april 2009

The Saturday Before Easter

An Excerpt From Holidays & Holy Nights: Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year

By Christopher Hill

Easter Morning, by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
A new world has been born in the night; the women go to see.

People have always had a need to feel they are participating in something much bigger than themselves. And a need to reassure themselves that life is much more real than realpolitik, or the "realism" of the market. In religion, this is what ritual does for people. I am a sucker for ritual. Ritual is a way of participating in that bigger and more real world, the one we were born for. Every spiritual tradition has its own technique for bringing you back to that. Christianity has the Eucharist, and the Easter Vigil. When I was 19 I read Alan Watt's Myth and Ritual in Christianity. When I got done reading his chapter on the Easter Vigil, I was sold. I had no idea the church contained such things. I thought, "That's for me." I once heard the Episcopal chaplain of the U.S. Congress describe the Easter Vigil as "psychedelic." Indeed. When you participate in the liturgy of Holy Week, in this strange and ancient drama built out of the deepest hopes and fears that humans have and it culminates in the new flame of the Easter Vigil, you're participating in a pattern that even the grass follows. We all need to reconnect with that regularly, whether it's every week or once a year, or a few times in a lifetime, so that the world doesn't succeed in selling us cheap, so that we are reminded what an enormous adventure being human is. —Christopher Hill, Easter, 2009

(The following is an excerpt from contributing editor Christopher Hill's book, Holiday and Holy Nights Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year [Quest Books, 2008]. It centers on the Saturday before Easter and the experience of the Easter Vigil.)

Easter Vigil

I begin by the grass
To be bound again to the Lord

—A.E. (George William Russell), 1867-1935

The feast of the Spirit leads the mystic dance
through the year

—Hippolytus, Easter Vigil hymn, third century

O night of more delight than is paradise...
Night of all nights in all the year desired,
Night of the church's bridal...
Night when the heir took the heiress
To enjoy their inheritance

—Asterius of Amasia, fourth century

May the light of Christ, rising in glory,
Dispel the darkness of our heart and minds.
Lighting of the candle, Roman rite

The Experience

Like most children, I learned what sacred time was like from Christmas. We may know that Easter is the oldest and the primary festival of the Church. Compared to Christmas, however, the imaginative impact of Easter, for most of us, is minor. Clergy grant this somewhat reproachfully, as if we've been lured from due respect for Easter by the glitzy charms of Christmas.

But it's not glitz that's made Christmas the dominant festival. How could Christmas not be popular? People will cling desperately and flock wildly to anything that gives them a taste of scared time. The real question is, why doesn't Easter offer us this experience?

I think the problem is that hardly anyone goes to the Easter Vigil.

English historian Ronald Hutton maintains that the spread of Christianity into northern Europe made the greater popularity of Christmas inevitable. It seems obvious that the mood of Christmas has its primary source in the winter solstice-in the terrific imaginative impact of the death and rebirth of the sun as seen from snowy forest and moorland. After all, we know that people were celebrating the winter solstice long before they were observing the Christmas. By the mystique of Christmas has another source as well.

Historically, Christmas was a transplant of Easter into midwinter, duplicating the form of the Resurrection observances to celebrate the birth-the "Winter Pascha" as the Eastern Orthodox Church calls it. In particular, the sacred time of Christmas Eve was a midwinter mirror of the sacred time of Easter Eve-of the Easter Vigil. Our experience of Christmas has its root in the ancient Easter mysteries as much as in the drama of a northern midwinter. Christmas took on the popularity of Easter because it took on its mood and atmosphere. This is a key to making Easter come alive imaginatively.

The Morning of the Resurrection, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98)
At the Easter Vigil, we reenact the ancient drama; the miracle happens here and now.

Although it may seem backwards from a historical and theological point of view, one way to climb back inside Easter is to start at Christmas. We come out the other end at the Easter Vigil.

The real holy, magical hours of Christmas are on Christmas Eve-a theological and liturgical truth that all children know. It's the same with Easter. The birth and the Resurrection both happen at midnight, on the eve of each festival "when half-spent was the night." Christmas morning and Easter Sunday are the after-the-fact celebrations of the enormous thing that happened in the night. To celebrate a full Easter without the Vigil is like trying to celebrate a full Christmas without Christmas Eve.

But let's start by thinking about the imaginative differences between the two holidays. I'd put it this way: Christmas feels timeless; Easter feels ancient.

We don't know the actual date of Jesus' birth. The feast falls where it does to coincide with astronomical events that have been going on since the earth was formed; like the Incarnation that it celebrates, Christmas comes from outside human time and history.

Easter is different. The Gospels are precise in the dating of the Crucifixion, and they name the particular Roman colonial administrator who ordered it. At Easter we relive events that are fixed in historical time. We're in first century Palestine—with the dust and heat, the stones and the streets and the marble floors, the temples and forums, the jangle of armor and brass of trumpets; feeling the elation, suspense, sweat, fear, pain, horror, grief, wonder. Easter is a strange tale from far away and long ago that comes to us with trappings of its exotic and ancient setting. At Easter we're back in that crucible of consciousness, the Middle East and the old Mediterranean world.

But Christmas Eve and the Easter Vigil are twins—two movements of one drama. The two stories are set inside a cave, symbolized by the cavernous church. The dark church of Christmas Eve is the cave of the Nativity, of winter. This dark world is the womb of time where the miracle gestates.

At the Easter Vigil, we pick up where we left off on Christmas Eve-we re-enter that dark space. Now it's Jesus' tomb, the "nightmare of history" that James Joyce talked about. The world that Christ entered at Christmas has hardened around him, trying to seal him off from us. He has entered it so deeply that it seems impossible to get out.

In these two caves at the two midnights, at the darkest hours, eternity arcs into time. The sacred flame that the priest kindles at the Vigil says that it is happening here. The bells that the congregation rings at the moment of the Resurrection say that it is happening now. In the cave of the Nativity, Christ is born into time from eternity. In the cave of the tomb, Christ is delivered out of time and into...everyone. Both nights are the birth of Christ. At Christmas, the one Christ is born. At Easter, all the little Christs—the newly initiated-are born.

The seasons teach theological lessons. We walk out of the Christmas cave into the depths of winter. At Easter, we walk out of the tomb into the garden to encounter Mary Magdalene, symbol of the redeemed springtime world. She has been waiting out there for all the Christs born at Easter midnight. "Come away, my love," she says in words from the Song of Songs. "It is spring and the voice of the turtledove is heard in the land."

It is the spring of souls today
Christ has burst his prison
And from three days sleep in death,
As the Sun hath risen.

—John of Damascus, eighth century

Just as spring is beginning, just as the world opens up and calls us to jump in, we turn away; we set aside the three days of the Triduum to prepare to enter the "life" part of the year. We go underground like seeds and roots, like the dead. We gather ourselves for the great thing about to happen. There is the sense of huge events proceeding around us:

Something strange is happening-there is great silence
On earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth
Keeps silence because the king is asleep.

—Office of Readings, Roman Rite

At the Easter Vigil, we participate in the process of the universe. As we go up to take communion and the choir sings "Now the Green Blade Riseth," we're following a pattern that even the grass obeys. We have the chance to enter the story from which all stories come.

Easter hallows its season, and its season hallows it. Season and festival, natural cycle and spiritual cycle, complement each other and work together to create sacred time. On Easter Eve as on Christmas Eve we sit again in that holy darkness that hums with the divine. Our Christmas candles, the little hopeful Christmas stars, are now gathered together into the "new fire" of Easter, given to everyone, never to go out.


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