The emotive force of the Church’s liturgy is at its most potent during the Easter Vigil. Before Mass, the atmosphere of desolation evoked by the commemoration of Our Lord’s death and burial on Good Friday still shrouds the church in pitch darkness. The kindling of the Easter fire at the entrance gives the first hint that something has stirred in the Tomb. The congregation then follows the flickering light of the Paschal candle into the church, where an awed silence is punctuated by the deacon’s threefold chant of Lumen Christi, which elicits a resounding Deo Gratias.
Meanwhile, the candles of the faithful are lit from the Paschal flame, so that light gradually spreads in every direction, carrying with it the news that Good Friday was not the end of the story. Arriving in the sanctuary, the Paschal candle is enthroned on its candelabrum, and the deacon addresses to it the ancient hymn of praise known as the Exsultet. This traces the history of God’s salvific interactions with His people, from the fall of Adam up to this “truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and the hour when Christ rose from the underworld”. Like the disciples whose hearts burned within them on the road to Emmaus while our Risen Lord “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself”, we are then led lesson-by-lesson through the salient events of the Old Testament under the illumination of the Pascal candle. With these readings completed, the intonation of the Gloria in Excelsis triggers an explosion of bells, the air swells with the thundering of the organ and the building is flooded in an ocean of light. The Church can contain her joy no longer: Christ is risen; death has been conquered.
Mindful of the transformative effect of the Resurrection on the disciples, the Church’s aim is that, through her liturgy, each of us should be brought to a personal encounter with our Risen Lord. On Good Friday we see the Apostles and many of the disciples dispersing in terror as the religious and political authorities combine forces to destroy the Messiah. St Mark is so desperate to flee the Garden of Gethsemane when the soldiers arrive that he leaves behind his clothes and disappears naked into the night. Enheartened and grace-filled after the Resurrection, however, St Mark would go on to found the Church in Alexandria, where according to tradition he so rattled the pagans with his fearless preaching that they put a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets until he was dead. There is no record of him trying to run away on that occasion. Meanwhile, St Peter, who in the Gospels is so often found trying to deflect Our Lord from the way of the Cross, would open wide his own arms to be crucified in Rome.
When self-doubt troubles us, we might be tempted to tell ourselves that these disciples enjoyed the obvious benefit of the physical presence of our Risen Lord, while all we have to go on is testimony, which is not the same. This is to underestimate the nature and the power of the Church’s sacramental life. The purpose of the liturgy is not merely to stir up emotions using the drama of finely choreographed theatre. The baptismal water blessed at the Vigil has been invested with the power to transform us just as radically as the experience of the Resurrection changed the disciples. At the font we are truly united with Our Lord’s death and burial, so that we emerge overflowing with His Risen Life. In the Sacrament of Penance we are raised up from the death of sins committed since baptism, and restored to the freshness of life eternal. In the Holy Mass we offer ourselves with the sacrificial gifts of bread and wine, so that when they are in turn transformed into His Body and Blood, we are united mystically with His self-oblation on Calvary. It is then in Holy Communion that we are given the most sublime and transformative encounter with the Resurrection, when He feeds us with His risen living body.
Challenged by secularisation and other menaces within our society, it can be a temptation for Catholics to retreat from engagement with the world, and to live the faith ever more privately, in the hope of being left in peace. The example of the disciples after the Resurrection should save us from such defeatism. The Apostles who had previously huddled behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews” walked voluntarily back into the lion’s den, preaching the Gospel daily in the Temple, gaining many converts, and accepting the consequences in the knowledge that life in Christ has the last word over persecution and death. Transformed by our own encounters with our Risen Lord in this Easter’s liturgy, may we be similarly emboldened.
Fr Julian Large