Saturday, April 19, 2014

"He descended into hell"

A good number of people – including young families with children - turned out this morning for the traditional Blessing of Easter Food. I do it every year immediately after the morning Office of Holy Saturday. It says something about the importance of food in people’s lives – and the still surviving appeal of this traditional custom – that so many would be willing even to sit through the Office of Tenebrae just for a 5-minute Blessing of Easter Food at the end! That’s one of the reasons I do the Blessing then – precisely to encourage more people to attend Holy Saturday morning’s Tenebrae, an Office which contemplates Christ's descent among the dead (photo), which we routinely and probably unreflectively profess in the Apostles' Creed. It is an Office which (even in its modern form) I especially love, but which I would be the first to acknowledge is certainly an acquired taste!

In The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote of Holy Saturday Tenebrae: "The Night Office of this day is bewildering. The confusion of sorrow and joy is so complex that you never know where you are. The responsories might have been composed by James Joyce. All the associations of terms and symbols are thrown into confusion. One responsory starts out with Jerusalem ... and you are all set to be glad, and you are told to mourn. Then in the end, speculatively, you find that you are saved. This is the product of the historical circumstances through which the Holy Saturday liturgy has passed"

Writing on April 15, 1949, Merton was obviously referring to the then still unreformed Holy Saturday liturgy. Of that peculiar state of affairs, Philip J. Goddard (himself no great fan of our contemporary Holy Week liturgy) has written: "Over the course of time the most important liturgical function of the entire year had become, so far as the faithful were concerned, merely a series of arcane and largely incomprehensible rites carried out very early in the morning by the clergy in churches empty of all except the odd liturgical enthusiast. It also involved the anomaly of celebrating the first Mass of Easter before the formal conclusion of Lent at midday. It is something of a wonder that this indefensible state of affairs was allowed to continue for so many centuries before the celebration of the Vigil was restored to its proper time." (Festa Paschalia: A History of the Holy Week Liturgy in the Roman Rite, 2011, p. 278).
It may have been an "indefensible state of affairs," but it has certainly left its mark on the character of Holy Saturday. Pius XII's 1955 reform aimed at setting that all right again, but of course, human behavior is hard to change. The new rubrics were dutifully observed, and more people attended the restored Vigil than had in the past (and probably more than do so now). But the idea of Holy Saturday as an "aliturgical" day never really caught on. The Easter Vigil, which was theoretically supposed to end with a Mass starting at about midnight, was widely anticipated at the earliest legally allowable hour (as early as 6:30 in one cathedral in the 1960s). This was especially convenient for those reluctant to be out late at night (even in an era when people were still flocking in great numbers to Christmas Mass at midnight). Also it meant that decorating churches with elaborate Easter floral arrangements could be done late Saturday evening instead of sometime after midnight.But it created the idea - or rather reinforced the existing older idea - that the Easter Vigil was a liturgy of Saturday rather than the first liturgy of Easter Sunday.

It is quite clear in the current (post-1969) rite that Holy Saturday is the second day of the "Easter Triduum," and that the Easter Vigil is part of Easter Sunday, the third day of the Triduum. But that too seems to be a well-kept secret for many. And it hardly helps that, in the current, now twice-reformed rite, the Vigil has really become somewhat vestigial, and the ceremony appears to all intents and purposes as just an extra-long Saturday evening Mass. Meanwhile, even among the devoutly observant, Holy Saturday - far from being the day of prayer and fasting, focused on Christ's burial and descent among the dead, that the Roman Missal enjoins - has become a day of feverish activity in anticipation of Easter. By rights, the church should remain bare until the Gloria, when the bells are rung and the statues uncovered. In fact, however, in most places the statues have been uncovered and the church festooned with flowers since sometime Saturday morning. It was eminently understandable, of course, back when the Lenten fast was taken so much more seriously, that people were eager to anticipate Easter a day early. And, despite the effective abandonment of authentic Lenten fasting, that same mindset still seems to survive even to today.
So this morning - after dutifully celebrating the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer in the church, at which we heard the wonderful ancient homily depicting Christ's descent to the domain of the dead - I immediately shifted gear and joined my dedicated parish volunteers in a morning of festive decorating, complete with cookies and coffee.

It is, as I said in this space last year, a very strange day indeed - but wonderful in its own way!

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