Light of Christ Come into the World

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I gave an overview of the Easter liturgies last year in Why Think of Easter in December and said that we would explore the special features of the Triduum in February.

That was a promise I should not have made because, when I think about it, there is just too much of significance to cram into one article. Instead, I am going to focus on just the most important event in the church year, The Easter Vigil.

 

Let me first do a brief recap of the last article. Our journey commenced with the purple of Lent. Next came Passion (Palm) Sunday when the colour of the day is red and we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into the city. Holy Week commences on the Monday.

The next special event, Holy Thursday (white), started with the very special Chrism Mass* celebrated in every cathedral in the world. This is a Solemn Pontifical Mass at which the bishop blesses the Holy Oils and sends the priests back to their parishes to continue the work of the church.

* 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.

Holy Thursday night is the start of the Triduum (3 days). At the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we sing the Gloria to signify that Lent is over, we receive the Holy Oils blessed by the bishop that morning, we have the washing of the feet, we reserve the Blessed Eucharist that will nourish us on Good Friday and, very importantly, we stay and wait with Jesus.

Good Friday (red) is a sombre day of reflection as we attend the Stations of the Cross in the morning and the Passion of Christ in the afternoon. It is at the afternoon liturgy that we receive Holy Communion that was consecrated at the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the night before and we venerate the cross. On Good Friday and again on Holy Saturday (until after mass), we do not light votive candles.

Holy Saturday is a day of waiting and prayer. The church is not open but it is a busy day as those involved in the evening liturgy attend practice; yes practice, because tonight’s liturgy is the most complex celebrated in a parish church and it deserves our very best. The altar society is busy preparing the flowers, the musicians also have a practice and the sacristans are busy preparing everything that goes into this “mother of all vigils”.

The Easter Vigil is the most important Mass of the year. If there is one special Mass in which Catholics should make every effort to participate every year, it is the Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil celebrates the resurrection of Christ and the commitment of believers. It has four parts:

1) Service of Light
The celebration begins in darkness, the fire is lit and darkness vanishes, the resurrection is proclaimed: it is Easter, Passover. Father blesses the fire and then an acolyte holds theAO_Pascal_Cross_11 Paschal Candle before him while he symbolically traces a cross, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and the numerals of the current year onto it. Next he inserts five grains of incense into the candle and then lights the candle from the new fire. The Paschal Candle is processed around the church and the congregation lights their candles from it.

The Paschal Candle is then placed in the stand by the Ambo and the Exsultet is sung. It is one of the special treasures of our church. We hear it only once a year, at our most important celebration, the Easter Vigil. The Exsultet proclaims the meaning of Easter:

First th e proclamation calls on the angels, the earth, and the church to rejoice. "Jesus Christ, our King is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!" It continues along the lines of praising God  with full hearts and minds and voices.

Pope_Benedict_with_Paschal_CandleFinally the exsultet tells us how special this night is: "This is our passover feast, when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain." The Easter Vigil celebrates the Christian passover, complete with banquet, freedom from slavery, light from darkness, cleansing from sin, restoration of holiness, and resurrection from death.

2) Liturgy of the Word
The liturgy of the word for the Easter Vigil includes stories that make this night what it is – stories about creation, Abraham and Isaac, the escape of the Israelites through the parted waters, the prophet’s vision of the union of earth and heaven, the empty tomb.  On this night we hear again the pivotal stories of our rich salvation history.

3) Liturgy of Baptism
Ideally, we would have “catechumens”, those who wish to become Catholics, come forward to enter into the waters of new birth in baptism and be anointed with chrism. They would celebrate confirmation, receiving the strength of God’s Spirit for the Christian life.

This is not always achievable in a parish setting and so, unfortunately, we often miss out on one of the great and historic highlights of the Easter Vigil. None the less, this is still an important part of the celebration as the entire community renews their baptismal promises. Together we pledge our faith in the resurrection and promise to follow Christ more closely. It is during this part of the celebration that the Litany of the Saints is sung and the Pascal Candle is held in the water as part of the blessing.

4) Liturgy of the Eucharist
The highpoint of the Easter Vigil is reached with the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Throughout this longish liturgy we have been experiencing the richness and history of our Catholic faith as we celebrate the Light of Christ Come into the World. Now we join Father in a sprit of community enriched by the Easter Mystery as he says the very words of Jesus at that Last Supper, take and eat, take and drink.

In so many ways, this now becomes just another mass but only if we let it for how could this, or any mass, be just another mass? Tonight is a very special celebration that acknowledges our whole tradition and it is from this mass that we go forward for the next 50 days of the Easter season and then carry through for the whole year in the full knowledge and understanding of what we celebrate at mass, every mass.

On this night, in addition to Light, Scripture and Water our Eucharist is enhanced by music, some of which is unique only to this one night of the church year. It starts when Father sings Christ our light and we sing Thanks be to God. Apart from the beautiful melody, the Exsultet tells a wonderful story well worth listening to. Although by no means unique to this night, the Litany of the Saints is certainly not something you hear too regularly but my favourite, because it sums up what this night is all about, is the refrain The Light of Christ has Come into the World.

 

LEAD PHOTOGRAPH

I chose this particular photograph as it so graphically displays the universal nature of the Church and, more importantly, just how important the Service of Light is, that it is celebrated in a war zone.

United States Army Capt. Ryan Kenny, of Billings, Mont., left, with the 82nd Airborne Division, holds a light over the text for Chaplain William Kneemiller, center, as he reads while Staff Sgt. Richard Webb, of Donna, Texas prepares to light the Easter candle during the Lighting of the Easter Vigil fire service of light, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2010 at a forward operating base in the Arghandab Valley of Kandahar province in Afghanistan. AP Photo.