Quintessential Easter: Darkness and Light, Death and Rebirth

An article in this morning’s Washington Post reports on some Easter Sunday celebrations in the D.C. area.

One is the 33rd annual sunrise service help by Pastor Amos Dodge at Arlington National Cemetery, at which thousands gathers in the darkness before dawn to mark the the victory of the light of the risen Christ over the darkness of death.

The other is the morning service at Shiloh Baptist Church, attended by the Obama family, at which several children and an adult were baptized.

The Post, as might be expected, presented these as “quintessential Washington Easter scenes,” but I was struck more by their  quintessential Christianity. That is, I was struck by the fact that these two celebrations by what we might think of as “non-liturgical” Christians incorporated elements that we would normally associate with “liturgical” Christian traditions: darkness pierced by light, and the death and rebirth of baptism. I presume that these are not communities that are self-consciously appropriating ancient ritual patterns. Rather, it is as if they are simply acting according to the primordial logic of the Easter mystery itself.

It is as if the mystery of Easter naturally makes us turn toward the imagery of darkness and light, of dying and rising with Christ in baptism. What better way to celebrate Easter than by beginning in cold darkness and ending in light? What other act is more appropriate on the day that Christ conquered death than the rite by which we are conformed to that pattern of death and resurrection?

I find it somehow comforting to know that what my own parish community celebrated at the Easter Vigil bears some similarity to the celebrations of these not liturgical Christians. It gives me greater confidence that our liturgy is not simply a set of accumulated human ritual acts bequeathed to us by tradition, but is rather the natural, quintessential expression of the meaning of Easter: darkness and light, death and rebirth.


  1. And then there are some “unusual Catholic” celebrations making the rounds of the internet this Easter Monday


    For closed parishes, a day of solidarity

    The parish has not had a priest to officiate its Easter service since the Boston Archdiocese announced its closure and intent to sell the property about 6 1/2 years ago

    They took Communion blessed by a priest, but there was no priest to officiate at the service

    Rogers sees the continued attendance each week despite not having a priest as a testament to faith among parishioners.

    “I like it better without [priests],’’ Avery said. “I kind of hope they don’t come back.’’

    Harrington said she believes the practice of holding church services without a priest will catch on at parishes across the globe.

    “I think this is the future of the Catholic Church,’’ she said. “We’re just ahead of them.’’

      1. Not all, no. But it definitely runs through all the hierarchy, you know? There are obviously some good men in the priesthood, but whenever a priest is in a position of authority, how can we be sure he is not abusing children? In the lay parishes of Boston I think we are clearly seeing the future of church: more egalitarian, without the dangerous authority and clericalism of the hierarchs.

  2. In some ways, I’d like to see an Easter Vigil that starts in the early morning hours so that we begin in darkness and end in the light. There’s a lot to be said for a sunrise service, especially when followed by an Eater breakfast.

    On the other hand, I’d have to get up at 3AM…….

  3. “In some ways, I’d like to see an Easter Vigil that starts in the early morning hours so that we begin in darkness and end in the light.”

    Well that is the way that Saint Meinrad did it sometime in the seventies when I spent some of Holy Week there.

    The Easter Fire consisted of huge torch bon-fires that completely surrounded the Abbey Church. My impression on getting up from the retreat house and heading to the Church was that it was like the burning bush, aflame but not consumed.

    Sitting in a dark church during the readings, with neon lights for the lecturn and the music ministers is not very appealing. Nor waiting until the twilight is completely gone to begin the Lighting of the Paschal candle. As long as the sun has set, and darkness is coming, it is OK with me to begin the lamp lighting ceremony.

    The Orthodox begin around Midnight with the Gospel of the Resurrection and Paschal Matins. I think that has something to do with the idea that Christ will come again in the middle of the night.

    I love their Paschal Matins ( a service more of praise than readings); (they do the Easter Vigil Liturgy on Holy Saturday Morning as we did before the reforms.) We should develop a similar Matins service as a prelude to a Sunrise Mass. One could begin it with the Meinrad blazing fires and the reading of the Gospel of the Resurrection. With sunrise here about 6:30 am now; maybe such as service could begin around 5 to 5:30am to finish somewhere between 6:30 and 7am.

  4. Sandi Brough :

    There are obviously some good men in the priesthood, but whenever a priest is in a position of authority, how can we be sure he is not abusing children?.

    So many of these men have given their lives to serve you and you respond to their service by saying that they are all suspect of abusing children because they have authority?

    1. It would be more constructive to direct a response to Sandi’s contribution rather than at Sandi, to respond to the message rather than to decry the messenger.

  5. It’s so said that since the scandal many people don’t trust priests anymore. Some seem to suspect them without cause. The bad priests have done so much damage–to children, to families, and to their brothers in the priesthood.

  6. I’m somewhat disheartened to see this discussion immediately branch off into a tangential debate over clericalism. I thought Bauerschmidt’s original reflection on the universally Christian instinct toward the use of certain images was beautiful, and may be a rich patch of ground for some solid ecumenical bridge-building.

    Multivalent symbols can be powerful things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *