“Do this in remembrance of me.” (Lk 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24)
While the rest of the secular world prepares for Spring Break, that lovely tradition of vacation, relaxation, and spring cleaning, the Catholic world prepares for the pinnacle of its liturgical year: the Triduum. But why exactly do we make such a big deal about it? Why is it given a 40-day period of preparation instead of the four weeks before Christmas? Certainly the Incarnation is just as important, right?
First of all, one major reason for the Incarnation was the Cross itself. Christ was born in order to die on the Cross on Good Friday and rise on Easter Sunday. Therefore, the Triduum’s solemn celebration is the center of the Catholic liturgy. So much so that every Mass we celebrate commemorates the events that transpired over those three days.
Second, we do not merely “recall” what happened on those days. The Triduum isn’t like Memorial Day, when we remember the lives of those who have died while serving in the Armed Forces. Rather, it is a memorial in the deepest sense when we make present a past event. In Greek, the word is ανάμνηση, rendered in English as anamnese or anamnesis, which is often translated as the weaker English words “remembrance,” or “recollection.” But it means so much more than just recalling a past event. Anamnesis means that we take part in the event itself. Not to say that the sacrifice of the Cross happens again. No, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews made it clear that it was a sacrifice made once for all (Heb 10:10). But because the Trinity exists outside of time, God has the power to give us access to this past event as if it were happening in the present.
The ancient Israelites understood this concept in their celebration of the Passover. God commanded them to celebrate the Passover meal every year to remind them of how he delivered them from Egypt. But why did he command that all future generations celebrate it as well? It was so they knew that the Passover occurred for their sake as well. When succeeding generations celebrated the Passover, they understood it as happening for them personally, as if it were a present event, not simply something that took place in the past for their ancestors. No, God liberated the ancient Israelites and all future generations from slavery in Egypt.
Just so, Christ’s death and resurrection, while they occurred only once in linear time, were for the salvation of all humanity: past, present, and future. Through the Mass and especially through the Triduum celebration, we are able to re-access the saving power of those events and re-present them for our current generation. The power of the Holy Spirit transports us back to the first century, back to Jerusalem where we sit beside Our Lord at table, we ourselves call for his crucifixion, we walk with him the Way of the Cross, and we peer inside the empty tomb. We experience the salvation he won for us first-hand and we unite ourselves to him in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
The Triduum is not merely a distant, past event. It happens here, now, in the present moment by the power of the Eternal God. We stand at the foot of the Cross beside Mary and the Beloved Disciple, gazing upon our salvation and letting the blood and the water pour over us to make us holy. This happens at every single Mass that we celebrate in the Catholic Church, but during this time of year, we highlight each individual event—the Last Supper, the Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus, and his glorious Resurrection—so that our anamnesis really hits home and we can look forward to when the Risen Christ will return to us and usher in a new heaven and a new earth.
For further reading on the concept of anamnesis, I recommend Dr. Brant Pitre's book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, available here and Jean Corbon's book The Wellspring of Worship, available here.