Saturday, April 8, 2023

West Coast Easter

For the first time in my now rather long life, I have been spending the Easter Triduum on the West Coast, in San Francisco. (Of my 75 Easters, eleven were celebrated in Knoxville, TN, five in New Jersey as a grad student, four in Washington, DC, as a seminarian, an earlier four in Wisconsin when I was a political science professor, two in Grand Rapids, MI, as a deacon, one in Morgantown, WV, as a novice, and all the rest in New York.) 

I am just old enough to remember Easter before Pope Pius XII "restored" the order of Holy Week, when the liturgical services were still all early in the morning. I can remember as a young child once attending the Mass and procession on Holy Thursday morning and then the joyful moment at noon on Holy Saturday when Lent ended and we happily ate our first Easter eggs. Pius XII's "restored" order of Holy Week encouraged my adolescent liturgical enthusiasm through the excitement of going to Mass at night (an extreme rarity in those days) and the superb drama of the pre-conciliar Easter Vigil, which was then still a real vigil followed by the ringing of the bells, the playing of the hitherto silent organ, and Mass. Those ancient rites have since been reformed and "creatively" adapted (in some cases almost beyond recognition). The ancient Easter Vigil is now just an extra long Mass. So, while I still love the Exsultet and the ringing of the bells, now that I am no longer a pastor with liturgical obligations I am quite content to miss the rest of it.

Even now, however, few experiences still inspire me more than the procession on Holy Thursday night, a Mass which functions as a sort of First Vespers for the first day of the Easter Triduum, a day which ends with the Liturgy of the Lord's Passion in the late afternoon on Good Friday. Walking through the aisles and nave of a still beautiful, mid-19th-century church this past Thursday evening, I gave thanks for the permanently abiding eucharistic presence of the Risen Christ and for my own experience of a priesthood inseparable from that presence.

Regarding Good Friday itself, I found inspiration in a written reflection in the local parish bulletin, composed by my former Assistant Novice Master, who is celebrating his Golden Jubilee of priesthood this year: "The spiritual challenge of our older years is to accept the losses small and great with patience and good humor. ... When we're older, we may not be well enough to attend church, we may not hear well enough to talk with our friends over the phone, but we can still pray for our friends, and we believe those 'Good Friday' prayers offered though our pain and tears have powerful effect."

The way the Triduum is supposed to work, we are meant to go from the overcharged liturgical and devotional activity of the Triduum's first day to the relative inactivity and silence of Holy Saturday. This is reflected in the opening paragraph of the famous ancient Holy Saturday homily on Christ's descent to the underworld, which we read in today's Office: "Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled."

In complete contradiction to the nature of Holy Saturday, however, this supposedly still middle day of the Triduum is frequently a day of paradoxically frenzied activity in most parishes, as the grandiose decorating that used to take place after the Easter Vigil has now been anticipated beforehand. Now that what is supposed to be a day of profound silence and stillness has become a busy day of over-the-top horticultural display, we are paradoxically back where we were when the Easter Vigil was celebrated early Saturday morning and the rest of Saturday took on the inexplicably anticipated appearance of an early Easter.

But I am (regretfully) no longer a parish priest, and so I need no longer wrestle with the ambiguities of the Triduum's middle day. I am again free to focus - like most ordinary Christians - on the third and grandest day of the Triduum. Like the multitudes that throng the churches (some of them seldom on most other Sundays), I look forward to the best attended and most inspiring service of the Triduum - Easter morning Mass.

Photo: Good Friday, April 7, 2023, Old Saint Mary's Cathedral, San Francisco.

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