by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
On this strangest of Easters – the second celebrated within the restrictions of the pandemic – once again most of us will not experience personally the impressive Catholic rituals that celebrate the feast. This is a sad reality because the liturgies of this night of nights in our tradition is both exquisite theater and all-encompassing reflection.
In these few lines, then, let us recall the way in which we normally enter into Easter rites – by observing the Holy Saturday evening Paschal Vigil. It will be familiar but, I believe, especially worthwhile at this moment in time. Now we mark Christ’s Resurrection differently but we pray that next year we will no longer miss the physical togetherness of the experience.
The Easter Vigil:
First, the congregation gathers outside the church building while the “new fire” is blessed, symbolizing the warmth and light that draw the community together. Then the decorated Paschal Candle is brought forward and the celebrant traces the Greek letters “alpha’ above the cross carved into the candle and “omega” below it. Next, he writes the current calendar year between the arms of the cross. These actions symbolize Christ, as the beginning and the end of human history.
The Paschal Candle is lit from the “new fire” and the celebrant prays, “May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds”. Next the Candle, held high, is carried into the church and three times the celebrant intones, “Christ our Light”. The people sing in response, “thanks be to God”. As the procession continues toward the sanctuary, everyone in the congregation lights smaller candles. In the darkened church, that glow suggests the Christ Light about to be proclaimed and celebrated.
A very solemn moment follows when a cantor sings the great Easter proclamation, the Exultet. “Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice! This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.”
Then several biblical readings are proclaimed outlining the history of salvation from Creation through the centuries of God’s favor toward Israel. The final reading is taken from a letter of St. Paul to the baptized Christians of Rome: “We who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death…we shall also be united with him in his resurrection.” Then comes the Gospel according to St. Mark. Three alleluias are sung to indicate that we are about to hear the astounding story of Christ appearing in glory before the women disciples and commissioning them to bring this incredible news to Peter and the other men.
At this point the ritual moves to another dramatic moment, the reception into the Catholic community of individuals who have felt inspired to take this step. Baptismal water is blessed and poured on them and then sprinkled over the whole congregation, while all renew their Christian commitments. Next the sacred oils, which will be used throughout the year for the Sacrament of the Sick, Baptism and Confirmation, are presented in solemn procession together with the bread and the wine for the Eucharist.
Mass has special relevance this night. The community consciously affirms the fulfillment of Jesus’s command at the Last Supper: “Do this in memory of me.” Far from Jerusalem and twenty-one centuries after Jesus lived, died and rose, Christian people reenact his Paschal Mystery. Jesus’s words spoken shortly after his resurrection are so relevant here: “Blessed are they who have not seen (my risen self) and have believed.” (John 20:29)
The closing words this night are for all: “Go in Peace – Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”
This Easter, despite its limitations, has particular relevance for us. We are gradually coming out of the long darkness of Covid-19 into new light. The Resurrection of God’s Word made Human calls us to walk in His Light. We are living a “kairos moment”: one that is right, critical, and opportune.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.