The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are each rich with the narrative of the life and works of Christ. Together they make up what are known as the “synoptic gospels,” and over the course of a three year cycle the Church nourishes us with these narratives in the readings at Mass. In them we hear described in detail, and from various perspectives, the events of the life of Christ. Alongside these texts we often find ourselves diverted by a reading from the gospel according to Saint John. This gospel not only reinforces the narratives presented by the other three gospels, but also offers a mystical tone that demands a special effort in reading. Little in the text of the gospel according to Saint John is coincidental. Whereas the Matthew, Mark, and Luke provide a storyline for us to follow, John also uses specific words and ideas, in the context of retelling that narrative, to proclaim the great truths of our faith and in particular those regarding the person of Christ.
As we emerge from Eastertide and begin to keep again the season of grace which follows the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the celebration of the feast of the Holy Trinity, we are launched into what might at first seem to be a less exciting time of the liturgical year. Certainly we will shortly keep the feasts of Corpus Christi, the Sacred Heart, and the Assumption of Our Lady, but, on the whole, we now revert to green vestments and to the cycle per annum, or “of the year.” In the personal ordinariates we retain the medieval custom of referring to this time as “after Trinity,” reminding ourselves of the source and focus of all worship. Yet, whatever name is used, the apparent ordinariness of these weeks must be characterised not by a spiritual lethargy or boredom, nor a return to the way things were—the old habits of sin and waywardness—but rather by the simple and vital task of our sanctification: the outworking of our baptismal promises, renewed at Easter and again at Pentecost.
Last Saturday evening, in churches across the world, Christians watched and waited in solemn vigil as, once more, the story of salvation was laid before us in the words of sacred scripture. For many of us, it was the culmination of a pilgrimage through the season of Lent: a time in which we are called to repentance for our sins, to return to the Lord who, by his passion, death, and resurrection, has opened to us new life. For others, it was the culmination of a much greater pilgrimage. At the Paschal Vigil, the Church, having retold the narrative by which she came to be, becomes new again in Christ. The new fire is blessed, the new light of the Paschal Candle is honoured with the great love song of the Exsultet, the presence of Christ is restored to the tabernacle after the days of the Sacred Triduum: all of this points to the utter difference that is made for us in our life in Christ, as a result of that first Easter. Thus it is fitting that this is also the time when the Church creates new Christians. With the blessing of the font, the Paschal Candle is plunged three times into the waters to symbolize the fecundity of this womb of the Church, and those who have been preparing for Holy Baptism are initiated into the life of Christ through the solemn and irreversible gift of baptism, that opens for the individual the gift of eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.
The days of the Easter Octave retain a special character throughout the Roman Rite. This is true of both the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form, and also of Divine Worship: The Missal, which preserves this sacred time in accordance with ancient practice, whilst also making use of certain Anglican translations and practices.
Overview of the Easter Octave
If the Paschal Vigil is “the mother of all vigils,” then the Easter Octave is to be considered the mother of all octaves. Its origins predate even those of the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord, of the Epiphany, and of Pentecost, and of course those of later feasts such as Corpus Christi. Blessed Ildefonso Schuster goes so far as to say that the octave “was characteristic of the Easter festivities.” Dom Prosper Guéranger says, with equal eloquence, “So ample and so profound is the mystery of the glorious Pasch, that an entire week may well be spent in its meditation.” With an overview of its associated practices, we can see how right they are.
In the traditional ceremony for the opening of the Holy Door at the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome, the Holy Father struck the sealed door three times with a small silver hammer. Having been walled shut since the conclusion of the previous Holy Year, the masonry was then removed in one go, by means of an elaborate pulley system, before the door frame itself was sprinkled with lustral water. Only then would the pilgrims, led by the Holy Father, pass through the door and into the Basilica Church, often on their knees and kissing the door on the way.
The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, which we heard in the gospel last Sunday, fundamentally concerns the Most Holy Eucharist. The abundance of food given to those gathered with the Lord and his apostles near Bethsaida is a sign of the super-abundant and super-substantial gift of the Lord himself, his very own body and blood, given to us in Holy Communion. By this miracle—as by those which preceded it under the old testament—the Lord softens the heart of man to receive the true food, the bread of angels, the Most Holy Eucharist, which sustains us on our pilgrimage to heaven. By providing for the natural nourishment of those who have sought him out he shows how, by the fruits of his sacrificial love on the cross, he will provide also for the supernatural nourishment; that feeds the soul, and which gives his people the grace to become more and more like him.
What would you give to convert one soul to Christ? This weekend a young married couple I know are attending a retreat during which they will find out where they are to be sent for two weeks of missionary work somewhere here in the United States. They will go with just the clothes they have on—no food or money—and they will rely on the generosity (please God) of parishioners and others for their wellbeing as they go about the task of evangelization; of taking the good news of the Gospel to others.
What would you give to convert one soul to Christ? Yesterday I baptized a beautiful newly born baby girl. Her young parents are in the process of moving from the area to become teachers in a Catholic school on the other side of the country; one which has a vibrant life of faith, with the reverent celebration of the sacraments and good formation in the virtues for the students. They have not yet bought their first home, and yet in a few days they will nevertheless pack up their belongings and their daughter and head to their new lives; setting out to build a home and a family in which Christ is truly the head of the household, and to teach young people about the joy of knowing the Lord and living by his precepts.
By laudable custom, each time we enter a church building we take holy water from a place by the door and with it trace upon our bodies the sign of the life-giving cross. Two things are significant about this outwardly simple gesture. First, we do it to remind ourselves of the saving power of that cross; of the effects of the sacrifice of Christ on that cross which, through baptism—our own ritual cleansing with water—we have now inherited. Secondly, we make this act of reverence as we come into the church from the world. We move to the sacred from the profane, literally turning our backs on the world and orienting ourselves toward the dwelling-place of the Lord our God.
Throughout these weeks of Easter we begin our celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with an act of penitence, recalling the baptism which has united those of us who are called “Christian” with the very person of Christ. By our sprinkling with holy water and the words of the chant of the Vidi aquam, we are reminded of the cleansing from sin which is the fruit of baptism, by which the guilt of original sin is taken from us and the life of Christ implanted. In baptism we have become one in Christ’s mystical body, the Church, and are literally incorporated into his life; caught up in the selfless relationship of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity recalled in the very formula used to administer the sacrament: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.
In the various calendars in use across the Latin Church this day is known variously as Low Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, the Second Sunday of Easter, Quasimodo Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday, the Octave Day of Easter, and Dominica in albis or, to give its full name, Dominica in albis depositis. This latter title recalls the custom that today, at the conclusion of the Easter octave, those who were baptized at the Paschal Vigil would lay aside for the first time the white robes with which they had been clothed during the sacred ceremonies last Sunday. As is the case now, the practice of the ancient Church was to clothe the newly baptized in a white garment, both as an outward sign of the Christian dignity, and as an admonition to carry the life of Christ always without stain. The gift of this physical robe furthermore acts as a token of the gift of everlasting life which, through the cleansing waters of the font, has been given.