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Easter Vigil: The Holy Three Days

One of the most important and most sacred times of the Christian year is Holy Week and Easter. During this time we will walk the path of our Lord Jesus Christ as He entered Jerusalem, instituted the Sacrament of His Supper, suffered under Pontius Pilate, died, was buried, rested in the tomb, and then on the third day rose again. But we aren’t just reenacting history, or putting ourselves in Jesus’ sandals in order to feel what Jesus felt. Rather, Holy Week and Easter put us into the days of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, so that we can celebrate, learn, and grow in His work of saving us from sin and death. This all begins on Palm Sunday, when we hear the Passion of our Lord from Matthew’s Gospel read. Then, Holy Monday-Wednesday we hear from other Gospels about the events of Holy Week. I encourage you to come and participate in these services on Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, as well as the days and services described below. It’s quite meaningful to make a large portion of your time during Holy Week devoted to the Word of God.

There’s a “most sacred” time during this sacred time of Holy Week. It’s called the Holy Triduum–the Holy Three Days–which are Holy (Maundy) Thursday, Holy (Good) Friday, and Holy Saturday. Let’s see how these Holy Three Days teach us what we need to know about Christ and His merciful work of dying to give us His life.

Holy (Maundy) Thursday
We know the Thursday of Holy Week as “Maundy Thursday,” the night when Jesus not only instituted the Lord’s Supper (also called the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Altar, or Holy Communion), but He also gave the command “that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you love one another” (John 13:34). Hence the name “Maundy Thursday,” which comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means command.

But Holy Thursday is about much more than Jesus’ command to love one another as He has loved us. That’s important, but there’s more. Jesus showed His love by washing the disciples’ feet and giving the prime example of living as Christians, that is, in humble service to one another. On this holy night of Holy Thursday, the somberness of Lent and this week of Christ’s Passion will lighten a bit as we put white paraments on the altar.

The prime event that we celebrate on Holy Thursday is Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper. As He and His disciples observe the ancient festival of Passover, they celebrated God’s great deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. And they did it with a meal given by God–the meal of sacrificing the Passover lamb, painting its blood on the door frames of the houses, eating the roasted lamb, and then being rescued from slavery to serve the living God (see Exodus 12:1-14).

As Jesus celebrates the Passover meal, he transforms it, so to speak, into the Lord’s Supper. In this holy meal, Jesus is our Passover lamb, His blood is on us as we eat His Body and drink His Blood, and so we are freed from our slavery to sin and death. No wonder this is called Holy Thursday! Here our Lord Jesus Christ is making us holy by forgiving our sins, by giving us eternal life, and by rescuing us from our worst enemy: death.

Holy (Good) Friday
When the altar is stripped at the end of the Divine Service on Holy Thursday, we are reminded that we go from joy to the sadness of Christ’s death on the cross. Good Friday puts us at the foot of the Cross like no other day in the Church year. The brightness of Holy Thursday turns into the stark darkness of Good Friday.

On this day we hear the whole story of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion from the Gospel of St. John (chapters 18 and 19). It is a long reading, longer than any other Gospel reading of the year, but it is well worth the time to listen and meditate. We will hear how Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, how he endured the mock trials before the High Priest and before Pontius Pilate, how He took the place of the criminal Barabbas, how He was mocked and beaten, how He submitted to the decision of the God-appointed governing authority for Him to be executed, how He hung from the Cross and cried out “It is finished,” how His side was pierced, and how He was buried in another man’s tomb.

On this holiest of days we actually fast from the Meal of Christ’s Body and Blood so that we can ponder and meditate on the bottomless depth of God’s love shown in Christ’s selfless yet painful sacrifice. “For God loved the world in this way, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

On Good Friday, we leave the altar and chancel itself bare, save for some cloths draped over the crosses. The service is more subdued. After all, death takes away our joy, even as we rejoice in Christ’s death that tramples down death. We will also hear from Isaiah (53:4-6): “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; Upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by His stripes we are healed.”

Holy Saturday
The third of the Holy Three Days is Holy Saturday. We’re probably not used to celebrating this day, because we’ve become used to using this day to get ready for the big Easter celebration on the next day. Whether in Church: put out all the flowers, prepare the music, decorate the sanctuary, etc.; Or at home: color the Easter eggs, get the big meal ready, do the last minute shopping for food or new Easter clothes. But these activities in some way miss the spirit of Holy Saturday. On this day we remember and celebrate Jesus resting in the tomb, and we may well do that best by resting ourselves. Yet how do we truly rest? Remember the third commandment explanation: we truly rest as we hear the Word of God and are restored and refreshed by it.

Just as God rested on the seventh day, the Sabbath day, after He had created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 2:1-3), so also Jesus Christ, the Son of God in the flesh, rested on the seventh day of Holy Week. He rested because He had just finished recreating the heavens and the earth by rescuing all of humanity from death and hell and restoring us to His image. As we rest, we certainly want to ponder all that our Lord has done for us out of His goodness and love. We meet at 9 a.m. in the morning for prayer and to hear Matthew 27:57-66. Here we learn not only how Jesus died and was buried, but also what affect His work of saving us has on us and all creation.

Then, as Holy Saturday comes to a close in the evening (remember, in the ancient world the day began at around sundown on the previous evening), we start to look ahead to the Easter celebration. The Holy Three Days at the end leads us into the grand celebration of Easter, the seven weeks of celebrating our Lord’s victory over death and His gift of divine and eternal life to us. We begin this celebration by observing the Great Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday evening, waiting for the announcement of Christ’s resurrection.

May our Holy and blessed Triune God grant you a most blessed Holy Week and Easter celebration. Very soon we will shout out together that marvelous Easter greeting and proclamation: Christ is risen!…

Pastor Michael Schuermann