Why Think of Easter in December

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Would you turn up to the Grand Final in the last quarter?

Without realising it, that is what many of us do at Easter. We have so much on, we are under pressure at work and need the long weekend to recharge or we have to take the kids to The Easter Show.

But what of the real Easter Show?
The rituals of Easter are the most important events in the church year, yet we often miss out on this very special part of our faith journey because we don't understand what it is all about. Christmas will be over and Lent will be upon us before we know it, so you can read this over the holidays and discover the Easter ceremonies known as the Triduum, and uncover what makes them so special.

We all relate easily enough to Lent. It is that time fairly early in the year that commences with Ash Wednesday and for most of the next forty days, everything is sombre with the vestments and trimmings all in violet. During this time, we make an effort to do something different in preparation for what is about to come. It may be something as simple as giving up sweets or watching a little less television. For some, it is a time of a little extra prayer, perhaps coming to The Stations of The Cross each week, joining a Lenten Group or turning to The Divine Office or some other form of formal prayer.

Passion (Palm) Sunday
Towards the end of Lent the colour changes to red for Passion Sunday, the day we recall the people lining the streets to welcome the Jesus they love into the city. We take home a symbol, be it the leaf of a palm or olive tree, or as many parish communities “down under” have done, a gum leaf. But what does all this mean, if we don't see in ourselves just how easily these people who loved Jesus one minute, turned against him in the next?

Holy (Maundy) Thursday
Just a few days later, two very special events take place on the same day. On Thursday morning*, at every cathedral in the world, the local bishop celebrates the Chrism Mass with all his clergy. Very few of us ever make it to this mass as most of us are working. Whilst this very solemn and rich mass is the exception to the rule in that it focuses on the clergy, it really is a mass for the laity in that it is from here that we see our bishop, our chief teacher renewing the clergy and sending them back to the parish to continue on with the work of the apostles. Our priests bring back the Holy Oils that are used in our parish for the next year, for Baptism, Confirmation and Anointing the Sick.

* It is common practice in many rural dioceses to celebrate the Chrism Mass on the Wednesday night to enable the clergy from distant towns to all come together. The Wednesday night also makes it easier for all the parishioners to attend who otherwise may be working on Thursday morning.

The next great event takes place that night; known as the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, it is the start of the Easter Triduum. A night of very mixed emotions where we have the Washing of the Feet, sing the Gloria and sound the bells to mark the end of Lent, celebrate The Last Supper and finally, the church lights are dimmed and we commence the very solemn act of moving the Blessed Eucharist to the Altar of Repose. The main altar is stripped and the tabernacle left empty. Remembering the words of scripture, we are invited to stay in prayer and keep Jesus company in those lonely hours before he is taken away to suffer and die for us.

Good Friday
Mass is not celebrated on Good Friday at all but it is a special day for us to practice restraint in our activities, to fast and make every effort to attend church. In the morning we have Stations of The Cross then the church is closed until the afternoon when it opens again for The Passion. We receive Holy Communion during the afternoon service that was consecrated the night before, on Holy Thursday. We do not genuflect facing the tabernacle as we normally do but instead, we go to the Altar of Repose and make our silent prayer, mindful of the sacrifice our Saviour made for us. After venerating the Cross, we quietly depart, the church is closed and remains so until the start of the Easter Vigil the following night.

Easter Saturday/Easter Sunday
Nothing happens on Easter Saturday at all – the church is not open, mass is not celebrated and we cannot even receive Holy Communion except as viaticum for the sick. It is an anxious day as we wait with great expectation of what is about to come, for today is the greatest day in the church year. We are about to join with our sisters and brothers all around the world and celebrate “the Mother of all Vigils”. This phrase was first coined by St. Augustine (354–430) and has been used ever since to describe the magnitude of the event. Tonight our liturgy is the best we can give. It's “bells and smells” - fire, light, water, song, scripture. We hear that beautiful prayer the Exultet, the Litany of Saints, the Gloria and other special music written for this special event. Sometimes we are blessed with an infant Baptism, sometimes an adult receives the full Rite of Christian Initiation. But at the very least, we join each other in renewing our Baptismal Promises. It is a long service and deservedly so because tonight we celebrate the Light of Christ Come into the World.

After the “big night out”, Easter Sunday can be a bit of a let down but only if we allow it to be so. Many people, particularly the elderly and those with young children cannot practically attend the Easter Vigil and so it is important that we place equal importance on Easter Sunday. The theology of these two great days is a bit tricky, sort of they are equal but one is more equal. I like to think of it as Easter Sunday and all the other Sundays are possible because of the Easter Vigil but don't quote me if you expect to pass Theology 101!

The bottom line in all this is that our faith revolves around these three days of the Triduum. It's a big ask in this modern world but we really should be making every effort to attend the celebrations on these three special days. Many of us go away for the Easter break – make it your priority when you first arrive at your destination to locate the local church and find out the times of the celebrations. As a kid, I have some very fond memories of totally overcrowded little churches that we visited while away camping. My own family spent one very unique Easter Sunday crowded, with little ventilation, in the underground church at Lighting Ridge.

We will explore the special features of the Triduum liturgies in the February Liturgy Highlights.