Part of what Lent is about is getting ready for Easter, and that means, amongst other things, preparing for the most important act of Easter worship – the Easter Vigil, the night before Easter day. The picture here shows the Holy Father in St Peter’s holding his own candle as he walks into the darkened basilica.
In this month’s issue of the journal The Pastoral Review (lots of copies in the porch) my good friend Fr Tom O’Loughlin from Nottingham University writes a very hard-hitting article about the Easter Vigil which I would strongly recommend. He points out that in so many parishes the Easter Vigil is not only poorly attended, but is seen as a ‘chore’ to be got through; and indeed many parishes don’t make any effort to celebrate it properly or even have it at the right time (that is, not in the early evening like any other Saturday evening Mass). Most parishes, it would seem, also have the minimum number of Old Testament readings rather than all those which are provided. It makes depressing reading, and one does hear of parishes where this is the case.
It is good to be able to say that Professor O’Loughlin’s gloomy picture does not apply here. For many years in this parish a great deal of trouble has been taken to celebrate the Vigil well, involving musicians, the RCIA team, altar servers, clergy, administrators and others. We are fortunate, of course, that (unlike too many parishes) we always have some converts, men and women who are baptised or received into the Catholic Church at the ceremony. We always make sure that we don’t start too early, and for about three years we have had all the scripture readings.
However, the numbers attending would not be that great were it not for the converts and their families, so even here we should not be complacent. At times over the years we have tried to share some teaching about why it is so important, why clergy and others go on every year about why it is so important.
It is undoubtedly the case that one reason more people don’t come is that it is so long – and often people are unconvinced if you say, as you must, ‘That’s the whole point!’ If you try to shorten it the act of worship loses something important and its whole sense of rhythm and structure. The dramatic imagery of light and darkness, the haunting chant the deacon or priest sings in front of the Paschal Candle, the detailed movement of the scripture readings describing salvation history, the complex ritual of the blessing of the font, baptism, renewal of promises and confirmation and the rest of the first Mass of Easter – all these things are important because they go to the heart of our Christian faith.
The Vigil, at least in theory, has always been the way to celebrate properly the resurrection of Christ. We see it as the primary act of worship for the whole year, something from which everything else flows. Moreover, the character of the worship, because it demands something from us, helps us see worship as something in which we try to participate fully rather than engage with simply as spectators; and, at least here, we also join all this to the tremendous experience of bringing new Christians into the family of the Catholic Church.
I am not saying it is simply an emotional thing – although the way the Easter Vigil is celebrated should engage with our feelings – the listening we have to do means that we have to use our intellects as well, we have to try and hear what is being said to us in the Bible readings. Properly celebrated, it gives meaning not only to our resurrection faith, our faith built on the Easter event, but on the long austere weeks of Lent and the drama and desolation of Holy Week. Making the effort to go to a Mass for well over two hours can, of course, be a sign of how much your Christian faith means to you.
I would simply urge those who don’t normally go, or haven’t ever been, or haven’t been for some years, to come this year on the evening of 31 March. I am not going to say what some of us who really value it do sometimes say ‘Once you come you won’t ever want to miss it again’ as you may not feel that. But come with a generosity of spirit, knowing that this is how Christians in the early Church greeted the Lord coming from the empty tomb, rejoicing at his triumph over darkness and sin – and be open to what it means to be a Catholic at Easter in the fullest way possible. We should also each year be grateful to those who work so hard to make our celebration of the Vigil so wonderful at St Edmund’s.