Tonight, in the strangest of circumstances, the universal Church keeps vigil in anticipation and celebration of the Resurrection of her Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. At a time when the world seems cloaked in darkness, when every-day life is curtailed, tonight we commemorate the greatest hope there ever was, or could ever be. Our celebrations have a familiarity marked by the usual symbols of our liturgical faith. Yet at the same time they are characterized this year by something unfamiliar, even frightening. I want to reflect briefly on both.
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.
The month of May, dedicated as it is to the Blessed Virgin Mary, presents us with an opportunity to reflect upon the readiness of Our Lady to say yes to God. In the annunciation of the Lord’s will by the message of an angel, the young Mary freely and completely gave herself to God. This act we call her fiat, taken from the Latin phrase of scripture: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum; let it be done unto me according to thy word (Lk. 1:38). Mary’s yes to the Lord made possible the great act of the incarnation—the coming amongst us of the Word made Flesh; the person of Jesus Christ. Mary’s selfless act of obedience undid the selfish act of disobedience of Eve, and it is for this reason that the Fathers of the Church often call Mary the new or second Eve.
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.
For forty days and nights we have journeyed through the desert of the Season of Lent. Tonight we have reached our Promised Land. In the splendour and joy of this holy night the Church is incapable of restraint any longer, crying out Alleluia over and over again as she rejoices in the salvation brought to us by Christ her Lord. We, the Christian faithful united to Christ through a covenant sealed in his Precious Blood, are filled with that joy as we rejoice with the saints of every age and generation that Christ has saved us from ourselves. In him death is put to death; sin is itself crucified; we are freed from the slavery of our former lives and given eternal life by Christ in the kingdom of his beloved Father.
It is perhaps one of the greatest countercultural acts of Christianity to proclaim, by words and deeds, the commandment given to us by Christ in today’s Gospel. “Love one another,” the Lord instructs us. “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples.” This is a countercultural message, because the society in which we live claims on the one hand to care for others, and on the other limits the expression of the dignity of the human person in ways that not only oppose the care of the individual but also, in turn, reduces our the standing of each of us; our own worth in the eyes of our fellow man. In this we might think of some obvious examples: the objectification of the human person, and especially women, in the murky world of pornography and prostitution; the reduction of the human person to a biological entity or an object lacking any “quality of life” in the arena of abortion and euthanasia; the manipulation of the human person in the attempt to eradicate the natural complementarity of man and woman, in the realm of so-called ‘gender theory’ and in the name of sexual equality. Each of these represents a veiled attempt on the part of contemporary society to offer a rebuttal to some perceived injustice whilst failing, fundamentally and absolutely, to recognize the monumental damage that is done by these actions, not simply to the individual objects of the actions themselves, but to the dignity of the human race: the means by which we view ourselves and each other.
“Clad in his bright coat of mail, mounted on his war-steed, and spearing the dragon with his lance,—George, the intrepid champion of our Risen Jesus, comes gladdening us today with his Feast.” Thus, the great Dom Prosper Guéranger opens his commentary on this feast of our saint, known in the east as ‘The Great Martyr’, patron of many places and institutions, not least the homeland of not a few of us gathered here for this solemn celebration in his honour. In the Roman liturgy we find relatively little concerning this martyr-saint; the greater part of his cult is found in the east. Yet there are two aspects to the life of Saint George upon which we might helpfully meditate this morning.
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.
Over the course of the past week we have travelled with our blessed Lord to the gates of the city of Jerusalem; we have supped with him in the cenacle as he kept the Passover with his apostles; we have stood with his Blessed Mother at the foot of the Cross as he was brutally put to death. Now we come with raw emotion and profound joy to this celebration of new life—of perfected life—in which, through the resurrection of Christ, we are invited to share. Christ has harrowed hell! He has conquered sin! He has put death to death! As we have sung in that great victory hymn, the Easter Sequence: “Death with life contended: combat strangely ended! Life’s own champion, slain, now lives to reign.”