Lent & Easter: Celebrating the Paschal Mystery


Every moment of human life is subject to the play of multiple rhythms of time, some daily, others weekly, monthly, yearly or seasonal.  Annual rhythms include the calendar year, the financial year, the school year, the sporting year, and the cycle of nature’s seasons.  There are the seasons of life too - childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age and older years - punctuated by particular personal anniversaries such as birthdays, weddings, deaths.  

The liturgical year

For Christian believers there’s another, more fundamental, rhythm.  It’s the calendar of faith, the annual cycle of feasts and seasons by which the church celebrates the mystery of Jesus Christ.  The proper name for this is the “liturgical year” though this expression only became current in the 20th century.  Revised fifty years ago by authority of the Second Vatican Council, the liturgical year has become a familiar experience for regular church-goers. 

The first Sunday of Advent heralds four weeks of preparation for Christmas Day and the Christmas season.  The Advent-Christmas combination is followed by a relatively short season of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday ushers in the forty days of Lent.  The observance of Lent culminates in the solemn celebrations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil that lie at the heart of the year.  The ensuing fifty days of the festive Easter season come to a glorious close on Pentecost Sunday.  Finally the church embarks on the second and longer part of Ordinary Time, until the “end times” come into view and a new season of Advent begins.

From diversity to uniformity

How did this yearly cycle come to pass?  The original feast for the followers of Jesus was certainly the Sunday Eucharist.  They came together on the Lord’s Day to break bread in his memory.  In time, local churches began to celebrate different facets of the saving mystery of Christ in the course of the year, but evidence from the first three or four centuries as to how this took place is tantalisingly sparse, fragmentary and difficult to interpret. 

Diverse customs arose in different centres such as Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Rome and across different lands such as Syria, Spain and Gaul.  As the centuries passed, there was cross-fertilisation between their liturgical practices, though Rome stood out by being generally resistant to innovation.  All in all, this was an era of flux and diversity.  The general shape of the liturgical year was established by the sixth century but only became definitive for the western church a thousand years later through the Council of Trent and the Missal of Pope Pius V in 1570.

Lent Easter1The celebration of Easter

By the second century the weekly assembly came to be complemented by an annual celebration of the paschal mystery.  At first this Christian Pasch was celebrated in accordance with the Jewish calendar for Passover, on the 14th day of the month of Nisan, which could be any day of the week.  After much controversy it was decreed by the Council of Nicaea in 325 that the commemoration of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection should be held on Sunday rather than a weekday. 

The annual feast of Easter quickly carried over into a week of celebration which further developed into a season of fifty days.  Throughout this time the church rejoiced in the one great mystery of Jesus’ victory over sin and death.  It revelled in the new life of the Spirit.  But the integrity of this unified season was lost when the Ascension of the Lord began to be celebrated on the fortieth day, leaving ten days to be spent waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The development of the Triduum

Lent Easter2The Easter celebration itself took the form of a night-time vigil, preceded by days of strict fasting.  Once it was transferred to Sunday, the service began to focus more exclusively on the resurrection of the Lord.  Accordingly, the preceding days of fast developed an identity of their own.  Good Friday came to centre on Jesus’ death, Holy Saturday on his burial.  The once unified remembrance of the paschal mystery broke up into a series of separate observances.  Later developments led to the Vigil being celebrated on Holy Saturday morning, with the addition of Holy Thursday creating a new Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

The evolution of these rites was aided and abetted by widespread imitation of the liturgies of 4th century Jerusalem.  The Holy City had become a popular pilgrimage site.  Devout Christians who visited during Holy Week experienced a series of liturgical events at sites associated with Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.  On return home they introduced some of these rituals to their local churches.  A number of them, such as the veneration of the cross, survive to this day.

The emergence of Lent

The origins of the season of Lent are much less clear, though practices of fasting, preparation for baptism and the system of public penance certainly all played their part.  There seems to have been great diversity as to when baptism was celebrated.  In some places it was after the feast of the Epiphany, in others at Eastertime, in others again on the feast of Pentecost or at another time of the year.  With the rise of infant baptism the adult catechumenate fell into disuse, as did the practice of public penance.  The eventual outcome of this process was that Lent emerged as a season of repentance and renewal for the whole community prior to Easter, though traces of its earlier role remained.  Surprisingly, the first official reference to the distribution of ashes to the faithful does not occur until 1091, and the name “Ash Wednesday” only dates from the sixteenth century, though the Lenten fast began on this day from the 7th century.

Lent Easter3Decline and renewal

By the time the Missal of Pius V was published in 1570 the liturgies of the Triduum had lost much of their significance.  The Mass on Holy Thursday at which the bishop consecrated the holy oils was poorly attended, and the washing of feet took place after the Mass.  The Good Friday liturgy focussed on Jesus’ passion and death to the exclusion of resurrection, and worst of all, the Easter Vigil took place in the full light of day on the Saturday morning.  The trend to an earlier time can be traced back to the 7th century until the morning time was mandated in the Missal of 1570.  The impetus of the 19th and 20th century liturgical movement, however, led to the reform of the Vigil and Holy Week in the 1950s, foreshadowing the comprehensive renewal authorised by the Second Vatican Council. 

The paschal triduum, extending from Holy Thursday evening to the evening Lent Easter4of Easter Sunday, has been restored to its pride of place at the heart of the liturgical year.   It is the centre-piece between six weeks of preparation (Lent) and seven weeks of celebration (Easter).   There is a new integrity about these “great ninety days” even as the rites appropriate a great diversity of liturgical practices from different places and eras.

All this enables the whole Christian community to be immersed in the whole saving mystery of Jesus Christ: his ministry, suffering, death and resurrection, glorification and sending of the Holy Spirit.  In this mystery the church becomes “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light in order to proclaim God’s mighty works (1 Pt 2:9).

Pastoral notes

The following pastoral notes on the liturgies of Lent, the Triduum and Easter are offered in order to assist parishes celebrate them well.  They do not, in fact cannot, cover every detail.  Local communities and liturgical teams must take their particular circumstances into account and make their own choice of the various options available.  However the combination of history, general principles and select details presented here can serve as a helpful catalyst in the process of preparing these all-important celebrations.

The notes assume that the parish has a functioning liturgical planning team equipped with the personnel, knowledge, experience and skills needed for the preparation of worthy liturgical celebrations.  A further and indispensable task for the team is the evaluation of the liturgies once they have been celebrated.   The purpose of this is wholly positive.  The questions to be asked are: what worked well? what could be done better next time?  The aim of the exercise is to enhance the worthy celebration of the mysteries of faith for the sake of the whole worshipping community.  It should be completed while the experience is still fresh in people's minds.

It must be noted that two major dimensions of these liturgies are referred to only in passing: music and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).  This is a reflection of their importance, not the opposite.  They are of such significance that they require explicit treatment in their own right, beyond the scope of this resource.  The same goes for the scripture readings and prayers.  Commentaries on these, especially the readings, are readily available elsewhere.

Primary resources

Official resources

Books on Holy Week and the Triduum

General resources


Historical notes

As noted in the introduction, the origins of Lent are rather obscure.  A number of developments took place roughly in the period from the 5th to the 7th century, including:

There are competing claims within the current Roman Missal as to the first day of Lent.  It appears to be Ash Wednesday but the Prayer over the Offerings on the 1st Sunday of Lent makes reference to “the beginning of this venerable and sacred time.”

The practice of veiling the cross and statues during Lent originated in the Middle Ages.  This tradition has been maintained as a contemporary option, to be observed from the 5th Sunday of Lent through to the Vigil, except for the cross once it is unveiled on Good Friday.

The post-Vatican II RCIA provides ritual actions and prayers for the scrutinies of the elect on the 3rd, 4th and 5th Sundays of Lent.  The elect also may be presented with the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed.

In Australia Lent has been given an additional social justice focus by the Project Compassion campaign of prayer, formation and fund-raising.

Lent Easter5Ash Wednesday

In spite of the fact that Ash Wednesday has never been a day of obligation, it is a day when many Catholics flock to Mass to be marked with the ashes of repentance and mortality.  Along with Good Friday, it is a day of fast and abstinence.

Advance preparation

Proximate preparation

The following additional items need to be put in place in the sanctuary:



Since the post-Vatican II revival of the catechumenate, the 3rd, 4th and 5th Sundays of Lent have been provided with prayers for the scrutinies of the elect, reflecting the Year A gospel text for the day:

For more detail, refer to the RCIA.


Both the parish community and the elect along with their godparents need to be prepared in advance for this often unfamiliar rite.



Advance preparation

Enough time needs to be allowed for the preparation of Orders of Service for the people for the major ceremonies if that is determined to be desirable.  Combining the Orders of Service for the Paschal Triduum in a single booklet would help communicate the fact that the rites of the Triduum constitute one liturgy celebrated over three days.

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Historical notes

Advance preparation

Proximate preparation


Chrism Mass

Historical notes


As this is a cathedral liturgy presided over by the bishop, it falls beyond the scope of these pastoral notes.

Weekdays of Holy Week

The season of Lent comes to a close with the beginning of the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.   There are readings and prayers for Mass on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, but none for a daytime Mass on Thursday.

The weekdays of Holy Week are well suited for the final preparation of the elect for Christian initiation and for the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation by the already baptised.


Note: Helpful checklists may be found in Jeremy Helmes'  book Three Great Days: Preparing the Liturgies of the Paschal Triduum (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016) pp 80-85.

Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Historical notes

Advance preparation

Parish bulletin insert


As evening falls on Holy Thursday we cross a significant threshold.  Dusk ushers in the great three days of Christian observance, the Paschal Triduum.  Lent has come to a quiet end after a flurry of liturgical activity: Palm Sunday celebrations, the Chrism Mass, reconciliation services and the final preparations of catechumens and candidates for initiation.  The season of renewal and purification has run its course; now it is time to gather for the Christian Passover.

Like Jesus’ garment, the liturgies of the Triduum form a seamless whole.  The Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion, the Easter Vigil and the Evening Prayer of Easter Day all celebrate one and the same great mystery of faith: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This is made plain at the very outset.  The opening chant for this evening’s Eucharist declares it for all to hear: We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, life and resurrection; through him we are saved and made free.  Could it be clearer?

And if this proclamation were not sufficient, we are gently reminded again and again as the days progress.  Each succeeding liturgy begins and ends in silence.  We are welcomed with a greeting when we gather on this Thursday evening and are not dismissed until the Easter Eucharist comes to a close.  It is as if we are invited to experience the three principal liturgies as movements in one symphony.  History and mystery interweave in an observance whose profound meaning takes three days to unfold.

Each celebration views the mystery through a particular prism - the supper, the cross, the resurrection - but it is one mystery from start to finish.  This evening’s liturgy takes the form of a Eucharist, familiar in shape but distinguished in order and feel.  Tonight we pray with a heightened consciousness of the fierce dedication that gave rise to Eucharist.  We are more intensely aware of the passion with which Jesus loved his Father and his friends until death.  We know that to sup at the table with Jesus is to commit ourselves to love and live in this way.

The prayers and readings focus on the memorial meal.  The rite is embellished with the washing of the feet to manifest the gospel in symbolic action as well as in word proclaimed.  A special collection for the poor is taken up, to allow us to make our participation in the mystery concrete.  Communion in both the Body and the Blood of the Lord is offered.  And the liturgy of this night ends with the transfer of the sacrament to the altar of repose, not in triumph but in reverent practicality, to allow Communion to be given at the solemn liturgy the following day.  There is no formal end, no dismissal; we may remain in quiet adoration of the Lord before departing into the night in silence, all the while pondering the mystery until we meet again.

Proximate preparation


Good Friday: Celebration of the Passion of the Lord

Historical notes

Parish bulletin insert


No other liturgy begins with the same combination of solemnity, simplicity and silence as does the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday.  The rite is stark.  From the silence of the opening procession to the silence of departure the liturgy of Good Friday is elemental.  It focuses successively on Word, Cross and Communion.  The short opening prayer, proclaimed without greeting or introduction, declares that it is the Paschal mystery we celebrate today - the whole mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus Christ, not just his death on the cross.

The Word is long and strong.  The poignancy of Isaiah’s prophetic account of the suffering servant is echoed in the psalm that follows.  We pray a prayer of heartfelt trust in the midst of abandonment: “Father, I put my life in your hands.”  The theme continues in the reading from the letter to the Hebrews; we hear of the Son who in suffering became “the source of eternal salvation.”  All this paves the way for the proclamation of the Passion.

In accordance with ancient tradition we read the story of Jesus’ suffering and death as told by the gospel writer John.  His is a unique version of the drama, recast in the light of the resurrection.  In the Passion according to John, Jesus is already Lord; he is in command throughout.  Certainly Jesus is betrayed, suffers and dies, but as sovereign of love and truth.  The Cross in John is an emphatic sign of victory rather than an instrument of shame.

But one facet of John’s telling of the story needs to be heard with care.  When he uses the term “the Jews” to describe the opponents of Jesus he does not mean the Jewish people in general but rather the religious authorities of the day.  In their determination to silence this troublesome prophet we recognise how ruthless we all can be in defending ourselves against the threat of truth.  The liturgy of the word concludes with a lengthy set of intercessions in the solemn form of the early Church; this is truly the prayer of the faithful, interceding for the whole of humankind in every kind of need.

We move from word to cross.  The cross is shown and acclaimed by the whole assembly.  For baptised believers it is the sign of God’s love disarming the power of sin and death in our world once and for all.  We venerate the cross as a symbol of our salvation.  The veneration we offer it is a profession of faith in the presence and power of God to bring life out of death.

Communion completes the celebration.  In receiving the Bread of Life we participate concretely in the paschal mystery.  Throughout these three days to share in the Body of the Lord is to commit ourselves to the dying and rising that discipleship demands.  The service has no formal dismissal.  We simply disperse until we gather again the following night to keep vigil with the Lord.

Prayer of the Church

The offices of Morning Prayer and Readings may be prayed on Good Friday morning by members of the parish community.  [Link to an Order of service?]

Afternoon liturgy

Advance preparation

Proximate preparation


Holy Saturday

Prayer of the Church

The offices of Morning Prayer and Readings may be prayed on Holy Saturday morning by members of the parish community.  [Link to an Order of service?]

Paschal Vigil

Historical notes

Liturgy of Light

The Liturgy of the Word

The Liturgy of Baptism

The Liturgy of Eucharist

Parish bulletin insert


The night of nights has arrived.  We gather in darkness and silence for the flame of the great Easter candle to be lit from the fire.  Then we become again a pilgrim people like the Israelites of old.  They followed the pillar of cloud by day and the fire by night, we the flickering flame that radiates the light of Christ.  In our name the candle is acclaimed, reverenced and praised extravagantly in song.  This is ever the night on which we are set free and blessed with peace and joy.

By the light of Christ and at great length we proclaim the story of salvation, beginning with readings from the Old Testament.  From the majestic roll-call of creation and the testing of Abraham we turn to the essential narrative of the night, the liberation of Israel from Egypt through the waters of the sea.  The prophets Isaiah, Baruch and Ezekiel expound on the covenant fidelity of Israel’s God and foreshadow a new and everlasting covenant sealed with the gift of God’s own spirit.  The vigil of the word culminates in readings from the New Testament on Jesus’ resurrection and our risen life in him.

From light and word we move to water and oil.  There may be catechumens, by now the elect, to be fully initiated and baptised Catholics to be confirmed (baptised Christians from other churches seeking full communion with the Catholic Church being best welcomed at another time).  Our fellowship with all the saints who have gone before us is reaffirmed in the litany.  The waters of the font are blessed in a rich memorial prayer, then those to be baptised affirm their faith and allow themselves to be born anew as the waters of life are poured over them.  They, and all to be confirmed, are anointed with the holy oil of God’s Spirit, ready to be invited later to Communion at the Lord’s table.  In solidarity with the newly initiated the whole assembly renews its baptismal promises and offers the prayers of intercession.

At last our three-day journey comes to its climax.  The focus shifts to the Eucharistic table where we break bread with the risen Lord.  Joyful thanks and praise are offered over the bread and wine that they might be for us the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  Transformed by word and Spirit, the gifts are offered back to us in Communion.  Receiving them in faith we ourselves become more truly the Body of the Lord, bearing his life for the world.  To that world we are finally returned, sent forth with Easter alleluias ringing in our ears.  All that remains to complete these great three days of observance is to gather for the Prayer of the Church as evening falls on Easter Day.

So ends the Paschal Triduum; thus begins the Paschal season.  For fifty days the church immerses itself in the life of the Risen One, to be renewed in heart and mission, until the celebration of Pentecost brings the season to an exuberant close.

Advance preparation

Proximate preparation


Easter Sunday

Historical notes


The Paschal Triduum concludes with the celebration of the Evening Prayer of the Church.


Easter season

Historical notes


Lent Easter6Pentecost Sunday