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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Alleluia, He is Risen!

Easter is one of my favorite holidays, and it has nothing at all to do with the bag of Ghirardelli chocolates or German candies the Easter Bunny brought. Rather, it has to do with Christ's Resurrection, and that the Easter Vigil is the most beautiful and most important liturgy of the year. It's also one of the oldest ones, with the earliest traces of a resurrection vigil already in place in the second century.

In a sense, it all begins on Palm Sunday, when we commemorate Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. At the beginning of that Mass, the procession is done with palms and a joyful hymn. But the Gospel for the day is of Christ's Passion, from the garden in Gethsemane to His death by crucifixion. It's also one of the few 'audience participation' gospels, where we echo the voices of the crowd that bloody Friday. It shows us up as a fickle race - the crowd that shouted joyful Hosannas and gave the first-century equivalent of a ticker-tape parade are a few days later calling for His execution: "Crucify him!".

A few days later begins the Paschal Triduum, which I mentioned in my previous entry. It is three separate services, but it is also a single three-part event. Almost all Catholic Masses begin and end with the Sign of the Cross...but not this time. The Triduum starts on Holy Thursday, the memorial of the institution of the Lord's Supper. We also commemorate Christ's washing his disciples feet, to demonstrate they should be servants to each other. (Holy Thursday is also called Maundy Thursday, from the Latin "mandatum novum do vobis" - "a new commandment I give to you" [John 13:34] Footwashing is done at this service too, to remind us that we are to be servants to each other.) The Mass opens in the normal manner, but does not end so. This is also the last time that the sacraments will be consecrated, until after sundown on Saturday. After Communion, instead of the consecrated hosts being moved off to the tabernacle as usual, they are processed out of the main sanctuary to a place of repose (usually to a side chapel) while the kneeling congregation sings Pange Lingua (which I posted in my previous entry). There is no concluding rite, no final benediction, leaving it as one big "To be continued....".

Afterward, the altar is stripped bare. Until Saturday night, there will be nothing. No crosses, candles, cloths, flowers, banners...just the stark austerity of an empty sanctuary.

The service for Good Friday picks up where we left off, at about 3pm. There is no opening procession, no hymn. Just a prayer, then we jump right into the readings, which end with John's narrative of the Passion. Again, we are the mob that shouts "Crucify him!". (Although in some ways I identify with Pilate in this Gospel - I know the right thing to do, but lack the fortitude to actually do it.) Then intercessory prayers are offered, which generally are a fixed set of 10 that wind up encompassing just about everyone. Then the Veneration of the Cross, a custom that dates back to the fourth century. Communion is given, but only from the consecrated hosts from the day before. (It's not a Mass, because no consecration takes place). And like Thursday, there is no concluding rite or final benediction. Another "to be continued..."

During the day of Holy Saturday, there are no Masses, and communion can only be given to the dying. But come sundown, oh what a difference! The crucifixion was not the end of the story!

The Easter Vigil begins with a darkened church, and with fire. An Easter fire is lit (outside, preferably!), and the Paschal candle is lit from that. And as the Paschal candle is processed into the darkened church, the deacon sings "Lumen Christi - Light of Christ". People light their own candles from this one, or from neighbors who have, and so a single tiny flame spreads outward into many. After "Lumen Christi" has been sung three times, the cantor sings the Exsultet, which dates to at least 7th century (possibly earlier). This beginning, the Service of Light, was one of my favorite parts when I was a young Episcopalian (Indeed, comparing the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and the Roman Missal, the Easter Vigil is almost identical between the two. But I can't say I'm that surprised).
Then we have the Liturgy of the Word, which is at every Mass. Except with the Easter Vigil, we have at least 3 (and could be as many as 7) Old Testament readings, covering the history of salvation. Then we get to sing the Gloria for the first time since before Lent - all the lights come on, bells are rung, and we see the church decorated with candles, flowers, and everything. (There are no flowers during Lent - only bare branches and maybe a little greenery). Lilies and incense - wonderful smell. (If you're not allergic, that is). After Paul's epistle to the Romans, we get John's account of the Resurrection and we get to sing Alleluia for the first time since before Lent - exceedingly joyful after the solemn observance of Lent and the mournfulness of Good Friday.

Then follows Baptism. This is the time when most converts are brought into the Church - we had 15 newbie Catholics last night, including a mother and her month-old daughter (although the baby didn't get Confirmed - she's not old enough). For the rest of the congregation, it is an opportunity to renew our Baptismal vows, to renounce Satan and all his works and all his empty promises, and to profess our faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Eucharist follows, with consecration taking place for the first time since Thursday. It will be the First Communion for the newbies (properly called 'neophytes') who are old enough. And then, FINALLY, we get the proper ending with concluding rite and final benediction. We have gone from utter despair to jubilant rejoicing, from a bloody cross to an empty tomb. Death has been defeated, Heaven's gates are no longer closed to us.

And that, as Paul Harvey says, is the rest of the story.

Some random notes:
  • Zenit has a nice little article on the history of Holy Week.
  • Friday evening, DH cantored the Stations of the Cross, which has been held every Friday during Lent. This isn't part of the Triduum, not being a formal service and being totally optional, and really could be done at any time by an individual since every Catholic parish should have a set of stations somewhere. (I did find an online Jerusalem Way of the Cross complete with pictures. Someday I'd like to go to Jerusalem and do this myself, but certainly not with all the unrest in the Middle East!) That night DH and I watched The Passion of the Christ, which in a way is the Stations of the Cross in movie form. It's a *very* difficult movie to watch. But often one tends to forget that crucifixion was an incredibly brutal and tortuous form of execution. Add in the crown of thorns and the scourging, and it's almost more than the mind can comprehend. "Christ died for my sins" takes new meaning when one remembers that "died" encompasses "beaten nearly to death with weighted whips, long sharp thorns poking into His head, being mocked, having to drag 100lb+ of rough, splintery wood up narrow, uneven streets and rocky hill while people lob spit and stones at Him, then have iron spikes driven into His hands and feet, and left to die in the elements." And He did it willingly, giving all He had to give.
  • Looking back at Lent, I think I did okay, but could have done better. I managed to completely give up the snooze button, and only nodded off once afterward. And I have put that time to good use by doing the daily readings first thing in the morning instead of late at night. I think if I can keep that up, it will be a positive and lasting change. I didn't do quite so well at not yelling at my family, although I think I am at least better about it. As for the Lewis book, well, I didn't finish it. It is very good, but not a quick read.
  • On a humorous note, I suspect that one (maybe two) of the deacons likes to play "Stump the Cantor" with the Easter Alleluia ("Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, Alleluia Alleluia") at the end of Mass. There is some leeway in how the Alleluia is sung, and the cantor and congregation echo back the Alleluia in kind ("Thanks be to God, Alleluia Alleluia"). A couple of the deacons seem to like more complex ones - at Mass this morning I got tripped up. DH nailed it, though, which was good since he was cantoring!
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