This year, for the first time in a while, I actually made it to all three main liturgies of the Triduum, which, in Catholic parlance, is Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
Back in the days when I served on liturgy committee and I and my daughters served in music ministry, I would be at all the Holy Week liturgies plus the children’s liturgy on Easter morning, but, after my long-time parish disintegrated in 2005, I couldn’t bring myself to attend all the services. The situation got even more complicated when my elder care responsibilities grew.
Then came 2020 and the pandemic and no one could attend services in person for Holy Week.
I didn’t attend mass in person for over a year. I wrote here about my first time back a dew weeks ago. I noted in that post that I wouldn’t try to attend every week yet due to space constraints at church. I was able to get a reservation to attend Easter Vigil on Saturday evening and decided to attend on Holy Thursday evening and Good Friday afternoon because the church made those open without reservations, although we did have to sign in and leave contact information in case a COVID case was verified and they needed to do tracing. We also had temperature checks and single-use programs so there were no hymnals or prayer books that subsequent worshippers would be touching.
Holy Thursday had long been my favorite liturgy of the year. Its focus is the Eucharist, as it commemorates the Last Supper. In an ordinary year, there would be significant involvement from the laity. The priest would wash the feet of twelve parish members and another group of people, often a family, would dress the altar. There would be a large choir to lead the congregation in sung prayer. Because of the pandemic, everything had to be pared down. Footwashing was eliminated globally to reduce risk. There were two lay lectors, appropriately distanced from the clergy in the sanctuary, but they were both men, so there were no women’s voices in any of the spoken prayers, which added to the sense of distance for me.
The music was beautiful, though. The music director put together an octet from the music ministry, which included some married couples so that the spacing would work as they could stand right next to each other instead of having to be feet apart. With masks, spacing, and good choral microphones, they were able to lead the sung prayer very meaningfully.
Because so much of the Holy Thursday liturgy revolves around a meal, there are many references to food. Because we are living in a time of increased hunger in the United States, these passages were particularly meaningful to me this year. For example, the gathering song was “Table of Plenty” by Dan Schutte, which contains the lyrics, “O come and eat without money; come to drink without price.” and “My bread will ever sustain you through days of sorrow and woe.” Those familiar lines resonated differently knowing that many people do not have enough to eat.
The service on Good Friday afternoon is, by its nature, quite stark. It’s the one day of the church year when there is no mass with Eucharist. Instead, there is a liturgy of the word, veneration of the cross, and distribution of communion with previously consecrated hosts. Without having the liturgy of the Eucharist, the emphasis shifts to the liturgy of the word, which includes reading the passion narrative from the gospel of John.
Paradoxically, Good Friday felt less stark to me than the Lenten and Holy Thursday masses I attended. I think this was due, at least in part, to the fact that there were more lay voices and, in particular, women’s voices included. The first reading, the suffering servant passage from Isaiah, was proclaimed as a choral reading, alternating between a woman lector and the music ministers. The gospel is presented with different people reading narration, the voice of Christ, and the voice of others in dialogue, with the congregation participating as the crowd. Even though we are assigned to proclaim a lot of challenging verses – we have to say, “Crucify him!” multiple times – it is good to feel that we have a part in telling the story.
Another element of the liturgy of the word that gets more emphasis on Good Friday is the intercessions that follow the homily. They were chanted by two cantors, a woman and a man, who alternated between them, with a sung response from the congregation and a prayer by the priest after each. This year, there was an added petition specifically for the pandemic, which was both moving and sobering to hear.
The veneration of the cross was much simpler than in usual years. It’s been the custom for each person to come forward in procession to kiss the cross but that isn’t possible under pandemic protocol. Instead, the assembly knelt and venerated the cross from our places in the pews. In truth, I preferred this to the processing and kissing because it felt more solemn.
For the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, we begin in a mostly darkened church. The time is set to be after sundown so it will be dark so that the first part of the mass, the service of light, begins in darkness. Usually, a new fire is lit and blessed outside the church, the new Paschal candle is blessed and embedded with incense, then lit and carried through the church in procession with music and sung responses, as each person holds a candle which is lit and passed to the next until the church is filled with candlelight for the singing of the the Exsultet (Easter Proclamation).
However, this was rather drastically abbreviated this year. We heard the blessing of the fire and the Paschal candle was brought into the church but the congregation had no candles of their own and most of the lights remained off in the body of the church. The Exsultet was chanted by a cantor whom I have had the privilege to hear sing for many years; it was very moving and brought back memories of hearing the priest chant this prayer when I was the teenage organist in my childhood church.
The liturgy of the word that follows the service of light begins with three readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, each followed by a psalm and prayer. Unfortunately, the lights in the body of the church were still off, which made it a bit difficult for the assembly to sing the psalm responses which were printed in our programs. I happened to know the pieces fairly well so I could sing, but I could tell that some others were not familiar enough with them to join in. Admittedly, it was dramatic to have the lights turned on as we were singing the Gloria, but I missed the growing candlelight followed by the lights being turned on as we extinguished our candles and began the liturgy of the word.
I admit that I struggled with the homily. While it was meant to be a unifying message, the way it was conveyed reminded me too much of how many instances of division there are within our society and the church. It saddened me.
The Easter Vigil is traditionally the time when new adult members enter the church, so there are often baptisms, professions of faith, confirmations, and first Eucharists included. This year, though, there was just one candidate for confirmation, most likely because the pandemic prevented the usual series of liturgies and classes for new members that take place in the months leading up to Easter.
The liturgy of the Eucharist unfolded in almost normal fashion. I was again very appreciative of my organist-friend and the octet she had assembled. The mass that we sang is one that I know well and that we had used often. In my mind, I was adding in the sound of the handbell accompaniment and larger choir that we used on festive occasions like Easter. I wonder when or even if such large and close gatherings will again be possible.
Perhaps I should say that the liturgy of the Eucharist proceeded in pandemic-normal. There is no sharing of a sign of peace, although people do wave or nod to others across the empty pews between occupied-but-spaced ones. We also do the formal dismissal before communion is distributed, so that people receive the host and then exit, all while keeping their distance.
I was just re-reading this post to edit and I’m sure, if you have made it this far, that you realize I’m a bit of a Catholic liturgy wonk. I want to convey my wishes for Easter blessings to those celebrating and my universal wishes for peace, love, respect, and care to all.