In the Catholic liturgical year, there is no starker contrast than the juxtaposition of the Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday night.
Good Friday is the only day all year when Mass is not celebrated. The commemoration service is traditionally held mid-afternoon and begins with the clergy processing in and lying prostrate before the altar. It continues with readings, including the reading of the passion narrative from the gospel of John and then moves on to the veneration of the cross, in which all present process to a plain wooden cross and venerate it in some way, according to local tradition. At Holy Family, we bowed before the cross; other parishes genuflect or touch or kiss the cross. Then, after praying the Lord’s Prayer, communion is distributed from hosts that were consecrated on Holy Thursday night. The church is unadorned – no flowers, only the simplest altar cloth, which is removed after the service concludes, and the empty tabernacle with its door left open.
When we arrive at Holy Family for Easter Vigil, although the church is only dimly lighted, it is bursting with color – long bolts of cloth, each a different hue, radiate from a central point high in the sanctuary out over the congregation – flowers banked in several locations, not only the traditional white Easter lilies but also red and blue hydrangeas, orange lilies, pink azaleas, and light green mums – the altar draped in white, which is the color of Easter. The tabernacle, still empty with its door open, is the only visual reminder of the first two days of the Triduum.
We begin with the service of light, where a new fire is kindled and used to light a new Easter candle, whose light is spread to the candles that the congregation holds. After the Easter Proclamation is sung, we extinguish our candles and proceed with an extended liturgy of the word, including the singing of the Gloria and Alleluia, which are not used in Lent. Speaking to my daughter’s and my heart, the homilist chose to concentrate on Mary Magdelene’s place as the first witness of the resurrection, in a time and culture when women were not allowed to testify in court, chosen by God to go and tell, which is the apostolic mission. In place of the creed, after new holy water is blessed, we renew our baptismal promises and are blessed with the new water. We continue on with the liturgy of the Eucharist and, after communion, the tabernacle is finally filled and the door closed.
One of the most powerful elements in these liturgies is the music, which is not only enhanced by the participation of our choir, cantors, and instrumentalists but also by the participation of the people. Because none of the liturgies of the Triduum are obligatory, the people who choose to participate are those who are steadfast in their commitment to celebrating as a community. On Good Friday, I was especially moved by people joining in with the choir singing the spiritual “Were You There?” and the Taize prayer “Jesus, Remember Me” during the long procession for veneration of the cross. The Easter Vigil brings some music that is only used at that Mass. I was especially moved by the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) and a sung form of the Exodus reading about the horses and chariots of Egypt being cast into the sea to protect the fleeing Israelites, by Rory Cooney. The elements of light and water re-appear in the much of the music, with more songs about the Resurrection appearing after the Easter gospel is read. The music was extra festive because a trumpeter joined the choir, organ, and congregation for many of the songs.
I wish a blessed Easter to all Christians, continued blessings of Passover to all Jewish people, and peace, love, and light to all people!