For those of you who subscribe to and read Reflections, I said I’d continue my thoughts on Holy Week here. Even if you didn’t get Reflections, I encourage you to read; I am contemplating my relationship with Holy Week, and particularly the deepest, most complex and holy liturgy of the year in the Roman tradition, that of the Easter Vigil.
I write as a Christian-adjacent, UU-Pagan. Yes, that’s a lot to swallow, but imagine being me!
I write as someone deeply ambivalent about the Roman Catholic tradition that is nonetheless engraved into my heart and soul.
I write in glowing terms about a ritual I love deeply and which makes me cringe.
I write as someone invested in magic, in holiness, in connection, in authenticity, and in integrity.
I write as someone who knows she can only—make no mistake—not even scratch the surface of this holiday.
I can only hope to paint some kind of picture, to build some kind of textured sculpture, to sing a wordless melody through words.
After the darkness of Tenebrae on the Wednesday of Holy Week (or sometimes Good Friday night), the celebration of the Last Supper, the stripping of the altar, the excruciating Stations of the Cross (stand and kneel, sing and listen, stand and kneel, sing and listen) and the otherwise silence between noon and three on Good Friday, and the emptiness of Holy Saturday…what is left?
Nowadays, I experience a certain universality (shocker) in all the ceremony of the Triduum (the last three days of Holy Week).
I also experience Tenebrae, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the day of Holy Saturday as so much about the Christian mandate to serve a god/man/spirit Who loves the poor; Who “lifts up the lowly and casts the mighty from their thrones;” and Who commands over and over that the people protect the widow and orphan, the poor and wounded, the imprisoned and sick.
Not only is Holy Week—and really, every moment of reading deeply into scripture—about serving this god/man/spirit. It is about identifying with those the people are called to serve. It is about empathy, not pity.
It is about knowing that we are all brokenhearted, but also that some of us have more than others.
climbing down from our thrones, washing some feet, spending some time going hungry, and looking in some mirrors.
It can mean
recognizing that depending who and where and when we are, we may have more in common with Pharaoh than we do with the enslaved Israelites the god liberates.
It may mean
recognizing that humility is what is called for, even in our identification or sense of connection and service.
Identification and yet, at the same time, understanding that if this god/man/spirit “sends the rich away hungry,” that might mean something important for some of us, eh? Some of us are hungry in various ways. And some of us are too full in others.
And that’s part of why fasting is part of Lent, and especially on Good Friday. There are people in the world, billions of them, who do not have to intentionally fast to be hungry.
But I said I’d talk about the Easter Vigil. I promised I’d write about this holiest rite of the Western Magisterial Churches.
What I’ve promised is processions and fire and a great candle piercing a bowl of water and a long intoned chant about the pillar of fire in the desert and Genesis and the coming of Jesus as the Light and Morning Star and Pesach and the baptism and anointing of adult catechumens and long long long prayers and readings and incense grains pressed into “the work of mother bees and human hands” in the candle and the engraving of the year on the candle and the first singing of “Alleluia!” (Praise the Lord!) since Mardi Gras and the unlocking of the organ…
This is the Easter Vigil. Since liturgical days officially begin at sunset the night before, the Holy Liturgy of the Vigil of the Resurrection starts somewhere between sunset and midnight on Saturday.
What I have said I will write about is a glorious, titantic ceremony full of theological problems, including a heaping helping of supercessionism. (Which the Roman Catholic Church has tried to mitigate through prayers for “the Jewish people to whom God is always faithful in His covenants with them.” Not much in the way of things, if you ask me.)
I cannot possibly just go in order – Lighting of the New Fire, the Exsultet, the Eucharist, Baptism and Confirmation, reading after reading (sometimes as many as 12, usually 7) all blur together in my mind…
…all in the numinous, magical glow of the New Fire.
As I mentioned in Reflections on Monday, what I experience in the Triduum is magic.
Magic, that is, the transformation of consciousness (at will). I put “at will” in parentheses because I believe that our consciousnesses can be transformed through ritual in ways we’ve never planned, intended, or will ever understand.
The Triduum (plus Tenebrae, wherever it falls) is an extended vigil of dark to light. And while orthodox theology privileges light, I don’t. The dark is holy, is blessed, even when it is the dark of terrible suffering. Not especially when it is connected to suffering, but still when it is connected to suffering. Deep darkness can be frightening to those of us who are used to light, who rely on it. And the Triduum takes sight, the need for light, the privileging of light over darkness for granted.
Still, the Easter Vigil’s kindling of the New Fire—in the most, most traditional churches done with flint—steals my breath. In the darkness, a single tiny shower of sparks, another and another and another until it catches and the flame leaps into the inky dark of the narthex.
And there’s the blessing of the Paschal (Easter) candle. A giant, thick, mostly beeswax candle is lit from the New Fire. In its blessing and sanctifying, it is dipped three times into a basin of holy water (yes, think about that for a moment.). It has a cross and the numbers of the year inscribed in it, along with the Greek letters alpha and omega. And then grains of incense are pushed into the wax.
Blessing upon blessing upon blessing, the candle is processed throughout the church and sometimes outside. Other candles are lit from it. Eventually, the candle next to the Tabernacle where the reserved Communion wafers/Blessed Sacrament live is lit. This Tabernacle candle is the one about which I said as a child, “It says that God is home today.” I knew that the Tabernacle was God’s House and the candle said He was home.
Think of all these elements together…all these Elements together, if you will.
Water for baptism.
Water for the candle’s blessing, dunking once, twice, thrice.
Water to sprinkle over all the people and acknowledge their blessedness, the blessedness of the altar.
Incense in the air for the candle.
Incense in the air for the Tabernacle and the Blessed Sacrament.
Incense in the air for the people, the altar, the candle that says that God is home.
The Great and Blessing New Fire that is not dimmed, as the Exsultet says of Jesus, no matter how it is shared.
Fire for all, its warmth and love and healing.
The earth that receives the leftover wine from the Eucharist, what the priests have not drunk.
The earth on which the church itself makes its foundation.
The oil made of olives grown on trees with roots set deep, deep in the darkness.
The earth out of which human beings have come, as we were all reminded at Ash Wednesday.
Indeed, indeed, indeed, indeed.
Is Easter—the word comes from a goddess of the dawn, Eostre—a stolen Pagan holiday?
No it is not. It is, however, like every other great religious holiday I know, part of cultures near and far. It is not created ex nihilo, or out of whole cloth, if you will. It is not.
We all share the Four Elements. And they are holy as our gods in heaven, on earth, and below the earth are holy.
And maybe that’s it.
In the end, we share it. We share it all because we have overlapped and blurred and blended so much, due to friendship, war, empire, and generosity.
May you know the Spirit of the Divine to be with you always.