We’re already approaching the Fourth Sunday of Easter, a seasonal divide. From this point on, like the rivers of Colorado’s Western Slope flowing ultimately to the Pacific, our readings flow towards Pentecost. But as Catholics we should still have Easter in our minds and hearts. Also in our memories.
The lilies and butterfly still grace my front door. The tableau on my buffet still shows the tomb—stones arranged to depict the tomb, with the folded white cloth, angels; and above these is the icon showing Jesus descending among the dead. I guess you could say I am a visual thinker. These familiar images trigger memories of God’s great mercy in giving us Jesus as Savior, dying and rising for us.
So, yes, even as we edge closer to the Ascension and Pentecost, it is not too late to look back on the Vigil.
My parents were good, church-attending Catholics for whom Easter called, not only for mass, but for all the extra cultural amenities: the new clothes, Easter eggs, baskets. In those days, Mom actually picked out spring fabric and made my dresses. One year there was also a special fleecy pink spring jacket. The Easter church would be redolent of incense, lilies, cherry blossoms, and there would be aspersions of holy water.
But like most teens, I began to explore beyond the world my parents inhabited, and discovered in my Benedictine parish the Easter Vigil. Who knew? Once used in the early Church, the great waiting for the dawn of Resurrection, the practice had fallen into disuse. In those early years, this had been the time for baptisms following the weeks of intense preparation with prayer and fasting during Lent. That was when adult baptism had been the norm.
As time went on fewer adults were left uncatechized and babies were baptized, so there were few adult baptisms. Adult baptism became a quiet ritual held for family and friends, but not shared with the whole church. If anything, people were embarrassed to admit they had not been baptized: nothing to make public.
The dawn celebration had not entirely disappeared from memory, though. Many Protestant churches held sunrise services to greet the new day of Easter. What our Western world had not remembered, though, was that the Jewish world of Jesus marked the new day from sundown, and the Church had continued that way of measuring the day. This is why we can have vigil masses on Saturdays and feast days. So for Easter it was natural to begin the vigil, the watch, at sundown and continue until first light. That was the way it began, and so it continues in monasteries: a full night of waiting for the Resurrection dawn.
Almost 70 years later, while the Easter Vigil is now the norm, a surprising number of Catholics are still not enthused about it. “It’s too long, Father!” people complain. As a pastoral musician, I have often been warned to keep the music short so that we can keep the liturgy to under two hours. ‘
What a shame to put such limits on the most wonderful night of the year! A night when the new fire is lit, and from it the Paschal candle, its light spread to all present. We listen to the stories of our faith read in darkness until the Gloria rings forth to the ringing of bells, the turning on of the lights, symbolizing the light of Christ that has come into the world.
Then the new water is blessed and we are all sprinkled as a memorial of our own baptisms.
In one church I participated in, we built a tomb of large stones surrounding a horse trough. This was an older church without a baptismal font for immersions. The water was poured into the font so that our catechumens could enter fully into the water, surrounded by white satin and lilies. Rudimentary as it was, I have never experienced the sacrament of baptism in a more meaningful way.
Every year the Vigil is new for me, always fresh, revealing Christ in some unexpected way. This year’s mass was simple, pared down to the three essential readings of the full seven. There were only two baptisms, and these, conditional. Yet, this year the wonder of this night was the way we were able to blend the two cultures in our parish into one seamless celebration. Our deacon, having just had Covid, could not chant the Exultet, but proclaimed it in his most meaningful tones. The church was full, unlike years when few attended.
As I chanted the psalm following the Exodus reading: “Cantemos al Señor. Sublime es su victoria,” I could see in the dim light the faces of the whole church responding; could hear the fullness of that voiced psalm. “Let us sing to the Lord, he has covered himself in glory.,” we had sung in other years, but this was among the most beautiful expressions of Miriam’s canticle celebrating the crossing of the Red Sea.
This is the feast of our Passover. I hope Catholics will come to treasure this time as I do. Choir members with whom I’ve sung in the past have all agreed: After the glorious Vigil, we could happily die and go to heaven.