The first, provisional restoration of the Easter Vigil for Roman Catholics took place 69 years ago, on March 24, 1951. Prior to that, Easter Vigil was little understood (and little understandable), taking place in the morning hours, with a bizarre amount of minimalism, and in empty churches.
But, those who chose to come to that first Great Watch in the latter days of March of 1951 experienced something profound. As one layman wrote, in a letter to Worship (then, Orate Fratres):
From the first moment the church seemed charged with expectation of the Resurrection. The kindling of the new fire and the spread of the light from the celebrant to the clergy to the laity was impressive. It was an intense (not just emotional) religious experience to watch the ‘Light of the World’ passed from a single source to every member: Christ as the center and source; Christ’s utilization of His members to spread the light of faith; our dependence upon one another; and finally the unity of the Mystical Body.” (“Letter,” Orate Fratres, p. 283-4).
Yes, this is what the Easter Vigil was and is—and the anonymous author of this letter hadn’t even experienced the joyous Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, or the restored Paschal Triduum itself.
This year, I think we may be witnessing again, what seems like a bizarre amount of minimalism in our empty churches. Will your parish pastor light a bonfire which he gathers around himself? What will the procession into silent, empty church look like with only a single, burning paschal candle piercing the darkness? How will the Mystical Body grow in strength and members, when there is no one to stand before the waters of baptism and say, “I believe”?
No, this year is different—even unfathomable.
As I daydream about the Easter Vigil that isn’t going to be, I’ve tuned in to a few moments that remind me what the Easter Vigil, and the whole of Holy Triduum, will be for me and my family this year. I don’t think they’re unfolding in any particular order, and I don’t have all the pieces yet. But if the liturgy is truly to permeate our life, and if life should, as best it can, reflect the liturgy, then it’s my children who have something to show me of the holiest season this year.
First, a Footwashing: We had a bath the other night. And, while one child is large enough for the “big” bath tub, the other is too small. But the small one sure does enjoy watching his sister do anything. Eat, play, run, dance, or splash in the tub. So, while our daughter splished away, pouring water over her rubber duckies floating in the bath, baby sat on my lap and watched. He was so excited, I decided to dangle his toes over the water, and he cooed as I dipped them into the warm bath. His sister watched this intently. Then, instead of pouring her cup of water over her duckies, she turned and poured the water, so slowly and carefully, over her brother’s bare baby feet.
One child of God washing the feet of an other. This, I think, will be as close as I get to Holy Thursday this year.
Second, Springs of Water bless the Lord: As luck would have it, our season of social distancing has coincided with cool, rainy (or snowy) stints of weather. Here in central Indiana, gales of wind have been followed by torrents of rainwater, collecting in muddied pools in low-lying walkways and roads.
But this is not daunting to my daughter: she pulled on her bright-blue sparkly boots and charged straight into those dirty-brown pools. She danced and splashed—she even sat right down in the midst of those inviting puddles. She couldn’t contain her excitement, or her joy, as she walked boldly into the waters of life.
Her fearlessness in the face of mud puddles gives us a new slant on the font, and those brave catechumens who (will eventually) plunge into those murky baptismal waters. May we also be brave enough to plop right in the middle of our baptismal promises—even if we get a little bedraggled in the process. I won’t be watching our catechumens this year, but perhaps my little girl offers me a new a vision of the baptismal life. And I promise I wasn’t annoyed that I had to wash her baptismal garment (yes, she was wearing white)…three times.
May you find your own graced moments in life—recalling that the liturgy and the Christian life have permeable boundaries. And, in the absence of the liturgy, may we still be drawn into the mystery of God.