This weekend, many of the world’s more than two billion Christians will celebrate one of the most important rites in the Christian calendar: Easter.
While Easter observances are as old as the Christian church itself, in traditional Anglican practice, the heart of the celebration is the Great Triduum, beginning on Maundy Thursday and lasting until Easter Sunday.
The Triduum has been observed in one form or another since the early centuries of Christianity, growing out of the Great Vigil on Holy Saturday to include Maundy Thursday (which commemorates the first eucharist and Jesus’ “mandate” to his disciples that they love one another other), Good Friday (which commemorates Jesus’ death on the cross), and Easter Sunday—which celebrates his resurrection.
These services are considered to be a continuation of each other, and so, unlike most liturgies in the Anglican rite, they do not end with a dismissal. The whole three days is considered “sacred time,” and when believers depart from the church, they are understood to be carrying the service out into the world around them.
Parishes that are more “high church” or Catholic in their devotional practices might include such traditions as the veneration of the host following the Maundy Thursday service, the kissing of the crucifix and the stripping of the altar; those who identify with more “low-church” forms of Anglicanism might forego one or all of these practices.
Many parishes also place their Easter celebrations within the wider context of Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. At the national offices of the Anglican Church of Canada, for example, there were noonday services each day, one of which featured a procession through the Stations of the Cross, an ancient form of devotion that leads participants through the passion narrative using 14 moments from Jesus’ last day.
But in addition to the liturgical celebration of Easter, Anglicans historically and in the present have understood Easter as a time to remember that Christ’s more radical social teachings are reflected in his death and resurrection. In medieval England, for example, it was common for monarchs to distribute gifts and money to the poor and to wash the feet of beggars at the Maundy Thursday service in imitation of Jesus, who washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper.
In Canada, Christians from many different denominations have incorporated social justice actions into their celebrations of Easter—Toronto, for example, hosts a Good Friday Walk for Justice, which begins at the Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity and brings hundreds of people on an ecumenical pilgrimage across downtown Toronto to raise awareness about the struggles facing the homeless, migrants and Indigenous people in the city, and to pray for justice. This year’s gathering will feature an address by National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald and Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada executive director Kimberly Murray.
Easter, at its heart, is about the movement from death to life through the resurrection. For Christians in northern countries like Canada, which have such long and difficult winters, it is a reminder also that just as winter eventually passes away into spring, so, too, do the terrors of death give way to new life for the faithful.