The Sacred Triduum: Introduction

Of all the wealth I have discovered in my (rather casual “layman”) studies of the liturgy over the years, nothing has inspired more awe than the Sacred Triduum, which are the collection of unique ritual and ceremonials for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Easter Vigil. The rites of the Sacred Triduum are exceptionally unique, with elements that are unseen in liturgical celebrations at any other time of the Christian year, and are complex not only textually and ceremonially but also in their theological meaning. Discovering the old rites of the Triduum was particularly inspiring for me because almost all of the unique elements of the Triduum were deleted in the Anglican Prayer Books, and thus have been largely absent in the Anglican tradition with the exception of some particular Anglo-Catholic groups that ran very “high up the candle”. My discovery of the Triduum in the old Roman Breviary, and later the Mass propers as translated and interpreted in the Anglican Missal and the English (Knott) Missal, represents the first time I was genuinely shocked when comparing the classical Anglican Prayer Books with the traditional Roman Rite.

The Divine Office of the Sacred Triduum is particularly known for the distinctive way Matins and Lauds is said, it commonly being known as Tenebrae. The ceremonial that accompanies Tenebrae are identical over the Triduum, and its use of candlelight is striking. The word “Tenebrae” is still used somewhat today, but the vast majority of the time the services titled “Tenebrae” have pretty much nothing to do with what it has meant in preceding history. Maundy Thursday is well known for the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet, and the Washing is popularly practiced today in churches. However, the special prayers that were sung during the ritual, some of the most beautiful in the Gregorian repetoire both musically and textually, are largely unknown today. The traditional rite of Good Friday, in its entirety, is essentially lost in the contemporary West. The Easter Vigil is perhaps retained best today, but still nevertheless truncated with haphazard abbreviations, cutting, and insertions. The Sacred Triduum as it has been dutifully observed for centuries upon centuries, reaching back to before Western Christianity was torn asunder in the Reformation, is nearly extinct today, preserved only in the small handful of traditionalist Roman Catholics who have maintained the pre-1955 Holy Week, and the even smaller number of eccentric Anglicans zealously faithful in their performance of the ancient Western Rite in the English tongue.

This week was supposed to be the first time I actually experience the wealth of the traditional Holy Week rites in the flesh. But given our current crisis, which has put such an abrupt pause on my journeys to the beautiful church I had come to love rather deeply, my hopes have been dashed. But there will be, God willing, more opportunities in the future. So, instead of stewing on my annoyance and further wallowing in my grief over the current crisis I thought I might share over the course of this Holy Week the little I have learned of the Sacred Triduum over the past few years. They will focus only on the rites of the Sacred Triduum as it was continued before the 1950s, when the Triduum was mutilated unrecognizably by some strange busybodies in the Vatican and forced upon the Roman Church. It would probably do me some good to direct my attention to higher things again.

It has been a desire of mine to create an adaptation, on very conservative principles, for the entirety of Holy Week using the Canadian BCP as the basic skeleton. An expression to  a “neo-Dearmerite synthesis”, if you will, as a robust counter to some of the rather bizarre “official” novelties that are still being promulgated from our liturgical committees. I will not be providing anything like that here, as not only am I not competent to do such a work yet, but also because of lack of time and space. I will only be examining the traditional text of the Sacred Triduum as it was preserved in the old Roman Rite, which represents the norm that was celebrated across Western Europe through the medieval centuries until the Reformation. That being said, it might be helpful to explain why I think that it is of great importance for us Anglicans to restore fullness to the Sacred Triduum in our own liturgical texts.

The only unique element of the Sacred Triduum that was retained in the classical Prayer Books is the very truncated vestige of the reproaches of Good Friday, which we see in the proper collects of Good Friday. The ancient tradition of reading all of the Passion narratives of the four Gospels through the course of Holy Week is also retained, but this isn’t particular to the Sacred Triduum specifically. It has been an oft-noted fact that the noble simplicity of the Anglican Prayer Book, which makes it so easy for anyone to pick up and use as a shared devotion, has come at the cost of eliminating most of the variable elements that gave distinction to the different seasons and feasts. The classical Prayer Books are robust and practical. However, when compared to the Roman Rite from which it descends it is rather monotonous.

In order to fill the void for particularly special occasions like Christmas, Anglicans have historically added elements to supplement the lack of ritual content and ceremonial instructions in the Prayer Book. The more scrupulous among us reached back to the ancient traditions to retrieve things as they were left on Cranmer’s cutting room floor.  The more inventive of us sought creative adaptations of the old traditions into new forms, with both beautiful and haphazard results (for example, the Nine Lessons and Carols). And the decadent among us conjured up bizarre novelties from heaven-knows-where. The different routes that have been taken in augmenting the leanness of the Prayer Book reflect the perennial divisions that have been clearly present in the Church of England since its inauguration as a national Protestant entity. But for all the real and imagined strengths our internal diversities might afford us, the fact that the Prayer Book has lacked a universally acknowledged ritual for the most important Christian celebrations is a serious lacunae because these celebrations express the most profound teachings of the faith, and are the real enactments of the greatest mysteries. These days of our liturgical calendar are of an utterly unique and elevated stature, and the fact that all the different Anglican parties have sought to give witness to this fact shows that there is a universal acknowledgment, even if unconscious, that something is missing. There is nothing higher to the liturgical life than the celebration of Holy Week, which reveals to us not only with shocking starkness the events of the betrayal of Christ, his Passion and the Crucifixion, and the glory of his Resurrection, and is also the very theological prototype of every celebration of the Eucharist. The Sacred Triduum is indeed the microcosm of all Christian liturgy, and it is only by participating in its worship that we can understand the full significance and meaning of the worship we off as Christians throughout the year.

It is because of the significance of the Sacred Triduum for the Christian faith that serious efforts have to be taken to restore, even if rather belatedly, a full order of Holy Week. For all the criticisms we might lay upon all the different revisions of the Prayer Book to the Canadian 1962, of which I myself have many, the Anglican Church in the past sought, with patient diplomatic compromises that sometimes pushed churchmen to the limits of English civility, to worship with the same ritual. And they were insistent on this, even though it might have been frustratingly cramping, because they recognized the importance of common prayer not just as an ideal but as a reality expressed in the very lived lives of corporate worship and private devotion. But even they were unable to provide a fully fleshed out ritual for Holy Week, a situation that continues to our day. The provisions for the Triduum that appeared in the American 1979, which have been copied largely unchanged in the Canadian BAS and even the ACNA 2019, are much too haphazard and timid. They superficially hearken back to the pre-Reformation ritual and ceremonial but with arbitrary omissions and changes, and even when one disregards these problems what is provided is still too brief and obscures just how unique the Sacred Triduum actually is. The reality is that even the most vanilla latitudinarian Anglican parish (which represents the vast majority of modern Anglicanism) continue to incorporate various supplements, whether they are derived from the fuller witness of the ancient liturgy or are complete novelties, and so on the most holy days of the year Anglicans splinter off and say different prayers and even confess different doctrines of The Lord’s Supper, the Crucifixion, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Resurrection just from what is printed on the pamphlets, let alone what is said in the sermons. Surely we can agree, even if just lightly, that this is not just disorderly but both reflects and contributes to the ongoing balkanization of the Anglican Church.

I’m not so naive to think that there will be any simple agreement on how to engage with and adapt the pre-Reformation rites of the Sacred Triduum into Anglican worship. But it is a labour that I am convinced is required despite all the troubles and arguments it will inevitably raise. And while the decisions of how exactly this should look like is far beyond my pay-grade, given that I am just a simple layman, I want to assert that we must strive to adhere to the principle of continuity, which will necessarily entail a work of ressourcement. That is to say, we must engage with the tradition in utmost humility. The prayer of the Church is to transform us, and when the witness of its movements and words challenge our presuppositions we must have the courage and humility to ask if we were wrong. To construct liturgies that conform to our ideologies is to engage in liturgical idolatry; to amend the liturgy of the Church according to our fancy is liturgical heresy.

I want to end this bloated introduction with a word of caution. Anglicans and other Western Christians have been throwing around the phrase lex orandi lex credendi for some time. The way this phrase is used in popular contemporary discourse has been helpful in some ways, but its misuse has also contributed significantly to strange distortions of liturgical theology. It is important for us to heed Aidan Kavanagh’s reminder that this is a misquotation of St. Prosper of Aquitaine. The true quotation is ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicanci: “so that the law of supplication might form the law of belief”. The relation between prayer and creed is not equal but oblique–it is the act of prayer that precedes and develops the formalization of the faith. There is no faith without prayer, and there is no proper belief outside of the prayer of the Church.

Orthodoxy can then be understood, in one aspect, as a phenomenology of the liturgy. So, then, let us examine the Sacred Triduum as it presents itself to us in the venerable and ancient rite of the Western Church, and allow ourselves to witness her as she appears. It is only then that we can even begin to discuss properly how we might receive her as Anglicans today.


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