The Easter Vigil is like the clashing of cymbals
The religious meaning of Holy Week
It was 1948, at one of the first Easter Vigil services in Europe. The darkened Church was a fairyland of flickering candlelight from the hands of each member of the assembled congregation.
The celebrant had just intoned for the third time, “Lumen Christi” (Light of Christ) and the congregation had responded “Deo Gratias” (Thanks be to God). He placed the Paschal Candle representing Christ the Light on the candle stand in the sanctuary and opened the Missal to sing the most beautiful, poetic hymn of the Church’s Easter liturgy, the Exultet (Rejoice All You People).
The lights came on like a blinding explosion, illuminating the entire Church.
Suddenly the celebrant, 62-year-old German Benedictine monk Odo Casel, crumbled to the floor.
Before any help could reach him, he died of a massive heart attack.
The culmination of his life’s work was initiating the Easter Vigil liturgy in the Catholic Church.
He had struggled for years against misunderstandings and suspicions about his orthodoxy. But on that unique Easter Vigil night, his lifelong dream had been fulfilled.
The pristine beauty of the religious meaning of Holy Week was restored to the Catholic Church, under the symbols of the liturgical celebration.
The Easter Vigil is like the clashing of the cymbals of Holy Week, while beginning with Palm Sunday, and through Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the liturgical events are like the drum-roll leading up to the crescendo of Easter Sunday.
Holy Week celebrates the religious significance of the foundational Christian mystery: the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Palm Sunday, also called Passion Sunday because of the reading of the whole Passion of Jesus account from one of the Gospels, is the initiation into the pathos – the joy and sorrow - of Holy Week.
The whole Passion account is read, so that we, who were not present during the historical happening, may participate in the saving power of that event today.
It celebrates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. He comes not as an arrogant, warring monarch riding on a horse, but as a humble sovereign, bringing the Good News of peace and riding on a donkey.
The Gospel each Palm Sunday narrates how within a few days, the very people who hailed him as their king turned against him, condemning him to the intense humiliation, suffering and cruel death on the cross like an ordinary criminal.
Holy Thursday celebrates the joy and sorrow of Jesus’ last will and testament of love for his friends. He washed their feet, doing the job of a servant, thus leaving them an example of humble service to be followed by those in authority in the Church.
The very purpose of authority is to serve, not with arrogant power, but as a profound privilege.
“If I your Lord and Master have washed your feet, you must wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example that you should do what I have done to you.”
Jesus then institutes two sacraments – the Eucharist (thanksgiving meal) and the priesthood – so that his challenging, living memory of sacrifice and service may be shared and continued within his family the Church.
Then comes the poignancy of Good Friday; the sorrow of his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane; of his betrayal by one of his closest associates Judas; his denial by another, Peter; and his abandonment by all the rest for fear of the Jews.
He is taken prisoner, made to suffer intensely and die ignominiously on the cross for the salvation of the whole world.
Good Friday celebrates Jesus’ revealing God’s unconditional, everlasting love for us.
He declares, “Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down your life for one's friends.”
The Easter Vigil is like the overture to the cataclysmic climax of the Resurrection event on Easter Sunday.
It is the culmination of Christian faith that Jesus rose from the tomb. This is not a mere resuscitation from death like Lazarus, but a dramatic transformation to a new and everlasting life.
The resurrection of Jesus is so fundamental to Christian faith that St Paul warned the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, then our faith is a delusion, our proclamation is empty and we are still lost in our sins.”
Therefore those who share in Christ’s sufferings here and now, also share in the certainty of his resurrection, receiving a fresh transfusion of his eternal life and a share in his victory over the power of sin and evil of every kind.
While we grapple with the need to interweave liturgical celebration, authentic doctrine and daily life, we remain indebted to Odo Casel for retrieving an invaluable, pristine heritage of the integral Holy Week faith significance, the Paschal Mystery.
Redemptorist Father Desmond de Souza formerly served as the executive secretary of the Office of Human Development in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference. He was closely associated with the Churches in Asia from 1980 to 2000. He is now based in Goa.
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