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Celebrating Triduum — the Great Three Days of Holy Week

‘The work of the people’

by Emily Enders Odom

Triduum service

Rev. Dr. David Batchelder, pastor of West Plano Presbyterian Church, prepares Communion. (Courtesy of West Plano Presbyterian Church)

If the term liturgy more or less translates from the Greek as “the work of the people,” then the congregation of West Plano (Texas) Presbyterian Church is working overtime — at least for three straight days at the culmination of Holy Week.

For the last 12 years, the 200-member church has wholly embraced the all-consuming practice of celebrating Triduum, “The Great Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter on Saturday. The worship services and activities of all three days are really a single liturgy in three acts.

“Triduum challenges any pastor in any church,” said Rev. Dr. David Batchelder, pastor of the congregation. “It’s a lot more work to do this liturgy. If you’re not used to doing it, or if you don’t want to do it, it’s not going to happen. You have to consent to expending yourself.”

Batchelder said that for him — and increasingly for the congregation — observing the three days is not optional, because “liturgical time calls us.” That is, the entire mystery of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection and return to God is concentrated and celebrated in this brief time period.

“I can’t help it that this is the way that history played out,” Batchelder said. “ ‘The Great Three Days’ is not historical re-enactment, but it does take account of the fact that in these three days is the paschal mystery.”

Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, associate for worship in the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s office of Theology and Worship, has called Triduum the heart of the Christian year.

“The services for the Three Days are one of the hidden treasures of our Book of Common Worship,” Gambrell said. “They are deep, rich resources, and unfortunately not very well known, well used or well understood. These services are designed to be a ‘total immersion’ in Christian faith and life. When a congregation embraces the liturgies for the Three Days, it can be an incredible opportunity for Christian formation, renewed discipleship and spiritual growth.”

Batchelder had previously instituted a celebration of Triduum at the congregation he formerly served in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. When he joined the staff of the West Plano church in January 2003, he found that the church had an abridged Maundy Thursday service and an observance of Good Friday, but that the Easter vigil had somehow dropped off the church calendar.

“My first step toward restoring the liturgy of Triduum was the restoration of the vigil,” he said. “We brought it back in 2004 and have held it ever since.”

Batchelder described the Easter vigil as “a fully embodied, multisensory and thoroughly intergenerational liturgy,” around which the West Plano church now centers its baptismal practices, hearkening back to the early church in particular, when the vigil was the primary annual occasion for baptisms.

“It’s not legislated so that you cannot be baptized at some other time of year, but it was so enticing that there was no resistance at all,” he said. “I have families with little kids that will wait, because there’s just no question that’s when they want their children to be baptized.”

The church’s Easter vigil moves among different stations, starting in the parking lot, then moving to the fellowship hall to the sanctuary. Batchelder said the unique service is “the high point for the church’s families.”

Gambrell said the Easter vigil is an especially good occasion to engage children. “Gathering around a fire and passing out candles, telling stories from Scripture in a great pilgrimage around the church, sprinkling with water or anointing with oil, sharing Communion as a truly joyful feast — all of this makes for a feast for the senses and a playground for theological imagination,” he said.

Foot washing on Maundy Thursday

Foot washing is a traditional, biblical Maundy Thursday ritual that requires some coaxing since it is such an intimate act. It is an act of service to one another and to the world. (Courtesy of West Plano Presbyterian Church)

Because Batchelder views Triduum not only as a holistic liturgy of and for the church but also as a metaphor of what the church is called to become, he introduced the practice of foot washing to the congregation’s Maundy Thursday service. For him, that was the one key element that was missing.

“It was not without some coaxing, because people are funny about their feet,” he said. “There’s also a threshold of intimacy to which some people have a natural reluctance; but on the other hand, that’s kind of what it’s all about. Foot washing is about the vulnerability of the community to one another and in service to the world. Diaconal service is about us being openly for the ‘other’ in ministry, so the very ritual of foot washing draws the community across its resistance and discomfort.”

For Batchelder, engaging the discomfort — as Peter did in John 13:1–17 — is part of the intention of Maundy Thursday.

“That’s where we are as churches,” he said. “We have to negotiate our discomfort with strangers coming in, people who don’t look like us, people sitting in our favorite places in church. It’s about getting out of ourselves, moving beyond ourselves. So Maundy Thursday — really the whole of Triduum — becomes a living icon of what the church is called to become, and, in that sense, is about the church’s conversion to be more fully its servant self to the world. Every liturgy in that sense, Maundy Thursday included, is a service of wholeness in its own way, in the sense that it calls us to be more fully who we are created to be.”

Emily Enders Odom is a communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Celebrating Triduum

Triduum is one long service that begins on Maundy Thursday and runs through Easter morning. It is a multisensory event that engages young and old alike. The Book of Common Worship offers resources for each service. Here is how West Plano Presbyterian Church celebrates:

Maundy Thursday: Liturgy with Word, foot washing and Eucharist

Good Friday: Liturgy with Word, intercessory prayer, solemn Reproaches, reverencing the cross

The Great Sabbath (Saturday until sunset): A time of rest and prayer at home

The Great Vigil of Easter (begins at sunset): Liturgy with the new fire of Easter, salvation history retold, baptism and baptismal renewal, and Eucharist

Easter morning: Liturgy of Word and Eucharist

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