Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 31, 2010

Triduum Services

Holy Week is upon us again, and some of the richest experiences in Christian worship will be on the menu for the special services that congregations will offer over the next few days — specifically, the services of the Triduum, i.e. the “three days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.  Last year I included descriptions of our Holy Week services along with the posts of Holy Week sermons.  This year I am reposting and expanding that information in a single blog post, which I hope will be a more convenient way to access information about the Triduum services.

A few notes are in order.  The information here is the same information printed in our congregation’s worship booklet for the Triduum services.  This is the first year that we have printed all three services in one large worship booklet; our intention is to emphasize how these are really three interconnected services.  The first two pages of the booklet include several paragraphs explaining the concept of the Triduum and offering a short overview of all three services.  This paragraphs are the first of the four sections of quotes below.

The first page of each service in the booklet includes a more complete description of the order of worship for that day.  This is especially the case with the Easter Vigil.  These are printed in the second, third, and fourth quoted sections that follow.  Please note that there is not a separate description of the “main” Good Friday afternoon service, the Service of Meditation on the Cross of Christ.  For practical reasons, we only have an evening service here, and the long-standing tradition here has been to offer the Service of Darkness as the order of worship for Good Friday.

The overview (first section below) is adapted from Christian Worship: Occasional Services.  The other service descriptions (the other three sections below) are from materials that I have received from others and adjusted as needed over the years.

May the Holy Spirit bless your celebration of these holy days! 


Introduction to the Triduum Services

The enormous significance of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection has always been the central focus of Christian worship.  Prior to the fourth century, Easter Day itself included all three emphases, but thereafter they were distributed over three days of special observance, which Saint Augustine called “the most holy Triduum of the crucified, buried, and risen Lord.”  The Latin term, Triduum, means “three days” and refers to the Holy Week services held on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.  These three days have long been understood as the climax of the church’s year.

Since the last half of the 20th century, Lutherans have been rediscovering the richness of the ancient Triduum and adapting the traditional services associated with it for use in evangelical Lutheran worship. Christian Worship: Occasional Services, a resource produced by the WELS Commission on Worship, includes these forms of the Triduum services:

  • A Maundy Thursday communion service that includes the stripping of the altar;
  • A Service of the Cross of Christ, intended for Good Friday afternoon;
  • A Service of Darkness (Latin: Tenebrae), intended for Good Friday evening;
  • The Great Vigil of Easter, an Easter Eve service intended for Holy Saturday.

In keeping with their origins, the Triduum services are closely connected with one another.  Conceptually they are a single service that extends over the “three holy days.”  This worship booklet emphasizes the interconnection of these services by combining our Holy Week services into a single worship booklet.

Maundy Thursday

The name, Maundy Thursday, is based on the Latin phrase, novum mandatum, which means “new command” and refers to Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 13:34: “A new command I give you:  Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  The institution of the Lord’s Supper, the highlight of this day, sets forth the depth of Jesus’ love and gives power to the Church to live out his command.  The service begins with the sermon and an exhortation regarding the end of Lent.  This unusual arrangement allows the minister to explain the meaning of the Sacrament and the liturgical actions that are to take place so that they may proceed uninterruptedly and vividly from this evening through Good Friday to the Easter Vigil.  The action of ceremonially stripping the altar prepares the chancel and the congregation for Good Friday.

Good Friday 

As the middle service of the Triduum, Good Friday is prepared for by Maundy Thursday.  In turn, it leads into the Easter Vigil.  The absence of a closing blessing the previous evening and again on Good Friday underscores the connectedness of the Triduum services.  Good Friday is not a “funeral” for Jesus, but an austere celebration of the Lamb of God and his sacrifice on our behalf.

Good Friday is the sole occasion in the church calendar on which the main service of the day is held in the afternoon, although that historic practice is not always feasible in our day and age.  The Service of the Cross is the traditional Good Friday afternoon service.  This service consists of two parts: (1) the Word and (2) the Meditation on the Cross.  The bare altar, symbolic of Christ, is the focus along with a large, rough-finished wood cross that is placed before it.  The service is highly meditative in nature and is celebrated simply and not hurried.  Although the Service of the Cross has historically been observed sometime during the “hours of the cross,” between noon and three o’clock, it may also be used in place of the Service of Darkness (Tenebrae) as an evening service.

The Service of Darkness developed from early morning monastic prayer services, but has come to be used as an evening service on Good Friday.  This service was not part of the historical services of the Triduum but has become valued as an evening service for Good Friday.  The service centers on a series of lessons, psalms, and liturgical texts that reflect on the Lord’s crucifixion and our repentance.  As the service progresses, the candles of a special sevenfold candelabrum are extinguished until only one remains.  This candle is not extinguished but is removed from the chancel, leaving the church in darkness.  The service is closed by a loud noise (known as the strepitus) that foreshadows the rending of Jesus’ tomb on Easter.  After the strepitus, the last candle, still burning, is returned to the chancel.  It thus anticipates the light of the paschal candle at the next evening’s vigil.  As with the prior Triduum services, this service ends without a final blessing.  The congregation leaves quietly to reassemble for the Easter Vigil.

Holy Saturday

The climax of the Triduum comes in the Vigil of Easter, a service of watching and waiting, using prayer, Scripture, and hymns.  The Vigil is composed of four parts: (1) the Service of Light, with its focus on the paschal candle, the representation of the unconquered life of Christ; (2) the Service of Lessons, with its use of Old Testament texts that foreshadowed our deliverance and rescue by Jesus; (3) the Service of Baptism, with its emphasis on our baptismal connection to Christ; and (4) the Service of Holy Communion, with its proclamation of the risen Savior and our blessed reconciliation to God.

The Easter Vigil is the most well known and historic of the Church’s vigils.  In fact, in its general structure, it is one of the church’s most ancient rites.  Early records indicate that it may have been celebrated in Jerusalem already by the second century, and it soon spread to the rest of the church.

The Vigil begins in darkness with the lighting of the paschal candle and the procession into the dark church.  Lighting remains dim through the Vigil until the church is fully illuminated at the joyous shout of “Christ is risen!”  The Service of Holy Communion is celebrated at the altar, which is now fully vested and decorated for Easter, bringing to a close the Triduum’s cycle of services.


As with Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday marks a unique place in the church calendar.  Just as Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, so Maundy Thursday marks the end of Lenten preparation and the beginning of the three holy days of Christendom, called the Triduum (Latin for “three days,” referring to the services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday).  Tonight’s service is the first in a series of three services celebrating these three special days.

To underscore the end of the Lenten time of preparation, and to recall Jesus’ discourse with his disciples at the beginning of the first Maundy Thursday (John 13-14), the sermon is placed at the beginning of the service.  The placement of the sermon provides a powerful preamble to the “Instruction for the End of Lent” and the confession of sins which follows.

Holy Communion is celebrated in the Maundy Thursday service.  Receiving Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins is always appropriate in worship, and especially on this night, the night on which Jesus instituted the Sacrament.

The post-communion portion of the service takes us from the upper room in Jerusalem where the disciples celebrated the Passover to the Garden of Gethsemane in preparation for Good Friday.  The altar, which is one of the most prominent symbols of Christ in the church, is solemnly stripped of its vestments in memory of the abandonment of Jesus in Gethsemane.  Psalm 88 is sung as the altar furnishings are removed.

The service ends in silence.  The congregation hears no closing blessing – yet.  Rather, the three services of the Triduum flow into one another as the congregation disperses in silence to reassemble for worship on Good Friday.


Tonight the church remembers the crucifixion of our Lord.  Our remembrance, while solemn, is not a message of gloom, but the awe-filled adoration of the Son of God as he offers up his life as the Lamb of God.  Good Friday is part of the larger celebration of the mystery of salvation begun yesterday (Maundy Thursday) and culminating at the Great Vigil of Easter tomorrow evening (Holy Saturday).  Worship on Good Friday is not a funeral service for Jesus, but an austere time of reflection, intercession, adoration of the Lamb of God, and quiet meditation.  We gather to celebrate the sacrifice of the cross.

The word tenebrae (TEN-ǝ-bray) means “darkness.”  The service we use tonight originated in medieval monasticism as part of the monks’ Daily Office, i.e. daily prayer services, and was used during Holy Week.  The order of worship centers on a series of Psalms and other Scripture lessons that focus on our Lord’s crucifixion, and repentance over the sin that necessitated it.

In the chancel burns a seven-fold candelabra in the shape of a cross.  The candles will be extinguished as the service progresses, darkening the chancel area.  At the end of the service, the final candle of the candelabra is removed from the chancel leaving the church in tenebrae for silent prayer.  The service is closed by a loud noise called the strepitus, meaning “to strike” or “to sound,” that foreshadows Christ rending from his tomb in triumph at his resurrection.  The final candle, which is still burning, is returned to its place at the end of the service before the congregation departs the church.

The mood of the service is most solemn, encouraging the worshipers to reflect deeply upon their own life in the light of the Passion of our Lord.  No closing blessing is pronounced and the congregation disperses into the night, leaving the darkened church in silence, yet remembering the Light which lingers and casts hope through the gloom of Good Friday.


The Concept of a Vigil

A vigil is an evening service of Scripture readings and prayers in which believers vigilantly and eagerly wait and watch for the celebration of the Savior’s deliverance.  Old Testament believers waited through the night of the Passover for God to deliver them from the Egyptians.  The midnight worship reported in Acts 20:7-12 is another example of late-night waiting and watching.  One might say that our Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve services are vigils of sorts.  Coming together for a vigil helps believers practice waiting patiently for God to reveal his will in his own good time.

An atmosphere of solemn anticipation and meditation (as well as relative darkness) is maintained until the proclamation, “Alleluia! Christ is risen,” which marks the dramatic transition from darkness to light.  This is reflected in the pace of the service and in the music.  The tone for the rest of the service is one of solemn joy.  The Vigil’s Service of Holy Communion is relatively simple in form and style, since the chief celebration of Easter takes place on Easter morning.  The highest festivities and ceremonies are usually reserved for the main Easter morning service.

The History of the Easter Vigil

The Easter Vigil is the most well known and historic of the Church’s vigils.  In fact, in its general structure, it is one of the most ancient rites of the Christian Church.  Early records indicate that it may have been celebrated in Jerusalem already by the second century, and it soon spread to the rest of the church.

From its beginnings, the Easter Vigil was closely connected to Holy Baptism.  In the pagan world, a conversion to Christianity meant making a clean break from one’s former life style.  It also meant facing difficult times, perhaps even death.  The instruction of adults was, therefore, intensive and thorough, practical as well as intellectual.  The instruction intensified during the season of Lent, as catechumens pondered not only the Savior’s battle with evil, but also their own battle with Satan and his forces.  The instruction culminated with baptism at the Easter Vigil.  The timing was natural, of course:

“All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).

As the tide of adult conversions waned in Europe, and infant baptism became the norm, the purpose and understanding of the Vigil faded.  Eventually, virtually all baptisms took place at times other than the Vigil.  By the time of the Lutheran Reformation, the Vigil had fallen into disuse, although the Vigil continued uninterrupted in the Eastern Orthodox Church and remains a high point of Easter worship to this day.

The Easter Vigil in the 21st Century Church

It is a well-documented phenomenon that, in our digital and technological age, more and more Christians long to return to the quiet and contemplative worship forms of the early Church.  They are sensing a need to come into the presence of God whose love is above and beyond them.  They desire worship that communicates God’s transcendent majesty rather than trivializing him with folksy familiarity.  For this and a number of other reasons, the Easter Vigil is enjoying a comeback in the twenty-first century Christian Church.  With its quiet contemplation, slow-paced movement, and symbolic communication, the Easter Vigil is attractive to many Christians who are seeking a deeper and more thorough spirituality.  Especially in churches that take the Church Year seriously, the Easter Vigil seems to mark the high point of Holy Week and the turning point of the Christian Year.

The Easter Vigil Order of Worship

The Easter Vigil (sometimes called the Paschal Vigil) consists of four parts: the Service of Light, the Service of Readings (which is the actual vigil), the Service of Baptism, and the Service of Holy Communion.  The service begins after darkness has fallen on Holy Saturday.  Ideally, the Vigil lasts through the night, with the baptisms taking place at dawn.  For practical reasons, however, an all-night vigil is seldom held today.

The Service of Light focuses the entire Vigil on Christ, the Light of the world (symbolized by the paschal candle), who overcame the darkness of sin and death by his resurrection.  The first song of the Vigil, the Exsultet, links our paschal feast with the first Passover and with God’s deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea.  The song introduces the theme of God’s saving acts in history, a theme that runs through the Service of Readings.

There are twelve Old Testament readings appointed for the Easter Vigil.  Most congregations use four or seven readings, although Exodus 14:10-15:1 is invariably read.  Unhurried periods of silence for reflection follow the canticle after each lesson; the times of silence help to identify the service as a vigil.

When no baptisms take place in the Vigil, the Service of Holy Baptism identifies baptism as one of God’s great acts of deliverance that has been applied to each individual Christian, connects baptism with Christ’s resurrection, and gives believers an opportunity to publicly confess the faith into which they have been baptized.

An atmosphere of solemn anticipation and meditation (as well as relative darkness) is maintained until the proclamation, “Alleluia! Christ is risen,” which marks the dramatic transition from darkness to light.  This is reflected in the pace of the service and in the music.  The tone for the rest of the service is one of solemn joy.  The Vigil’s Service of Holy Communion is relatively simple in form and style, since the chief celebration of Easter takes place on Easter morning.  The highest festivities and ceremonies are usually reserved for the main Easter morning service.



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