The Three Days: Celebrating the summit of Holy Week with four services and two sacraments

I remember when I was a kid and sometimes Christmas and New Years Day fell in a particular year on a Saturday Because we were a pious church-going family, we would attend all the services the church offered. That meant worship on Saturday morning for Christmas service, and then again on Sunday morning and evening. But the real kicker came the next weekend. Our Church Order in those days called for services on Old Years evening, New Years Day, and, of course, twice on Sunday So we would find ourselves in church Friday night for the Old Years service, Saturday morning for New Years, and twice again on Sunday. I believe we spent more time in church than at home.

Some children today probably have similar reflections on the services of Holy Week. Our congregation, along with a growing number of others, has resurrected a series of services during Holy Week. The so-called Three Days or Triduum (measured from sundown Thursday to sundown Sunday, according to Jewish custom) is the summit of Christian worship to which we march through the long journey of the Church Year.

Our celebration of Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday. In the morning we have a procession of palms to focus on Christ's entry into Jerusalem. The evening service is a dramatic reading of one of the gospel accounts of the passion, interspersed with songs and hymns.

The Three Days begins on Maundy Thursday and proceeds through Good Friday, Holy Saturday with its Easter Vigil service, and then, of course, Sunday morning. Over the past five years our congregation has come to treasure and enjoy this series of services in Holy Week. In fact, at a time when attendance at special services is waning, attendance at these services has remained steady or grown (depending on how Spring break falls in a given year). The best-attended services are, of course, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But the other services have steadily grown also and are more and more deeply appreciated by those who attend.

Our approach to these services with the congregation is to highlight the central importance of this time of worship for Christians. The Three Days celebrate the pivotal events of our salvation. We invite people to think of it as a "worship retreat" in which they spend extra time in communal worship in order to deepen their wonder and joy, their faith and commitment around the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Maundy Thursday

The four services are very different in character. Maundy Thursday is primarily a service of the Word and sacrament. We make sure to sing some of the Hallell psalms associated with the Passover feast, psalms that Jesus and his disciples themselves sang (Mark 14:26). In this service I have preached on such subjects as the "two cups," the cup of suffering for Jesus and the cup of blessing for us, and I have rehearsed the relationship between the Passover meal and the supper that Christ instituted on that night. The celebration of the Lord's Supper then follows directly from the images and words of that solemn Passover night in which it was instituted.

Good Friday

Many churches in the Reformed tradition are used to celebrating communion on Good Friday. While there is nothing especially inappropriate in that custom, I strongly believe that communion on Maundy Thursday can help us better understand and meaningfully celebrate the sacrament in the light of its institution at Christ's last Passover with his disciples. Following the trajectory of events according to the gospels enables a singular focus on the cross on Good Friday. It also leaves Good Friday open to other kinds of worship events, such as a community-wide vigil or a Tenebrae service, which may not be appropriate settings for the Lord's Supper.

Our Good Friday service begins in silence in a dimly lit, bare sanctuary. At the very beginning we carry a cross down the center aisle in silence and place it in front of a bare platform. The service may involve a reading or singing (such as the Taize version) of the seven words from the cross followed by a brief meditation, often by one of the church members, about what the cross means to him or her from some personal experience. We then move to what we call Prayers at the Cross. We invite the congregation to quietly pray their sorrow, their confession, their pain before the cross and before the one who bore it all on Golgotha. During this time of prayer we invite people to come forward and kneel at the cross, perhaps touching the cross as they pray. This time of prayer may last ten or fifteen minutes and is often the most moving and meaningful part of the forty-five-minute service.

Holy Saturday

On Saturday evening Easter begins with the Easter Vigil, which is the first service of Easter. While it is most fitting to hold this service late on Saturday night, so that it extends over midnight into Easter Sunday, many congregations have moved it back to eight o'clock or so in the evening so that younger children may also participate. Some people have expressed the fear that such a service will detract from the joy of the Easter Sunday service itself. We have not found that to be the case. In fact, the vigil service leads directly into Easter by rehearsing the great words and events of the history of salvation in some of the Bible's most powerful passages. In this service the whole history of God's faithfulness in salvation is remembered in symbol, Scripture, song, and sacrament (see service on p. 40). The readings culminate with an Easter gospel reading, usually one that is a little more subdued, such as Mark 16:1-8 or Matthew 28:1-10. We also bring a very large paschal candle into the sanctuary in the darkness at the beginning of the service, and as the service continues, the lights in the sanctuary get brighter and brighter. (The paschal candle remains in a prominent place and is lighted each Sunday during the Easter season.)

If there is a candidate for baptism, the last section of the vigil centers on the celebration of baptism. But whether or not a person is baptized, we use this time for all those present to remember their baptism (which for many took place as an infant). This includes a renewal of baptismal vows through the renunciations and affirmations included in many historic baptismal liturgies (see also the one approved by the Christian Reformed Church Synod, 1994). We then invite all baptized persons to come to the font and place their hands in the water or splash some of it on their foreheads to vividly remember their baptisms. We emphasize, of course, that this is only a remembrance of baptism, not the sacrament itself.

Easter Sunday

The Three Days culminate with the festive service of Easter Sunday (see p. 43). At this service all our anticipation and joy burst forth in festive music and bright colors. The service closes, once again, with the celebration of the Lord's Supper, but this celebration of the sacrament is very different from Thursday's. While the atmosphere on Thursday is fittingly solemn and focuses on our sin and Christ's death, the service on Easter is joyous and focuses on our communion with the risen Lord and our desire to do this "till he comes."

I know some churches that do not celebrate all four services of the Three Days, but do have services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday morning, and Easter evening. Easter evening is also a wonderful time to celebrate the Lord's Supper, especially in light of the Emmaus story in Luke 24, when, in the evening meal, after a long Sunday walk, "he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread."

Both Sacraments

Since both baptism and the Lord's Supper draw their meaning from the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and convey the benefits of Christ's death and resurrection to believers, it is especially fitting and fruitful to celebrate both sacraments during the Three Days.

When Good Friday and Easter are framed by two distinctly different celebrations of the Lord's Supper, we are reminded that two very different moments of "breaking bread" already occur in the gospels. The upper-room Passover meal is the basis of our Lord's Supper, for there Jesus transformed the Passover Seder into a new covenant meal. But Jesus also broke bread with his disciples after his resurrection, and these meals help us see the Lord's Supper as a celebration of the risen Christ's presence with us through the Holy Spirit.

The celebration and remembrance of our baptism at the Easter Vigil (or even on Easter Sunday morning) helps members of the congregation see and experience the vital connection of their baptism with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Paul says in Romans 6, we are buried and raised with Christ in baptism.

By anchoring both sacraments in the Three Days, we help people understand their origin and meaning in a way that adds more significance to their celebration all through the year. Just as Holy Week worship can be seen as the hub of all worship throughout the year, so the celebrations of the both sacraments during the Three Days forms the core meaning of their celebration throughout the year.

The celebration and remembrance of our baptism at the Easter Vigil helps members of the congregation see and experience the vital connection of their baptism with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


Tonight we enter into the mystery of God's plan for redeeming all creation. We light the Easter candle, read the ancient stories, and celebrate the sacrament of baptism. On one level, the meaning of all of this is clear: Christ has conquered death and through baptism we are united with Christ! But on another, deeper level, we will never be able to grasp the wonder of it all. We can only look and listen, learning how water and wind, light and clouds, lambs and dry bones proclaim the good news of Christ's coming to life.


Gathering of the Congregation

Musical Offering: "Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands"

Introduction to the Service

Service of Light

Call to Worship: John 1:1, 4-5


Lighting of the Paschal Candle

Leader: The light of Christ.

All: Thanks be to God.

The Ancient Easter Canticle: "Rejoice, Heavenly Powers"

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God's throne! Jesus Christ our King is risen!
Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes forever!
Rejoice heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Jesus Christ our King is risen!

Hymn: "Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands" PsH 398, PH 110, RL 324

stanza 1: choir
stanza 2: organ alone, to interpret the text
stanza 3: choir, followed by musical interlude during which all stand
stanza 4: all, in unison



The Creation

Old Testament Reading: Genesis 1-2:3

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good.

God's love endures forever!


The Bible begins with creation. First there is only God, but now, out of nothing, there is something beside God. There is creation.

We take creation for granted. It simply is. We spend our time asking how it is, but the real question is, why is it?

It is an act of love, pure love. Like a newborn baby is an act of love.

The original Divine community, here called Elohim, said, "Let us create. Let us make room for something new, something beside us. Let us make room for a creature who knows us, can love us, and to whom we can give dominion like us."

Creation means love. God is love.


Almighty and eternal God,
you created all things in beauty and order.
Help us now to perceive
how still more wonderful is your new creation,
in which you redeemed your people
through the sacrifice of our Passover, Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Choir anthem: "Sing, Sing a New Song to the Lord God" arr. John Ferguson

The Covenant Between God and the Earth

Old Testament Reading: Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-15

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good.

God's love endures forever!


To the Hebrew mind, water is more than mere H2O. It means chaos. Creation begins in watery chaos, and God makes sense out of it. He separates the water from the land and makes sense, and life can begin.

Now chaos threatens the earth again. The water comes down, and the water rises up, and the neat separation between the two that makes life possible is overwhelmed by a flood.

But not even the judgment of chaos can obliterate God's love. Tossed about on the chaotic waves is a little ark, with Noah and his family, and all the animals, two by two.

Out of the chaos God once again brings life, and with it he gives a sign that will he bonds himself forever to this creation, the rainbow.


Faithful God,
you placed the rainbow in the skies
as the sign of your covenant with all living things.
May we, who are washed in water through your Spirit,
offer to you our sacrifice of thanksgiving with right hearts.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hymn: "You Are Our God; We Are Your People,"

stanzas 1 and 3 PsH 272, SFL 203

Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac

Old Testament Reading: Genesis 22:1-18

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good.

God's love endures forever!


Abraham and Sarah had waited and waited for the promised son. Finally he was born. Isaac—laughter.

Now, strangely, savagely, it seems, God says, "Sacrifice him on the mountain I will show you."

It is a test for Abraham, but it is also a test for God. Everything is on the line. God knows it. Abraham knows it. Even the boy Isaac senses it: "Where is the Iamb for the sacrifice?" Abraham, eyes glancing to the clouds, says, "God will provide a lamb for the sacrifice."

Abraham believed God, and God provided a lamb, his only begotten son, begotten before all worlds, as a sacrifice for the salvation of the whole world. Abraham passed the test. God passed the test.


Gracious God
through Abraham's obedience
you made known your faithful love
to countless numbers.
Through Jesus Christ, the perfect lamb,
fulfill in your church and in all creation
your promise of a new covenant. Amen.

Hymn: "You Are Our God; We Are Your People,"
stanzas 2 and 4 PsH 272, SFL 203

Israel's Deliverance at the Red Sea

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good.

God's love endures forever!


Water again. Pharaoh behind them and water in front of them. Israel is truly between a rock and a hard place.

They cry out and complain to Moses. Moses tells them to shut up and trust in God. Finally, at the last possible moment, God speaks. "What are you waiting for? Go forward!" A great wind carves a path through the watery chaos, and God delivers his people from the sea.

Forever after, God's people have seen this as another sign of God's covenant love. We ask each new believer, like [name] tonight, to pass through the waters, the waters of baptism, and join the redeemed slaves, the people of God.


O God, our Savior,
you once delivered by the power of your mighty arm
your chosen people Israel through the water of the sea;
so now deliver your church and all the peoples of the earth
from bondage and oppression
to rejoice and serve you in freedom,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hymn: "How Firm a Foundation" PsH 500, PH 36, RL 172, TH 94

stanza 1: all
stanza 2: choir
stanza 3: choir, sung in canon to portray the image of deep water
stanza 4: choir, with accompaniment to portray the image of fire
stanza 5: all

Salvation Is Offered to All

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 55:1-12

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good.

God's love endures forever!


Free food! All the best. All you can eat. Who can resist such an invitation? Come, come and eat, without money, without price.

Salvation is free, you see. It is given. Come sit down. Open your hands. Open your mouths, and the faithful God will feed you till you want no more.

One day there will be a great free feast. "For you will go out with joy, and be led back with peace. The mountains and the hills will break into song before you, and the trees of the field will clap their hands."


Eternal God,
by the power of your Word you created all things,
and by your Spirit you renew the earth.
Give now the water of life to all who thirst for you,
and nourish with spiritual food of bread and wine
all who hunger for you,
that our lives may bear the abundant fruit of your
heavenly reign; through Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead,
who, with you and the Holy Spirit,
lives and reigns forever. Amen.

Choir: "Surely It Is God Who Saves Me" (based on Isaiah 12:1-4)

New Life for God's People

Old Testament Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-6, 11-14

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good.

God's love endures forever!


Air, breath, Spirit, all one word. Without any of them we are dead.

In the beginning God breathed into Adam, and he became a living soul.

Here God breathed into the dead host of Israel and they became a standing army.

Jesus breathed on his scared-to-death disciples, and they received the Holy Spirit. When God's breath comes, there is new life, new strength, and the dead rise.


Eternal God,
you raised from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ
and by your Holy Spirit brought to life your church;
breathe upon us again with your Spirit
and give new life to your people,
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hymn: "For Your Gift of God the Spirit" PsH 416, RL 382, PH 339

stanzas 1, 3, 5: all

Gathering of God's People

Old Testament Reading: Ezekiel 36:24-28

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good.

God's love endures forever!


"I will be your God and you shall be my people." That's what God has always wanted, to dwell in love with the image-bearing creatures he made and to invite them into the holy love of the circle of divine fellowship.

So God sprinkles us with clean water and gives us soft, malleable hearts and send the Spirit. And we become the people of God.


Ever-living God of power and light,
look with mercy on your whole church, we pray;
bring to completion your lasting salvation,
that the whole world may see the fallen lifted up,
the old made new, and all things brought to perfection
in him through whom all things were made,
our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Hymn: "Glorious Things of You Are Spoken" PsH 506, PH 446, RL 393, TH 345

stanzas 1-3: choir, followed by a musical interlude during which all stand
stanza 4: all

This hymn is a fitting conclusion to the service of readings. It paints a verbal picture of the coming kingdom, using all of the images of the Old Testament readings (water, light, fire). The final stanza refers to baptism: for by the grace shown in baptism, we too are citizens of the city of God.

[remain standing after the hymn]



The hour has come for you to wake up from slumber
because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.

The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.
So let us put aside the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light.

The Gospel Reading: Matthew 28:1-10


Hymn: "Alleluia! Alleluia!," stanzas 1-2 PsH 387, TH 283

The Meaning of Baptism

Prayer of Thanksgiving

We thank you, O God,
for our baptism into Christ's death and resurrection.
In the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters
and you created everything that is, seen and unseen.
In the time of Noah,
you destroyed evil in the water of the flood;
and by your saving ark, you gave a new beginning.
In the night of trouble
you led Israel through the sea,
out of slavery into the freedom of the promised land.
In the water of the Jordan
our Lord was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit.
In the baptism of Christ's death and resurrection
you have set us free from sin and death
and opened up the way to eternal life.

May Christ, who sank deep into death
and was raised Lord of life
keep us in the grip of his hand.
May your Spirit separate us from sin
and mark us with a faith
that can stand the light of day and endure the dark of night.
To you be all honor and glory, dominion and power
now and forever, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Covenant of Baptism

Since you have responded by God's grace to the call of the gospel to believe and be baptized, We ask you now, [name] before God and his people, to reject sin, to profess your faith in Jesus Christ, and to confess the faith of the church.

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of evil that rebel against God?

I renounce them!

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

I renounce them!

Do you turn to Jesus Christ?

Yes! I trust in him as my Lord and Savior.

Do you intend to be Christ's faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love, as long as you live?

Yes! God helping me.

The Creed


Remembering Our Baptism

Hymn: "We Know That Christ Is Raised" PsH 271, PH 295, RL 528




Dear visitor, welcome in the name of Jesus Christ! The following is an outline of our worship service. All songs can be found in the hymnbook.

Gathering to Greet the Risen Lord

Gathering for Worship

Call to Worship

Sisters and brothers: The Lord is risen, alleluia!

He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Alleluia!
The stone has been rolled away from the tomb!

Alleluia! Alleluia!

He is not among the dead any longer, the living one is among us!

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Hymn: "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" PsH 388, PH 113, RL 325,SFL 172 TH 277

[During the singing of this hymn the Paschal Candle will be brought in.]

Easter Greetings

Hymn: "Alleluia, Alleluia! Give Thanks to the Risen Lord" PsH 402, rH 106, SFL 173

Choir Anthem: "I Will Sing Praises" arr. Andre Thomas

Public Profession of Faith

The Proclamation of God's Word

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture Reading: John 10:1-18

Choir Response: "Now the Feast and Celebration"

Scripture Reading: John 20:19-30

Sermon: Meeting Jesus

Hymn: "Christ Is Alive" PsH 413, PH 108

Gathering at the Table with the Risen Lord

The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving
The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give him thanks and praise
on this day of joy and victory.

O Holy God, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,
with great joy today we give you thanks and praise...
How wonderful are your ways, almighty God.
Therefore with the apostles and prophets,
and that great cloud of witnesses
who live for you beyond all time and space,
we lift our hearts in joyful praise.


Alleluia, Alleluia! Glory be to God on high;
Alleluia to the Savior, who has won the victory;
Alleluia to the Spirit, fount of love and sanctity;
Alleluia, alleluia! to the Triune Majesty.

The Words of Institution

The Memorial

Let us remember what Christ has done for us:

Christ has died;
Christ is risen;
Christ shall come again.

Prayers of Consecration, concluded with the Lord's



[During the distribution we sing the hymn "At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing" from the Lutheran Book of Worship.]

The Thanksgiving

The Offering

Hymn: "Lift High the Cross" PsH 373, PH 371, RL 415, SFL 171, TH 263


Organ Postlude: "At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing"

Leonard J. Vander Zee is pastor of South Bend (Ind.) Christian Reformed Church.


Reformed Worship 42 © December 1996, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.