High Holy Days – The Sacred Triduum (Part III)
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All seems lost. On Good Friday, we experienced and celebrated Christ’s Passion and Death, and now the Sabbath has come and gone and there is still no sign of Him. Now darkness has fallen, and it seems that the night of death has overcome the Lord of life. As despair prepares to enthrone itself, a large fire is prepared outside the church. The clergy and faithful have gathered together under the stars. Despair will not take the throne after all, for here in the night, at the beginning of the first day of the week, the Great Paschal Vigil has begun.
Our holy vigil starts with the Service of the Light. The only source of illumination is the burning fire. Gone now are the violet vestments of Lent, and in their place the ministers wear white, echoing glory, triumph and light. The celebrant greets us and tells us that this is the Passover of the Lord and he blesses the fire. Fire, like love, burns away every obstacle before it, and tonight love has reduced the impregnable fortress of death to ashes. The Paschal candle, an icon of the Light of the World, is lit and from its one flame the faithful light smaller candles. As we enter the church, the lights pierce the darkness – a sign of hope for the great news that is to come. The deacon then approaches the ambo and chants the Exsultet – the triumphant Easter proclamation. A new song of praise resounds through the church, proclaiming that on this night, Christ has risen from the dead! The Logos, the Word of God, has not been silenced. We listen carefully as Liturgy of the Word begins.
Tonight we hear from the Sacred Scriptures the story of salvation history. The Creation account reminds us that the universe was made good, but in the Fall, death enters the world (Gen. 1:1-2:2). God did not abandon us however, and we listen as He makes a covenant with Abraham (Gen. 22:1-18), and demonstrates His loving faithfulness to that covenant when He brings Israel dry-shod through the Red Sea (Ex. 14:15-15:1). Despite this, the children of Abraham sinned against the Lord, their God, with impurity and idols, and so God sent them the prophet Isaiah who tell us today that the Lord is our Bridegroom and calls us always back to Himself (Is. 54:5-14). God declares to us a coming covenant superior to the last (Is. 55:1-11), urging us to come to Him and walk in His splendor (Bar. 3:9-15; 32-4:4). Finally, God speaks the through prophet Ezekiel (Ez. 36:16-28), foretelling that God will sprinkle cleansing water on His people, washing away their sins and replacing their stony hearts with hearts of flesh. Thus, the readings from the Old Testament end beautifully, with the statement: “You shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ez. 36:16-28).
Shortly after these words, the temple is stunningly illuminated and the holy altar is quickly refurbished with all the linens and colors of Pascha. Immediately after this, the Gloria hymn is sung on a Sunday vigil for the first time in over forty days, with the bells of the church ringing aloud in all their splendor. The silence that began on Holy Thursday is broken with the song and bells of a people rescued from slavery! The Risen Word of God then rings forth in the preaching of St. Paul, who fills us with the truth that our baptism mystically and truly allows us to share in the Death and Resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3-11). We respond with the song of our Faith, crying out in worship: “Alleluia!” For the first time in forty days, the Alleluia is chanted as the Holy Gospels are brought to the ambo. From one of the Synoptic Gospels we hear the angelic words: “He is not here, but is risen as He said!” The celebrant then delivers the homily, which is the last instruction of the catechumens and the candidates before their entrance into the Church. The Liturgy of Baptism has arrived.
This is the moment that catechumens and candidates have longingly awaited. They are called forward to the font of baptism as the Litany of the Saints resonates through our souls. Adults and children who are in need of baptism are then led in the traditional renunciation of Satan and the profession of the Apostle’s Creed. They are then baptized, thereby dying with Christ and rising with Him. Newly baptized adults immediately receive the Sacrament of Confirmation with those already baptized who may be in need of it. With the chrismation and the imposition of the celebrant’s hands, the Holy Spirit comes forth and fills the newly illumined. After this, we all renew our own baptismal vows according to same formula that the newly baptized have just professed. The celebrant sprinkles us with holy water in the Asperges rite to remind us of the new life we received at the sacred font of rebirth.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist then proceeds as at other Masses. Unlike the others however, we notice that the Holy Mass of the Great Paschal Vigil is the noblest Mass celebrated all year. Flowers, incense, candles, and all other forms of solemnity serenade our senses and heighten our worship. Tonight’s Mass is the fullest expression of the Roman Rite’s Eucharistic liturgy, and so we are bathed in poetic and aesthetic grandeur. We bask under the sublime rays of the Sacred Host as it is raised before us in the consecration – the eternal the Sun of Justice (Mal 4:2) breaking upon us. On Good Friday, the Tabernacle was emptied and we could not find the Lord’s Body and Blood. But now, He is made present before us and we, like the Apostles, cry out with inexpressible joy: “It is the Lord!” As St. Peter dove into the See of Galilee on seeing the Risen Lord, we dive into that ocean of grace that is the Holy Eucharist (Jn. 21:7). There, in the intimacy of Holy Communion, Christ asks us if we love Him. Together with Peter, we say to Him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!” (Jn. 21:17). As we are dismissed from Holy Mass singing the Alleluia, we remember our Lord’s command: “Follow me” (Jn. 21:19).
The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ celebrated tonight is the founding principle of Christianity; without it, our faith is meaningless – piteous, even (1 Cor. 15:15-19). Though it cannot be “proven” by materialistic means, it is the only logical explanation for what happened that night in Jerusalem. The life won by Christ is received and cultivated through a living relationship with the Holy Trinity through Him. It is the hope not only of mankind, but of all creation (Rom. 8:19). Today, the universe has been consumed by light. The old order of darkness has been driven away like the shadows, and glory fills all things. Life has dueled in heroic combat with death, and the Prince of Life has triumphed gloriously! Angelic hosts watched in witness and awe at the might of the Lord who, beyond comprehension, wrought life from death. What was this power that overcame the ancient curse? It was love, and God is love! Our Lord, Jesus Christ, graciously and humbly bore the Cross so as to give us the Resurrection. In wonder and awe at this miracle, we exclaim with St. Paul, “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). Gone! They have been swallowed up and overwhelmed by love.
With the ending of the Great Paschal Vigil, our journey through the Sacred Triduum is complete. Now we are called to live what we have “seen and heard” (Acts 4:20) during these marvelous days. Let us go forth, proclaiming to one and all our ancient greeting in this new Paschal season: Christ is Risen! Alleluia!