The Great Vigil of Easter
A few years ago, there was a play that had a brief run on Broadway called, “Jackie: An American Life”, a two-hour telling of the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. You remember how Jackie was famous for protecting her privacy in an otherwise very public life. No surprise then, at the end of the play, when she addresses the audience bluntly with a bit of truth, “You know a lot of things about me……but you don’t know me at all.” I think that line speaks to many situations.
You can visit Blarney Castle, kiss the stone, and dance a jig in the streets of Dublin, but never know what life was like for your Irish grandparents. You can watch every episode of Blue Planet on the Discovery Channel and have witnessed in person Michael Phelps winning a gold medal, but it doesn’t mean you know how to swim. And you can even go to church every Sunday and read Scripture every morning, but still not get the same depth of meaning that comes from experiencing the public liturgies of the Easter Triduum.
The days are here once again when the Church throughout the world will stand together in prayer to commemorate the Resurrection of Christ. From sundown Thursday through sundown Sunday, it is the high point of the liturgical year. Keeping these three days “holy” is no small feat, I admit, especially with the job and the kids and the fifty-eight people coming for Easter brunch that you have to get ready for. Anything you might manage—reading a chapter out of a spiritual book, spending a bit of quiet time in prayer, listening to some inspiring piece of music—will certainly help to remind you of the spiritual power of this grace-filled time.
The best way to remember that this is a world-wide celebration, that you are truly part of a much larger community, is to join us during the times when the Church gathers for prayer together. There are three such times officially (Holy Thursday at 7:30pm, Good Friday at 3:00pm, and Holy Saturday at 8:00pm) and our parish offers one other opportunity for community prayer (Good Friday at 7:30pm). Each one of these focuses on a different aspect of the Pascal Mystery, that is, the death and resurrection of Christ.
On Holy Thursday, we reflect on the Lord’s example of service through the powerful action gesture of footwashing. Typically, we ask people in our own parish community who themselves have been examples of service to the civic or Church community at large. This year, we are fortunate to also include some who have built up and served the Church nationally and internationally. Thursday evening is also a time to consider prayerfully the gift the Lord gave us in the Eucharist. This year, then, it is fitting that we will install some new Eucharistic ministers during that Mass.
On Good Friday afternoon, attention turns to the crucifixion of Christ and to the many ways that his passion and suffering continue in the world, how all of us have some share in that cross. Later, in the evening when darkness falls, we will gather for “tenebrae,” a half-hour service of readings and music that dates back to the Middle Ages. During the service, a series of candles are extinguished one by one, until the church is dark and quiet, a fitting end to a solemn day.
On Saturday evening, the Vigil Mass for Easter is all about light and life and glory. It is a time that the Church pulls out all the stops! First, let me clear up two things that people often want to know: yes, it’s longer than an ordinary Mass (it runs about an hour and a half to two hours, not exactly appropriate for a two-year- old….); and yes, like any other vigil Mass, it “counts” for Sunday!
Move, now, from the practical to the sublime: it is so filled with amazing symbols and gestures, that it is difficult to describe it with words. How do you capture the primal feeling of gathering around a large fire on the sidewalk in front of a dark church, waiting for the events to begin? How to describe a church filled with candlelight, listening to a hymn of praise that been sung in some form since the Fifth Century? Listen to the story of creation told by the light of a single candle that is eight feet tall. Watch and marvel as an adult is baptized with the water of eternal life. Be part of a procession of people who share the intimacy of the Body and Blood of Christ. The Great Vigil of Easter is beyond words, which is the point. How else can we even come near to grasping the concept of eternal life with God, except through those gifts of imagination and art and music that God so generously bestows on us?
Unlike Jackie O, God says, “I want you to know me.” To know God, is to fall more deeply in love. And you know as well as I do, that love eludes expression in word, but finds its voice in gesture and symbol. Experience the Triduum with us this year and fall a little more in love….