Pange, lingua, gloriósi, “Of the glorious body telling . . .” The first time I heard these words sung, I sobbed. My memories from that evening years ago, my first Holy Thursday, are still fresh: the hard kneelers beneath me, my RCIA family hemmed in tightly all around, the palpable cloud of incense and small flickers of candles in deep darkness, and the single bell calling out through the music as the Eucharist—Christ’s body and blood—was paraded solemnly around and around, until disappearing into the side chapel. What I remember most acutely, though, was a sudden, gut-wrenching feeling of being utterly dispossessed of Christ. For a brief moment, I was immersed in a terrifying, sickening black emptiness. But then I remembered: No. Tonight is not the end of the story. And I was flooded with overwhelming relief and gratitude.
Whenever the Eucharist becomes too familiar to me, whenever its meaning erodes slightly, I return to this feeling of being dispossessed, of having Christ torn away from me, and I am jolted back into awareness. I am a Scripture scholar, a devoted lover of the Hebrew Bible. But as a convert to Catholicism, for me the Eucharist is everything. It is at the heart of the Triduum, and the Triduum is the essence of our faith, the entire Christian mystery concentrated and purified into three days, from the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday. The name itself derives from the Latin for “three days,” emphasizing our true celebration: Jesus’ resurrection on the third day. It is also an immense mystery that overwhelms the mind, heart, and senses. Perhaps to underscore the mystery, the Triduum is physically demanding and tactile, filled with water and oil and human sweat as we kneel and stand, wash feet and kiss crosses, pray through long litanies and Scripture readings, and finally—blessedly—amid cries of Alleluia, turn on the lights to initiate new members into the Body of Christ.
At the heart of the Triduum is Christ’s Real Presence, crucified and resurrected for us. This is what grounds us as we give ourselves over to these next three days and let them work on us, carrying us through into Easter. What lies on the other side is pure thanksgiving, Christ unleashed, defying human attempts to humiliate him, beat him, nail him to a cross, seal him in a tomb.
To live with the Risen Christ is to live into a dare, to believe that in the end, Christ will show that he has always, everywhere, defied these futile human attempts to humiliate, beat, and destroy. We can ignore Christ now, but the end will be breathtaking—when every tear, every wound, every broken body and spirit is held and kissed, comforted and cherished. The Eucharist is Christ’s defiance, Christ poured out for us until the end of time. To be Catholic is to be a Eucharistic people, to be similarly defiant in following Christ’s example to wash each other’s feet and kiss each other’s crosses, to love and comfort and protect each other fiercely, to become Christ’s body and blood, broken and poured out for others.
I admit that I struggle with my faith. As a convert from another, vibrant religious tradition, it can be hard to stay in the Church. We live in the midst of immense hypocrisy and self-interest, and often it seems the beauty of Catholicism has been wrung out and roped into a partisan tool for one side or another (and as a Catholic, I refuse the notion of sides).
But it’s not hard to be Catholic during the Triduum. Because during the Triduum only one thing matters, and that is remembering before whom I kneel and stand: before Christ. Always, always before Christ.