In the last days of Lent leading up to Easter, Christian liturgies place an emphasis on the final days and hours of Jesus of Nazareth. The liturgical season of the Triduum brings us through the Last Supper and Jesus’ Passion and death, carrying us finally into what might be called the “empty time”—that mournful 24-hour period when the seemingly defeated Christ lay in the tomb and the world was bereft of the God-man, the Teacher and Redeemer.
For us, within the Triduum, there is no Sacrifice of the Mass between the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil—an interruption of the way things are done. The most important act of worship in the world is stopped, and how we go on, with prayer services and acts of devotion, only makes us feel that loss more keenly.
The desolation of the Triduum is a full immersion into the realities of a church without bells, a community without a focus of hope and outreach, until the nighttime falls on Saturday, and the Holy Fire is lit, and the triumphant Exsultet is chanted in joyful proclamation across the planet, time zone to time zone—one end of the earth to another marked by individual flames of witness, reclamation and duty, a restoration of beauty, and the Holy Water flows once more as we celebrate the final victory over death (1 Cor. 15). The Triduum comes to its fulfillment as we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, and the Triduum closes with the prayers at Vespers on Sunday evening.
Without the preparation of the first days of the Triduum, the joyful noises and conformities to mystery that overtake us at Easter could not feel so profoundly right and new. As it takes darkness in order to perceive light, we have needed to feel the depths of real grief, real loss, in order to know the resplendent joy that is, ultimately, the payoff of faith.
There is no official “triduum” preceding the end of the liturgical year or anticipating the quiescent and instructive hope of Advent, but I always think of All-Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day as a kind of “triduum” of waiting—of not even anticipation, but of waiting for the season of anticipation.
We no longer know how to wait for anything, not even how to wait for our own thoughts to sharpen or broaden, but these three days that come with the growing hush and shortened days of autumn, remind us that our own days are short and our own lives fleeting (the one thought we can wait to have) and that brings humility, too. Along with the welcome briskness that comes with the crisp air, we are watching the creatures busy themselves for a long sleep, trees becoming denuded, their leaves falling dead all around. Their newly-bared branches showcase a delicacy hidden in the summer—careworn arms raised in supplication, just like ours. The gardens are harvested; the earth has been turned and lies fallow, put to rest; we are startled by the first chilly days, as though we had forgotten, through the long hot summer, that we still need warmth in our lives and will reach for it where we trust it may be found.
Liturgically, we are in a similar place. In November, the daily readings at Mass are rife with warnings about evil days, evil spirits, and unambiguous endings. We see Jesus arguing with scribes and scholars trying to trick him into self-incrimination. As the month progresses, his own words and parables become so challenging they scare some people off as he breaks down the utter truth for us:
That around us, at all times, there is a battle taking place between light and darkness, good and evil, life and death; it is a battle seen and unseen, and one that spills into our own days, into our own lives, bringing alternative times of grief and hope, joy and sorrow.
That the battle will go on until such time as the knowable world itself comes to a close.
That the choices we make while we live have genuine impact on the life of the world as it goes on within this battle; they matter within the scope of that battle, giving strength to the darkness or to the light.
“Last days” readings preface the last days of the liturgical year, but preceding them we Christians observe All Hallows’ Eve, not only as Halloween, with costumes and candy and the sort of intentionally ‘spooky’ decorations, but as a chance to both acknowledge death and laugh at it, because we know that death is not an end; we learned that half-a-year ago, during the Easter Triduum that preceded Christ’s victory over death.
Halloween is the great celebratory vigil to All Saints’ Day, the day we recollect the “great multitude” spoken of in the Book of Revelation, which “no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9), and St Paul’s “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us (Heb. 12:1). We step into church, while the rest of the world rushes by, and pause to recall all of the great women and men whose faithful response to their individual callings dramatically weighed the balance of battle to the side of light over darkness, good over evil—daily and defiantly carrying forth the sign of contradiction to the strange glamor that seems partnered to brokenness. We are reminded by Jesus, that they and we are all blessed—wherever we are in life, if we are oriented toward the light—and thus we may rejoice as we advance toward the kingdom.
And then we observe All Souls’ Day, a reminder of the promises made at Baptism, not only by us (or for us) but by God, as well: that we are claimed for Christ, made newly dead to sin as we begin to engage with the world, making our way forward even as the battle continues all around, each one of us becoming conduits of a supernatural, God-given grace that at any moment has the potential to pour forth the surprising favors of the Lord, which are never exhausted, or even—if God wills it—to unleash miracles.
And there is great hope in all of that. In the laughter at death’s puny illusions; in the remembrance of our ancestors in holiness; in the most genuinely inclusive recognition of human beings, in all of their hopes and gifts and victories large and small; in the readings that seem like they are all about death and endings but are, in truth, as full of promise for tomorrow as the geese flying south, or the hay-strewn gardens, or the piles of gathered nuts beneath a tree.
In Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, which is a wonderful read this time of year, an exasperated young Benedictine novice complains about this season, “It’s all howling winds and holy souls!”
“Advent is coming,” she is told by a serene older nun. “Wait.”