I promised to write something about last night’s celebration of the Easter Vigil – this picture shows the Holy Father in an almost deserted St Peter’s Basilica, holding his candle and following the Paschal Candle. Many of you participated remotely in the ceremonies led in our church by Fr Steve and Fr Simplicio; the celebrations in Rome can be found on www.vatican.va.
Before the pandemic changed our lives I was intending to put on a study evening in the parish about the Easter Vigil during Lent. Traditionally at St Edmund’s we take a lot of trouble with it and always have some adults being baptised or received into the Church (the baptisms will take place later in the year) and we constantly review how we celebrate it and make changes (for example, five years ago we started having all seven Old Testament readings,as we are meant to). Everything has had to be adapted and scaled down this year, but it might be helpful for us to go through what normally happens to help us appreciate this tremendous act of worship more in future.
It is fifty years this year since the revised Roman Missal was published following the Second Vatican Council, but it’s actually seventy years this year since Pope Pius XII started the whole process of liturgical renewal and reform by revising the Easter Vigil ceremonies. Since the date of Easter varies from year to year we never quite know what time we should start the Vigil – this is because it is not meant to start before nightfall (so we would never have it at 6pm, the usual time of our Saturday evening Mass) and it finishes before dawn.
Normally we gather outside the church for the lighting of the ‘new fire’, a symbol of how we want God to inflame our hearts, from which the Paschal candle is lit. This symbol of the resurrection, recalling the ‘pillar of fire’ which guides the people of Israel through the desert, is then brought into the dark church by the deacon, singing three times ‘The Light of Christ’ – as we follow our own candles are lit. Physically this is a very moving and powerful ceremony – it’s almost as if we’re going into the tomb, the place of the resurrection.
The deacon (or priest if there’s no deacon who is able to sing it) then sings the ‘Exultet’, the ancient chant about the candle. The theology and imagery of this proclamation deserves a separate post which I will write later on; in St Edmund’s we gradually light up the building as the chant continues.
The Easter Vigil is unique partly because we give ourselves a lot of time for reflecting on the Word of God – 7 Old Testament readings, an epistle and a gospel make up a lot of Bible! We’re in the middle of the Year of the Word so we should, in spite of everything, take advantage of the passages which the Church puts before us. One reason we shouldn’t leave any of them out is that they build up gradually, through key periods in the history of God’s chosen people. We begin with Genesis, what’s called the ‘Priestly account’ of creation (1:1- 2:2); then, from later in the book the story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac and being told by God that he will be the father of a great nation (22:1-18). A reading you have to have, even if you cut down the others, is the account of the Israelites crossing the sea, a key event in Exodus (14:15- 15:1), with, as its psalm, a great song of victory. In the latter part of Lent and Holy Week we heard a number of readings from those parts of Isaiah which we call the ‘Servant Songs’ – tonight we follow these up with a promise of redemption after suffering (54:5-14), and a further promised of a new covenant between God and his people (55: 1-11). The different parts of the book of Isaiah revolve around the Exile of the leading people of Israel to Babylon, and this is reflected too in the sixth reading from Baruch (one of the books you don’t find in Protestant Bibles) (3: 9- 4:4), a promise that God will lead his people to light. The final Old Testament reading is from the period of the Exile, Ezekiel (36: 16-28), with his vision of clean water being poured over the people.
I am continuing here my reflections about the Easter Vigil as it is normally celebrated. The homily follows the gospel reading as usual. When the Holy Week rites were being reformed, from the early 1950s, one of the aims was to restore the practice in the early Church, when adults who became Christians were normally baptised together at the Easter Vigil. In the earliest place this was done by the bishop – our picture here shows an adult being baptised by the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley. The present Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) leads up to this act of worship, as its climax.
As a Catholic I have only ever been in parishes where this has been an important part of the ceremony, although of course it isn’t so everywhere. As well as baptising new Christians, we also receive into full Communion with the Church adults, baptised in other churches, who want to join the Church. The candidates are asked to renounce evil and profess their Christian faith and then the priest blesses the water in the font – as a symbol of how in baptism we’re joined to the resurrection the deacon dramatically plunges the Paschal candle three times into the water during the prayer. Then the candidates are baptised in the font. Originally the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation were celebrated together (as they still are in the eastern churches) and this is now the case for adults – the priests are given special authorisation to do this in place of the bishop. Those already Catholics who are becoming Catholics are asked to affirm that they believe what the Church teaches, and then they and the newly baptised a confirmed by the priests, who lay their hands on them and anoint them with the special oil of chrism. Following this all of us reaffirm our baptismal promises – as we also do in Masses on Easter day – and are sprinkled with holy water.
The first Mass of Easter then continues in the usual way, and the new Catholics make their first Holy Communion. We also have a celebration in the hall.
I think last year the Easter Vigil lasted about two and a half hours, which is probably the same in other parishes which don’t cut back on the readings. It is longer than other acts of worship in this country and Ireland, but not, of course, longer than liturgies in the eastern churches or in many parts of Africa. It’s long because the parts of it are all important – and we make the effort because what we celebrate is important. All our acts of worship in the rest of the year stem from this great celebration, which is at the heart of our faith: I hope that this year you have managed to join in it in some way.
God bless and take care
I reflected in the parish newsletter for this weekend that we are fortunate that Pope Francis is leading the Church at this time, and offering such powerful moral leadership in the world, in dire need of such leadership. Before I share my own reflections later today I would urge you to listen to and read his message for today in the traditional ‘urbi et orbi’ Easter blessing, which many of us have just watched live. His message is so full of profound Christian teaching, not only about our response to the virus, but about peace, social justice, Europe, refugees and so many moral issues which the Church consistently addresses. Please pray for him this Easter that the Lord will continue to give him strength. Those receiving the blessing receive the traditional plenary indulgence (without the usual condition, this year, of sacramental confession).
The message and blessing can be found on the Vatican website, together with the full Easter Sunday service – CLICK HERE
Details of the message are also available on these external sites:
Vatican News – CLICK HERE
BBC News Video – CLICK HERE