Notes from the Subdeacon | Holy Week | Orthodox Holy Week
Notes from the Subdeacon
Orthodox Holy Week
We are about to enter into the celebration of the most important week of the Christian year. From the very beginning of the Church, the Christians in Palestine commemorated the events of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection by visiting the places where these events occurred. As the liturgical services of the Church developed over time, these visits were marked with special services which illuminated and interpreted the events which had occurred at these locations. As time when on and the Church expanded geographically, Christians outside of the Holy Land (some from as far away as England) actually made pilgrimages to the Holy Land where they visited the actual places of these saving events and participated in the services which the Church celebrated at these places. Returning pilgrims brought back accounts of these services and local churches started celebrating them as part of their Lent and Easter liturgy. Liturgical scholars point out that some of the services of Holy Week are the oldest ones we have record of.
Christian liturgical services include the recalling and recounting of historical events as well as reenacting them with a greater or less degree of solemnity, however, we are not merely “reenactors.” In liturgical services we here and now sacramentally and mystically participate in the actual events commemorated. Because we have been incorporated into Christ’s Body by our Baptism and Chrismation, He in us and we in Him join in the very saving actions of His Passion, Death and Resurrection. This is far, far more than a mere “reenacting” of a historical event; we are part of the event itself, even though as composite creatures of body and soul it we seem to experience the events as recalling of the past. We participate in Christ’s Passion in a real, profound and sacramental way at every liturgical service. However, since we are composite creatures of body and soul united in our human person, we exist in time and space. Thus our participation must occur over time and is repeated so that as we grow and develop year by year, our participation is commensurate with our spiritual growth. To put it simply, a child and an adult both worship God, but each in a way that is compatible with their theosis at that point in their lives. This is why we repeat these services day by day and year by year. It is this sacramental and mystical participation in Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection which is brought about by the Church’s celebration of the liturgy. This is what we do in Holy Week.
The Sunday Next Before Easter
This service begins our observance of Holy Week by commemorating the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem a few days before His Passion. As we see from the Scripture lessons and the various minor propers, there are two themes which are to be held in counterpoint today:
- Christ is our triumphant King, the long-awaited Messiah come in fulfillment of prophecy Who will bring freedom and victory to His people.
- In the heart of those very people whom Christ comes to save are those who reject Him because His mission does not comport with their flawed understanding of it. These plot actively to bring Him down in disgrace.
Accordingly, there are two distinct parts to this service: the Blessing of Palms and Procession followed by the Mass of the Sunday, which includes the first of the four Passion Gospels. At the Blessing of the palms, several antiphons and Psalms 24 and 47 are chanted while the Palms are distributed. Then the Gospel of the Entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-9) is chanted by the deacon. We then take the role of the Hebrew children who prophetically cheered Jesus as their King. They formed a regal procession for Him, the King of all, through the city of Jerusalem.
In this procession we sing “All Glory, Laud and Honour” (The Hymnal, 1940, Hymn 62). This is component of today’s liturgy is unique and is critical in our understanding of what it is that we are doing sacramentally. We are triumphantly sing of the glory of our redemption gained for us by Christ. Suddenly we are confronted in verse five with words “Thee before thy Passion they greeted…” as we are singing. The victory of our redemption has yet to be won! The Father has indeed sent His Son to save us, but how? As a Victim! The One Whom “all the Saints awaited from the foundation of the world” is come to suffer and pay our penalty because we cannot. We must recall that even as the clamor of the procession passed through the city, there were some in Jerusalem who were plotting to do away with Christ. Quite soon there will be another crowd of these good and loyal citizens who will unhesitatingly cry out “Crucify Him!” as they cravenly beg their Roman conquerors to do that which they now cannot: put the Incarnate Son of God to death.
Then the mood changes from joyful exaltation to sorrow. Red vestments are put aside for violet ones and the Mass begins. Psalm 22 furnishes the Introit (vv. 19-21) and the Tract (whole psalm) between the Epistle and the Passion Gospel. This psalm will appear several more times during Holy Week and should be carefully prayed. St. Augustine tells us that in this psalm we have the words of Christ which He cried out, while hanging on the Cross, “sustaining also the person of the old man, whose mortality He bare. For our old man was nailed together with Him to the Cross.” Christ’s death was truly freely accepted by Him – which is exceptionally difficult to fathom – and it was accepted by Him entirely for us. Immediately following the Tract we will hear the Passion in which Christ will – for our benefit – pray this psalm once again.
At the time of the Gospel is proclaimed the Passion Gospel according to St Matthew. Through the rest of the week we will hear all of the other Passion Gospels. Passion Gospels are proclaimed in a very unique way, whenever possible, with three deacons reading different parts of the Gospel in a very dramatic way. However, regardless of how the Passion is read, we must remember that sacramentally we stand at the foot of Jesus’ Cross, watching Him die for us.
Monday in Holy Week
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week each have a particular Mass prescribed, with different lessons and minor propers each day. Unusually, each day the first lesson is not from an Epistle (or any other New Testament source) but rather is from the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah. The reason why this is done is explained by St Jerome who says:
Permit me to explain Isaiah, showing that he was not only a prophet, but an evangelist and an apostle as well. … God speaks to him as if he were an apostle: Whom shall I send, who will go to my people? And he answers: Here I am; send me. No one should think that I mean to explain the entire subject matter of this great book of Scripture in one brief sermon, since it contains all the mysteries of the Lord. It prophesies that Emmanuel is to be born of a virgin and accomplish marvelous works and signs. It predicts his death, burial and resurrection from the dead as the Savior of all men. …Whatever is proper to holy Scripture, whatever can be expressed in human language and understood by the human mind, is contained in the book of Isaiah.
The Gospel for today is the Passion Gospel of St. Mark, chapter 14. We hear immediately of the plotting to bring about the judicial murder of Jesus and then St. Mark tells us of the loving care of the woman who had the alabaster jar of beautifully scented ointment. She broke it open and poured it on Christ’s head and feet. St. Bede tells us that this was Mary, Lazarus’ sister and that there is profound symbolism in what she did:
The weight of the ointment represents the perfection of righteousness, the composition [made of pure spikenard] implies that in this action there was a joining of perfect faith and action. By our Lord’s head, which Mary anointed, is represented the sublimity of his divinity, and by his feet the humility of his incarnation. We anoint his feet when we proclaim with due praise the mystery of the incarnation; we anoint his head when we venerate the loftiness of his divinity with an assent that is worthy of what is being spoken of. … By the Lord’s head can also properly be signified the very Mediator between God and human beings, who is the head of the Church. By his feet can appropriately be understood his lowliest members. Of whom he will say at the end of time “as often as you did this for one of these the least of my brothers, you did it for me.
Tuesday in Holy Week
For the Introit of the Mass today we have this from St. Paul:
But it behoveth us to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ: in whom is our salvation, our life and resurrection: by whom we are saved and set free. (Galatians 6).
This states a major essential theme of Holy Week: our redemption comes only through the suffering of Christ, Who is Himself without sin. The Cross becomes a major focus of our worship in these days. Concerning the Cross, St. John Chrysostom tells us:
Truly this symbol is thought despicable; but it is so in the world’s reckoning, and among men; in Heaven and among the faithful it is the highest glory. Poverty too is despicable, but it is our boast; and to be cheaply thought of by the public is a matter of laughter to them, but we are elated by it. So too is the Cross our boast. He does not say, I boast not, nor, I will not boast, but, Far be it from me that I should, as if he abominated it as absurd, and invoked the aid of God in order to his success therein. And what is the boast of the Cross? That Christ for my sake took on Him the form of a slave, and bore His sufferings for me the slave, the enemy, the unfeeling one; yea He so loved me as to give Himself up to a curse for me. What can be comparable to this! If servants who only receive praise from their masters, to whom they are akin by nature, are elated thereby, how must we not boast when the Master who is very God is not ashamed of the Cross which was endured for us. Let us then not be ashamed of His unspeakable tenderness; He was not ashamed of being crucified for your sake, and will you be ashamed to confess His infinite solicitude? It is as if a prisoner who had not been ashamed of his King, should, after that King had come to the prison and himself loosed the chains, becomes ashamed of him on that account. Yet this would be the height of madness, for this very fact would be a special ground for boasting.
The first lesson today is also from the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 50:5-10) and the second half of St. Mark’s Passion Gospel (Mark 15) is read.
Wednesday of Holy Week
There are several features of the liturgy today worthy of comment; of these I’ve selected two to discuss here. The first is the Introit which, like yesterday, introduces a major theme for the remainder of Holy Week:
At the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth: for that the Lord became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross: wherefore Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2)
Added to the theme that our redemption comes through suffering and pain is the theme of the greatness of Christ’s power which is so vividly stated here. These two Introits will appear over and over again in the various liturgies of Holy Week. They indicate a similarity between Adam and Christ, the new Adam. Adam owed God obedience and gave it not; Christ while equal to the Father nonetheless voluntarily took on our condition, made dismal by sin. Then, in a fully free act, He offered to the Father that perfect obedience which is shown in His death on the Cross.
The other feature worthy of special note is that there are two lessons before the Gospel at this Mass. The first is from Isaiah 62:11 – 63:7. In it the prophet describes the work and suffering which will go into the salvation of God’s people. From earliest Christian days, the words of Isaiah here have been understood to apply to Jesus Christ, the Messiah, as well as to the earlier King of whom they were originally spoken. The second lesson is from the New Testament and comes from Hebrews 9:16-28. It clearly shows that Christ is the Sacrifice of the New Covenant. He fulfills in realty that which the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament could only point to.
The Passion Gospel for this liturgy is from Luke 22:39-71 and contains the details of Christ’s Agony in the garden before His arrest. It continues through until the completion of Christ’s trial before the council of the “elders, chief priests and scribes.” This body constituted the most important and powerful authority of the Jewish people, under, of course, the Roman suzerainty. This group had no longer the power of carrying out a sentence of death; it had been reserved by Roman law to the Imperial governor.
Tenebrae of Holy Thursday
Tenebrae (the word itself means “darkness”) is taken from the Benedictine Divine Office; it is the office of Vigils, which was always celebrated in early hours before dawn combined with the office of lauds which was celebrated at dawn or shortly thereafter. As we pray them the psalms lead us through various aspects of the life of the Body of Christ, whether in the past or the present. We pray in Christ with His Voice and with our own. For Tenebrae, the lessons are from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, then from St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Psalms and finally from St. Paul’s Epistles. By immemorial custom, the offices of Vigils and Lauds of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are celebrated by all, regardless of whether they are monastics or not. Since the lessons from St. Augustine are not readily available, the Notes for each day have the complete text of the appropriate lesson. Today the following from St. Augustine on Psalm 55 is read:
HEAR my prayer, O God: and hide not thyself from my petition. Take heed unto me, and hear me.” These are the words of an earnest and anxious man, beset by great trouble. He prayeth as one suffering much, and longing to be delivered from evil. It remaineth for us to see in what evil he is and when he beginneth to tell us, to acknowledge that we also suffer therefrom: that sharing his trouble, we may join in his prayer. “I mourn,” saith he, “in my trial, and am vexed.” Wherein mourneth he: Wherein is he vexed: He saith “In my trial.” He remembereth the wicked men whom he suffereth, and that sufferance of evil men he calleth his trial. Think ye not that the wicked are in this world for naught, and that God nowise doeth good through them. Every wicked man either liveth that he may be made righteous; or else he liveth that the righteous may be tried by him. O would to God, therefore, that they who now try us might be converted, and tried together with us! Nevertheless, as long as they continue to try us, let us not hate them: for we know not whether any one of them will endure to the end in his wickedness. And for the most part, when thou deemest thyself to be hating thy enemy, thou hatest thy brother, and knowest it not. The devil and his angels are pointed out to us in the holy Scriptures as doomed unto fire everlasting. Of their amendment alone need we despair, against whom we wage a hidden strife; to which strife the Apostle armeth us, saying, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood” (that is, not against men whom ye may see,) “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world.” He said not, “the rulers of this world,” less perchance thou shouldest deem that devils are the lords of heaven and earth; but he said, “the rulers of the darkness of this world”; when he spake of the world, he meant the lovers of the world: ungodly and unrighteous men, he called the world: of that world he spake, whereof the Gospel saith, “and the world knew him not.” “For I have spied unrighteousness and strife in the city.” Give heed unto the glory of the Cross itself. Now upon the brow of kings that Cross firmly resteth, which foes did once revile. Effect hath proven strength: it hath conquered the world not with the sword, but with wood. The wood of the Cross seemed worthy of scorn to his enemies, as they stood before that very wood, wagging their heads, and saying, “If he be the Son of God, let him come down from the Cross!” He stretched forth his hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people. If he is just which liveth by faith, he that hath not faith is unrighteous. What then he calleth unrighteousness, know thou to be unbelief. Therefore the Lord “spied unrighteousness and strife in the city”, and “stretched forth his hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people”: and yet, looking forth upon these very same, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Historically, quite a number of different things were done this day. Not all of these were done everywhere or every year; the most important were:
- The institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper was sacramentally commemorated.
- Catechumens were given their final preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil.
- Penitents who had completed all of their penance were reconciled to the Church.
- The oils necessary for Baptism (The Oil of Catechumens and Sacred Chrism) as well as the Oil of the Sick were consecrated.
- Our Lord’s example of humility at the Last Supper by washing the Apostles’ feet was commemorated. It was very commonly extended to the poor and joined with gifts of material support to them. Still today in the United Kingdom on this day Her Majesty gives the Royal Maundy to various poor subjects.
- Sufficient of the consecrated Elements for tomorrow were removed to a location away from the main altar of the church.
- The Altars were entirely stripped and washed, a commemoration of the burial of Our Lord as well as a dramatic emphasis
- Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden and the disciples’ failure to “watch one hour” with Him is commemorated by a special watch before the reserved Sacrament.
Some of these activities were not done in every parish church. The blessing and consecration of the Holy Oils and Sacred Chrism is traditionally reserved to the Bishop of the Diocese or, in the case of the Sacred Chrism, sometimes to the Patriarch himself. In Rome a Mass for the Blessing and Consecration of the Holy Oils and Sacred Chrism was celebrated in the morning. Bishops of the suburbicarian dioceses and the priests in charge of various parishes would attend this liturgy and obtain the Oils and Chrism which they would need for the coming year. The Washing of the Feet was frequently done as a completely separate service at a different time and location than the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
There is a hymn which is sung at this liturgy (and some others as well) which bears some prayerful study. It is found on page 441 of The Book of Common Prayer and is entitled in Latin, Pange lingua, gloriosi Corporis mysterium or in English as Of the glorious Body telling. (See the full text in the box at the right.)
This work is considered one of our great liturgical treasures. In six verses of beautiful poetry it summarizes the great Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood. If it at all possible, you should spend at least a few minutes prayerfully reading over this hymn and considering what it means for us here and now in these times.
Following very ancient custom of both East and West, no Mass is celebrated until the completion of the Easter Vigil. The Church is in profound grief and sorrow. Jesus will now obediently allow Himself to be captured, tried, mocked, scourged and crucified for our Sins. Therefore at the end of this Mass, the Holy Sacrament is solemnly removed from the altar and carried in procession to a separate Altar of Repose. At this altar vigil is kept until the Sacrament is brought back to the main altar in the Good Friday liturgy.
Tenebrae of Good Friday
Holy Thursday Evening
This is the Lesson from St. Augustine’s Discourses on the Psalms which is used in Tenebrae this week. It comes from his commentary on Psalm 64:2.
HIDE me from the gathering together of the forward, and from the insurrection of wicked doers.’ Now let us contemplate our Head himself. Many martyrs have suffered like things, but naught shineth out in such wise as the Head of the martyrs: in him we best perceive what they endured. He was hidden from the insurrection of the forward: God protected himself; the Very Son, with the manhood which he took upon him, protected his own flesh. For he is both Son of Man and Son of God: Son of God, being in the form of God; and the Son of Man, being in the form of a servant, having power to lay down his life, and to take it again. What could his enemies do against him? They killed the body, the soul they killed not. Give heed: it were not enough for the Lord to encourage martyrs by his word, did he not strengthen them by his example. Ye know what was ‘the gathering together of the froward’ Jews, and what was ‘the insurrection of the wicked doers’. What was their wicked deed? It was that they wished to kill the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Many good works,’ saith he, ‘have I shewed you; for which of them do you wish to kill me?’ He bore all their infirmities, he healed all their sick, he preached unto them the kingdom of heaven; he held not his peace at their iniquities, so that they might rather hate the same, than the Physician who made them whole. Yet being unthankful for all these remedies, like men frenzied with a great fever, they raved against the Physician who had come to heal them, and took counsel together to destroy him; as though they would therein prove whether he were very man, that could die; or somewhat more than man, and would not suffer himself to die. We perceive the saying of these men in the Wisdom of Solomon: ‘Let us condemn him,’ they say, ‘with a shameful death. Let us examine him: for by his own saying he shall be respected. If he be truly the Son of God, let him deliver him.’ ‘They have whet their tongues like a sword.’ Let not the Jews say, we did not kill Christ. For they delivered him up to Pilate the judge, to the end that they themselves should seem guiltless of his death. Thus when Pilate had side unto them, ‘Take ye him, and crucify him;’ they answered him, ‘It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.’ They desired to cast the injustice of their wicked deed upon a human judge: deceived they anywise God the Judge? What Pilate did, made him somewhat a partaker of their guilt: but in comparison with them he was much more innocent. For he did what he could to deliver him out of their hands, and therefore ordered him to be scourged and brought before them. He scourged not the Lord in persecution, but to satisfy their rage; that, when they saw him scourged, they might be touched with compassion, and cease to desire his death. This then he did. But when they persisted, ye know how he washed his hands, and said that he did it not himself, that he was innocent of his death. Nevertheless, he did do it. But if he be guilty that did it against his will, shall they be innocent who compelled him to do it? By no means. He gave sentence upon him, and delivered him to be crucified, and thus in a manner slew him: but ye also, O Jews, have killed him. How did ye kill him? With the sword of the tongue: for ye have whet your tongue. And when smote ye, but when ye cried out, ‘Crucify him, crucify him?’
Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified
The Liturgy of this day is the most unique in all of the Western Rite. We are in depression and sorrow because our Lord is suffering at the hands of evil men; we have done nothing but stand mute and, with Peter, deny Him. This is why there will be no consecration of the Body and Blood of Christ in the liturgy today; communion will be given from the Sacrament Reserved from yesterday (hence the name: “Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified”).
The Liturgy begins with the clergy vested in black who enter in silence and prostrate themselves. After a moment the Priest will arise and a prayer will be said. This is immediately followed by two lessons from the Old Testament, Hosea 6:1-6 and Exodus 12:1-11. Then the Passion Gospel from St John (John 18 & 19) is read as on the previous days of this week.
The Passion from St. John is reserved to this day for a very important reason. St John’s Gospel did not receive its final form until long after those of Matthew, Mark and Luke. St John, we must recall, was the one Evangelist who was not martyred but died of old age, sometime after 100 A.D. Of all the Evangelists, he had the longest time to meditate and ponder the events of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. He watched the growth of the Church as it spread and developed throughout the Mediterranean world. Therefore when he came to compose his Gospel, he did so to provide deeper theological insight into the events there related. One of the primary themes in St. John’s Gospel is Jesus as the true and eternal High Priest. Chapter 17, immediately preceding the Passion, is in the form of the prayer of Jesus, the Eternal High Priest, offering to His Father the one, only and sufficient sacrifice for our sins – His Passion and Death. Therefore, St. John’s Passion account is the most suitable for use on Good Friday, the day in which His Passion and Death is commemorated in a most solemn and special way.
The Passion is then followed by nine very special and solemn prayers for the whole world, saint and sinner, heathen and Christian alike. After this, the liturgy continues with the veneration of the Holy Cross. During this time, the Reproaches are chanted (see the box to the right). These are also one of the oldest parts of the liturgy and are unique.
The appearance of the Trisagion (Agios o Theos, etc.) is an indication also of the age of this liturgy since it came into use during a period when there was a succession of Greek pontiffs (678-752 A.D.) at Rome. This was a period of great growth and maturation of the Liturgy and many of the more unique or important elements of the Holy Week services can be traced back to this time or even earlier. Although by about 300 A.D. Greek was probably no longer the vernacular in Rome and elsewhere in the West, it was still used, particularly in Imperial documents, etc. It was also quite common to find parts of the liturgy in both Latin and Greek, as we see in the case of the Reproaches.
It is interesting to see that in a few lines of dramatic dialogue we have the major themes of the whole history of God’s work with His people to bring about their redemption. The use of the present tense and the dialogue format here is to make sure that we understand that we are really and sacramentally brought into the work of Redemption by our participation. This is not a mere recollection of some past event. We were imprisoned in Egypt. We were led out of the Red Sea. We were fed with manna and given water from the rock. We were brought into a land of “milk and honey.” And we are those who rejected Christ , mocked Him and crucified Him.
After the veneration of the Cross, the Sacrament which has been reserved is brought back to the main altar while the hymn Sing my tongue, the glorious battle is sung. Communion from the reserved Sacrament is then distributed and after a short prayer, all depart in silence. The altar remains bare and the tabernacle is left empty and open:
Christ Who is our Life now lies lifeless in the Tomb.
Tenebrae of Holy Saturday
Good Friday Evening
This is the Lesson from St. Augustine’s Discourses on the Psalms which is used in Tenebrae this day. It comes from his commentary on Psalm 64:6-7
‘MAN shall come to a deep mind, and God shall be exalted.’
They said: ‘No man shall see us. The diligent searchers out of evil counsels have failed.’ A Man came to these very counsels, and suffered himself to be laid hold on, as Man. For he could not have been held had he not been Man: nor been crucified, nor died, had he not been Man. As Man therefore, he came to all these sufferings, which would have availed naught against him, had he not been Man. But had he not been Man, man could nowise have been redeemed. He came, as Man, ‘to a deep mind’, that is, to a secret mind; shewing the Manhood to the eyes of men, and keeping the Godhead hidden within: concealing the form of God, wherein he is equal to the Father, and presenting the form of a servant, wherein he is inferior to the Father.
How far did they carry those diligent searchings, wherein they failed so much, that even after the Lord was dead and buried, they set a watch over the sepulchre? For they said to Pilate: ‘That deceiver’ (by the which name the Lord Jesus Christ was called, to the comfort of his servants when they are called deceivers), ‘that deceiver’, say they to Pilate, ‘said while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulcher be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, he is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them, ‘Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can.’ So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.
They set a watch of soldiers over the sepulchre. The earth shook: the Lord rose again. Such wonders were wrought about the sepulchre that the very soldiers who kept watch might be witnesses thereto, would they declare the truth. But the same covetousness that led captive a disciple and fellow of Christ enslaved also the guard set to watch his tomb. ‘We will give you money,’ said the chief priests, ‘and say ye, that his disciples came and stole him away while ye slept.’ Verily, ‘the diligent searchers out have failed.’ What is this thou sayest, O sterile cunning? Dost thou so far forsake the light of prudence and justice, and plunge thyself so deep in guile, as to speak thus: ‘Say ye that his disciples came and stole him away while ye slept.’ Thou callest upon sleeping witnesses: surely thou hast fallen asleep thyself, seeing thou hast ‘failed in searching out’ so notable a manner.
After Tenebrae this evening, the Church is quiet and the Tabernacle on the altar stands open. There is no celebration of the Mass the next day (Saturday). All we can do is wait.
The Great Vigil of Easter
Celebrated at Night on Holy Saturday
This night vigil, the greatest night of the Church year brings relief to our pain, joy to our sorrow and redemption to ourselves. Saint Bede in one of his homilies says “the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour has consecrated the vigil of this most sacred night for us…. Rightly do we celebrate this night with watching and hymns, out of love for him who, out of love for us, willed to spend it in the sleep of death and to be raised from the dead.”
This Vigil contains great riches in the prayers, chants and sacramental acts which we perform during it. We acknowledge God’s absolute sovereignty over not only us but the entire created universe. Physical light itself, that mystery of physics which partakes of the nature of both matter and energy, is brought forth from new fire which is kindled by human skill. These most basic and essential things of life itself we acknowledge as dependent upon God and we present them to Him for His blessing. Light then becomes more than a mere created thing because now in a sacramental way it shows forth Christ to us and, through us, to the whole of creation.
Light is then joined to a Candle which represents all parts of creation. The Candle is made from substances which are all found in the inanimate world. But there is more, the animate creation, in the person of the bees, takes this substance and by its inborn art transforms the raw materials to beautiful beeswax from which, by human art and craft, the Candle is made. Then by human art now illuminated by grace, even more meaning is added to this Candle. The Cross of Christ is incised into it, the numbers of the current Year of Our Lord are marked on it and the Greek Alpha and Omega are placed above and below the incised Cross reminding us that Christ is the Beginning and the Ending of all our lives.
This great Candle now sacramentally represents Christ Who is our Light. As it is carried through the darkened Church, we kneel in awe and proclaim in reverence: “Thanks be to God!” Through lessons, hymns and prayers we proceed sacramentally and mysteriously to take part in the whole history of salvation, as St Bede explains here:
Let us devote ourselves during this night to a worthy vigil to God, and give our attention as we listen to the prayers and divine readings that tell of the favours of the grace given to us. Let us celebrate the new people of a spiritual adoption, taken away from Egyptian domination, to the one true Lord at the font of regeneration. Let us immolate anew to God, as a means of advancement toward our salvation, the most holy body and precious blood or our Lamb, by which we have been redeemed from our sins. And since we are made glad by this annual solemnity that commemorates the mysteries of our Lord’s resurrection along with our own redemption, let us strive, dearly beloved, to lay hold of these mysteries by the interior love of our minds, and always to keep a grasp on them by living them…. Let us take care to conduct our lives, with actions by which we may merit to behold joyfully the outcome of our own resurrection too.
The Mass of the Resurrection of the Lord
Today the Mass structure returns to normal, with two exceptions. Alleluias which vanished before Lent have returned! In fact, an Alleluia or two seems to be added everywhere you look. The other difference is that today and through the coming week, the beautiful Sequence Hymn Christians, to the Paschal Victim (see the box at right) is sung after the Epistle and Alleluia verse and before the Gospel. The composer of this hymn, as is the case with many liturgical components, is not certain. It was definitely in use in the West as the Easter Sequence from before the 11th Century.
Monday through Saturday of the coming week all have separate minor propers, lessons and Gospels. This is because the whole week is the Octave of Easter. In some places, each day of the octave is known or referred to by the Gospel assigned for that day. Thus:
|Monday||Emmaus walk||Luke 24:13-35|
|Tuesday||Jesus on the shore||Luke 24:36-47|
|Wednesday||The miraculous draught of fish||John 21:1-14|
|Friday||The Great Commision||Matthew 28:16-20|
|Saturday||Low Saturday||John 20:1-9|
If it is at all possible, every person should attend the Mass on these great days. As a very minimum, everyone should spend a few minutes on each day reading the Gospel for the day and praising God for His Risen Son!