At the start of every celebration of the Mass we hear a short passage from scripture called the Introit, or Entrance Antiphon. The word “antiphon” is a combination of two Greek words: anti and phone, as in “gramophone.” “Anti-phone” literally means a sound in return to another sound; a kind-of call and response, and it is why the antiphons we have in the liturgy are supposed to be sung; they are responsorial texts given us by the Church in the Sacred Liturgy, to which we to make a response. That response is heard here at the Sung Mass on Sundays when we respond in a literal way by singing our response. We do something similar even when we say the Responsorial Psalm. But that outward, audible, and physical response to the text—one that often involves repeating the text over and over in order to affirm its meaning—is only part of the story. In fact, the response we are called to make to these antiphons, as with all liturgical texts, is not simply one made with our lips, but with our whole selves, with our lives. We can say that just as we sing our response, joining in our worship in the context of the liturgy, so also all that are is also called to resound with that response as a lived, real expression of what we believe and who we are in Jesus Christ. As the ancient saying goes, the law of prayer is the law belief; in other words, what we do in worship shows forth our faith.
At the heart of the great Easter Vigil, celebrated last Saturday evening, is the Blessing of the Font and the Renewal of Baptismal Promises. So important is this ritual that in this country the bishops have mandated that the Renewal of Baptismal Promises is to be repeated on Easter Sunday morning in order that those who did not attend the Easter Vigil do not miss out. As an extension of this every Sunday during the Easter Season we will begin the Sung Mass with the Rite for the Blessing and Sprinkling of Water in place of the usual Penitential Act. As we are showered with the water blessed by the Priest we recall the graces showered on us in our washing from sin in the waters of the font, and rejoice that through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, which we have just celebrated in Holy Week, we are restored to paradise and to life in God.
Almost 40 days ago we began our Lenten pilgrimage toward the great feast of Easter. We began with the dust and ash of Ash Wednesday, and we shall end with the living water and rebirth of Easter Sunday. This is a journey from death to life; from slavery to sin to true freedom in the perpetual light and beatitude—blessedness—of the heavenly kingdom. In walking this way we have followed the example of the Israelite people, who travelled for forty years through the desert from slavery to the Egyptians in a foreign land, to liberation in the Promised Land. Our journey does not take us from physical place to physical place, but it does bring us out from exile to the true Promised Land—our native land; the kingdom of heaven.
Over these weeks the gospel reading at our Sunday Mass has reflected on Christ’s ministry of healing, albeit in a variety ways. Two weeks ago we heard of the Samaritan woman at the well, offered the living water of life by Christ as the antidote to her life of sin. Last week we heard of the recovery of the sight of the man born blind; an analogy for our own cleansing from original sin. And this week we hear the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus.
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.