Reviving the Tradition of the Crotalus: Liturgical Instrument of the Easter Triduum

Photo credit: Neal Abbott Film & Photography

The earlier portion of the Mass of Holy Thursday is joyful.  When the Gloria is intoned by the celebrant, the organ sounds and the bells are rung - and suddenly they cease, remaining silent in a somber mood until the Gloria on Holy Saturday when all the lights are turned on once again and the bells ring joyously in anticipation of the joy and triumph of Easter morning.  Good Friday is the day whereon the Church is in mourning, a day of intense sorrow, commemorating the death of our Blessed Savior for the sins of mankind.  There is profound sadness as the Church tarries at the Lord's tomb, and church bells fall silent, marking the period of the passion of Christ.  This is because bells reverberate joyous sound which always signifies celebration.  

With the absence of the bells, the Church has sanctioned the use of the "crotalus."  This little instrument made of wood, comes in a few different forms, making an incongruous jarring sound (a bit like the crack of the whip when Christ was scourged).   The distinctive sound of the wood-on-wood clapping is unsettling, especially during the elevations at the Mass of the Lord's Supper.  "Crotalus" is said to originate from the Greek word “krotalon” (κροταλον), meaning “rattle.”  Although the Church's rubrics do not suggest a replacement for the bells, the use of the crotalus has been sanctioned by centuries of common sense tradition.  

The crotalus sends a creative spiritual message -- that the AGONY has begun and that we are to delve deeper into Christ's sufferings as we accompany Him, especially on Good Friday.  Hopefully this tradition will continue to make a return, since it fell out of general use in the 1960s.  I have fond memories from my youth hearing it every Easter Triduum at my childhood parish of St. Agnes (St. Paul, Minn.) where our pastor Msgr. Schuler thankfully preserved this worthy tradition, passing it on to an eager next generation.  As always, the liturgy is teacher as we learn the Faith.       

Photo credit: Fr. Jason Vidrine

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