptism (celebrated later in this liturgy) is ‘enlightenment’. This selection is a majestic meditation on the relation of God to all creation, and of the perfection God desired to bring forth. There is no death in this ideal – even the animals are vegetarians! This account of perfection is followed in the rest of the Old Testament by ‘what went wrong’ and how God works in a world very different from the intended unity.

2: Genesis 22:1-18
This is a difficult text, and can be taken on several levels; first it may be a lesson against child sacrifice, practiced by some of the cultures of the time. With Herbert McCabe, we can try to enter into the mystery which casts light on Christ’s sacrifice. Not only is Abraham faced with a personal loss, but it is through Isaac God has promised that he will be the ‘father’ of many peoples. So he is faced with a contradiction. He responds moment by moment, somehow trusting that the God who is love is at work where it seems impossible. It is for this faith that he is praised by St Paul (Romans 4). It is likely chosen for this liturgy because, like Abraham, God the Father has shown Himself to be willing to sacrifice his son Jesus who has been sent to bring God’s Kingdom or Dominion to this world, but he is destined to die before this can occur. Yet through his death, some entirely new way of living in community with God and other humans will come about. The paradox is that the destruction becomes the way the mission is carried out.

3: Exodus 14:15 – 15:1
This a lively account, dramatically staged, of God’s rescue of the people from Egyptian oppression. This ties the theme of salvation, and of the Passover, to our Easter celebration. And it is a reminder which fits the Easter season: that when things seem most desperate, God is still there to save.

4: Isaiah 54:5-14
A poetic account typical of this prophet uses the image of marriage for God’s relationship with his people. The people have been faithless, and seemingly abandoned by God from the blessings of the land they inherited, but God’s love always still reaches out to them. We too are constantly sought out by such powerful love, as shown in Jesus’ life-death-resurrection.

5: Isaiah 55:1-11
A rich text, one I think merits much reflection, one to extend beyond the reading of one night. God’s abundant, everlasting love is expressed in various images, free food and drink, moving beyond Israel to all peoples, his ‘availability’ at all times, forgiveness – all happens though God’s will to bring it about.

6: Baruch 3:9-15, 32:4-4
A book rarely heard in the mass, it first describes the reaction to the Babylonian Exile, when the kingdoms had forgotten God’s law. Then it moves into the ‘Wisdom’ tradition of describing the beauty and power of God’s Law.

7: Ezekiel 36:16-28
Ezekiel gives an angry description of ‘what went wrong’ with God’s creation and previous offers of salvation – people turning away from love to many kinds of sinfulness. This leads to a new promise of salvation, which begins with the symbol of cleansing water and so is most appropriate for this night of blessing of water and the rite of baptism. And for all of us, the gift of a ‘new spirit’ and a loving heart is promised.

8: Romans 6:3-11
After the readings from the Older Testament, the mass begins with words from St Paul, especially appropriate when there are candidates to be baptised. He sees baptising as a ‘dying’ to the power of sin over us, and as Christ came to a new life after his death, we should live as if dead to all that separates us from God, now we are alive in the new life that comes to us in Christ Jesus.

Mark 16:1-7
None of the four gospels describes the resurrection of Jesus nor the moment it took place. It apparently happened with no human witness and we can only guess at that first death- shattering moment. The account of finding the empty tomb appears in all four gospels with varying details and there are various stories of how and where Jesus appeared in his glorious body to the disciples. It was women who came to the burial place and first learned that Jesus was no longer dead. Mark names them as Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, the same three he had mentioned as watching the burial of Jesus. This is the only time in the Gospels that Salome is mentioned and we know nothing more about her. The previous day had been a Sabbath when all the disciples observed the Sabbath rest (note how this was featured in the reading from Genesis as part of creation.) The women come as early as they can. They are planning to carry out traditional practices of caring for the corpse and mourning the dead, and seem totally unprepared – despite Jesus’ promises earlier – for his new risen life. Their only concern is how they can get in the tomb with the heavy rock rolled across the entrance.

There is, perhaps, a dramatic irony very typical of Mark in this: not only are the women fretting and worrying over something completely unnecessary and misguided – but their question will have a dramatic and unexpected answer: an angel, or indirectly God Himself, will be the one to roll away the stone.

Mark speaks of a ‘young man’, Matthew has called him an ‘angel’ and Luke describes dazzling garments. In all cases, it would seem a messenger from heaven who tells them of the resurrection. Mark tells us they will see him in Galilee, but his gospel does not describe this, either by intention or by loss of an ending we can only guess. For Mark perhaps, the important point is that all disciples will find their own relationship with the risen Christ.

For prayer or reflection:
Where in my life am I fretting and worrying about something in the future, worrying about ‘who will roll away the stone’? Is it possible that God has already made a plan and provided for this need, in a way far better than I could have dreamed? Can I spare myself the anxiety by trusting in God?

Mass on Easter Sunday

The readings can be found here.

Acts 10:34, 37-43
This is Peter’s teaching in his first experience of taking the Good News beyond the people of Israel. The visions of Peter and Cornelius that bring about this encounter start with Acts:10-1. Today’s reading gives a summary of the life-death-resurrection of Jesus.

There are two choices for the second reading, either Colossians 3:1-4 or 1 Corinthians 5:6-8. Both speak of how we now should live in the presence of the risen Saviour.

John 20:1-9
As so often, this Gospel gives us a different take from the first three. Only Mary of Magdala is mentioned as coming to the tomb. She does not see a heavenly messenger but only the empty tomb, and thinks his body has been removed. Then she runs to tell Simon Peter and the ‘other disciple’ (maybe the ‘Beloved Disciple’ of the Passion story). They too find the empty tomb. That convinces the other disciple that now the scripture can be understood as preparation for understanding the resurrection. Later in the Gospel, Mary meets the risen Christ and he predicts his Ascension.

The liturgy is designed to bring us into the events it presents, and the following weeks will continue to tell of appearances of the risen Lord and how we are drawn to this glorious new life.

Joan Griffith/GGD

For prayer or reflection:
In what way do I want or need the Risen Lord to ‘show himself to me’ right now?