Easter Vigil 2018
A week ago on Palm Sunday I suggested that we look at Jesus entering Jerusalem, look at him carrying his cross, look at him dying on the cross and hear him saying “Do you see anything here that is not love?”
“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” -i Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Lord Jesus, you have shown us the way to the Father.
What follows is an overview of the Holy Week liturgy through the lens of those words that we use in the Penitential Rite at Mass.
We are people of the Way, an ancient term for the first Christians which is found in the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus showed us that way throughout his whole life on earth, but this way becomes particularly clear and calls to us most profoundly in the events of Holy Week, not only by Jesus’s words, however striking they are, but by his actions and what he suffered, beyond words. Those events invite us to enter upon this way interiorly, through the words, actions and silences of the liturgy. Through that liturgy we make a commitment of faith to know Jesus more clearly, as individuals, but also as pilgrims together. We are drawn into ancient traditions of contemplating these events.
It is a way of humility in obedience and commitment to the Father
We begin with the Palm Sunday procession, to re-enact the journey of Jesus with his disciples and those who followed him from Bethany to Jerusalem (Mt 21:1-11). We follow him as our king, but one riding on a donkey in humility and in obedience to the Father’s word through the prophet Zechariah (Zec 9:9). As we proceed into the Mass the readings prepare us to focus on this obedience. From the Third Servant Song of Second Isaiah (Is 50:4-7), we hear that the Servant has been given, ‘a disciple’s tongue…Each morning [the Lord] wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple.’ The second reading, from the kenosis hymn used by St. Paul in his Letter to the Philippians (Phil 2:6-11), tells us that Jesus,
emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.
This leads us into the dramatic account of the Passion. This year it is according to Matthew, which, as in the infancy narrative and other places in the gospel, focuses on fulfilment and obedience to God’s plan as the evangelist conceives it.
It is the way of the Servant
Just as in the Mass of Palm Sunday, so in the following days of Holy Week we prepare to hear about the events leading to the Passion by listening to the Servant Songs in Second Isaiah (42:1-7; 49:1-6; 50:4-9 – the latter repeating the Palm Sunday reading). On Good Friday we hear the Suffering Servant Song (Is 52:13-53:12) after the prostration of the celebrants in silence and the opening prayer. It serves as a meditation on the Passion according to John.
It is a way of self-giving and sharing
The self-giving of Jesus and the sharing in our humanity, and we with him, is very dramatically yet simply portrayed by the Washing of the Feet on Maundy Thursday. This follows John’s account (Jn 13:1-15), which is a sort of prologue to the Passion. It can be viewed as an insight into the self-emptying of the cross and the giving of the Eucharist. Bare feet make us aware of human vulnerability. Stooping to wash and dry them carefully is a sign of delicate respect for our neighbour, especially in that neighbour’s weakness and poverty. ‘If I, t hen, the Lord and master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet.’ In its place in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, this surely points to the self-giving and sharing of Jesus in the Eucharist.
It is a way of deep silence
The liturgy of Good Friday is embraced by deep silence, at the beginning and at the end. The cross is beyond words. We begin with the silence of the congregation; on Good Friday, the congregation is usually large, so the silence is particularly moving. The opening silence in which the celebrants prostrate is underlined by the bareness of the altar and the open, empty tabernacle. After the readings and the enacting of the Passion according to John, in which we all take our parts, the best response is silence, perhaps preceded by just a few brief words to present one aspect of the story we have just heard for some minutes of quiet reflection, to let it sink in. After the ancient prayers, which encompass the needs of the Church and the world, there is adoration of a large cross, gradually unveiled. Our response is to file up and show our commitment to the Saviour with a wordless kiss, a very personal act which speaks for itself. The service is completed with a very simple reception of Holy Communion without a Mass, like the way we receive when we are sick or bedridden or approaching death. In all this, silence is our most fitting response to a death by crucifixion. The nature of that intense pain and increasing difficulty of breathing allowed very few words to be uttered.
It is a way of renewed promise of the Covenant
The long and complex liturgy of Holy Saturday begins with a very basic symbol of promised light, the Paschal Candle, lit from a blessed fire and illuminating the darkness of the church. Our own individual candles are lit from the great candle and light is passed from person to person, a simple action of solidarity. The promise of new life in Christ is rooted in the Covenant, and the readings, responses and prayers are staging posts on the journey of God’s relations with his people. The promise is realised in Baptism and the renewal of our baptismal promises, through which we are engaged in the risen life of the One whose journey we have been following throughout this solemn week. We receive the Easter sacrament with alleluias.
We have been shown the way to the Father. We are invited to continue to walk in that way.
Holy Saturday, too is a day on which we ‘stay’: a quiet day, a day at the tomb. Jesus is dead; the one who loved us unto death is gone. Ignatius invites retreatants to spend this day with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, to be with her at this time; to use all of our senses to experience what this day was like for her, before we move, as the sun sets, into the time of great rejoicing.
In the evening of Holy Saturday, when all goes dark, we gather together to celebrate the Easter Vigil. This liturgy re-tells the story of our salvation, from creation to resurrection.
We begin outside or in the porch of the church, with the Liturgy of Light. A fire is lit and, from that, so too the Easter candle. Bit by bit, light spreads throughout the Church and in a beautifully symbolic way, we see the victory of the Light of Christ over the darkness of the church and, symbolically, our world. The vestments are once again white (or gold), holy water is back in the stoups and the bells will ring again. We hear in the Exultet, the song of praise after the Liturgy of Light, that ‘this is the night’, and so it is: the night above all others when we celebrate our redemption, our freedom from sin and death and our joy at being children of the resurrection. In the Liturgy of the Word we are reminded of our covenantal relationship with God that has been sealed with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. If there are new members of the Church to be baptised, this also happens at this Mass, and they are welcomed into the body of the Church as it is revitalised through the new life of Easter. The Easter Vigil is a liturgy of great joy, a joy that cannot only be ours. We must share it and so at the end of the Mass we are sent out on mission, to ‘glorify God by our lives’. Do we do this? Can you, having heard and lived the story of your salvation and mine, be transformed by it this Easter?
‘Becoming conscious changes you’, writes Louis Savary,[iv] and so it should be with the Easter Triduum. Our understanding of and being with Jesus in his suffering, and then sharing the joy of his resurrection, should change us, it should change me. I can choose not to engage with what I see, hear, experience in the liturgies of the Easter Triduum, but that in itself is a response – and that changes me, too.
So what will your response be this Easter? What do you desire it to be? Talk to God, as a friend talks to a friend, about the days you are about to spend together.
On Good Friday, there was no Eucharist – simply a communion service, with the Body of Christ from the Holy Thursday Eucharist. On Holy Saturday, there is no liturgy at all. The liturgy this evening is the vigil – the preparation for and entry into the celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection. It is an Easter Sunday liturgy.
On Holy Saturday we enter into the mystery. Today we contemplate Jesus, there in the tomb, dead. In that tomb, he is dead, exactly the way each of us will be dead. We don’t easily contemplate dying, but we rarely contemplate being dead. I have had the blessed experience of being with a number of people who have died, of arriving at a hospital shortly after someone has died, of attending an autopsy, and of praying with health sciences students over donated bodies in gross anatomy class. These were powerful experiences because they all brought me face-to-face with the mystery of death itself. With death, life ends. Breathing stops, and in an instant, the life of this person has ended. And, in a matter of hours, the body becomes quite cold and life-less — dramatic evidence, to our senses, that this person no longer exists. All that is left is this decaying shell that once held his or her life.
Death is our ultimate fear. Everything else we fear, every struggle we have, is some taste of, some chilling approach to, the experience of losing our life. This fear is responsible for so much of our lust and greed, so much of our denial and arrogance, so much of our silly clinging to power, so much of our hectic and anxiety-driven activity. It is the one, inevitable reality we all will face. There is not enough time, money, joy, fulfillment, success. Our physical beauty and strength, our mental competency and agility, all that we have and use to define ourselves, slip away from us with time. Our lives are limited. Our existence, in every way we can comprehand it, comes to an end. We will all die. In a matter of time, all that will be left of any of us is a decomposing body.
Today is a day to soberly put aside the blinders we have about the mystery of death and our fear of it. Death is very real and its approach holds great power in our lives. The “good news” we are about to celebrate has no real power in our lives unless we have faced the reality of death. To contemplate Jesus’ body, there in that tomb, is to look our death in the face, and it is preparation for hearing the Gospel with incredible joy. That we are saved from the ultimate power of sin and of death itself comes to us as a great relief, as a tremendous liberation. If Jesus lives, you and I will live! The mystery of death, which we contemplate today, will be overcome – we will live forever!
Today’s reflection will lead us to the vigil of Easter. This night, communities from all over the world will gather in darkness, a darkness that represents all that we have been reflecting upon today.
The God who created us, who led a chosen people out of slavery, raised Jesus from death. We can rejoice that death has no final victory over us. Then we celebrate the Easter Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. Tonight we celebrate our faith — that we have been baptized into the death of Jesus, so that we might have everlasting life with him.
As we behold the body of Jesus in the tomb today, and as we contemplate the mystery of our death, we prepare our hearts to receive the Good News of life. We know that tomb will be empty and remain empty forever as a sign that our lives will not really end, but only be transformed. One day, we will all rest in the embrace of Jesus, who knows our death, and who prepares a place for us in everlasting life. Our reflection on this holy Saturday, and our anticipation of celebrating the gift of life tonight and tomorrow, can bring immense peace and joy, powerful freedom and vitality to our lives. For if we truly believe that death holds no true power over us, we can walk each day with courage and freedom, in the grace being offered us – to give our lives away in love.
Brothers and sisters:
Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death,
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,
we too might live in newness of life.
For if we have grown into union with him
through a death like his,
we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.