In Your Midst
The Joy Of Awakening: Easter At St. James
April 99

Easter Vigil At. St. James
St. James gathers for the Easter Vigil with our Elect
Photo by Randall Corcoran, 1994
Easter has a rich history of rituals. For hundreds of years, people in cathedrals and cities around the world have recited prayers, sung songs, and created ceremonies at Easter time, both to reenact the great Easter events and also to try to understand them. Many of these traditions come to life at St. James Cathedral each year. Our Lent, Holy Week, and Easter resound with song and prayer made rich by the faith of Christians over the centuries.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday. The traditional highlight of this day has always been a procession, a joyful parade to mark Jesus' triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. In many places, the Palm Sunday procession took over the entire town; long lines of parishioners festooned with palms, sang their way through the town gates and up and down the streets to the church steps. Years later, with the exception of the donkeys and costumed apostles who were invariably part of the parade, it is still this way. Our Palm Sunday, too, starts outside the Cathedral. We hear the story, collect our palms and have them blessed, and then begin our own procession across the street and down the sidewalk into church. The choir leads the way with horns and drums, singing "Hosanna."

As Holy Week moves on, the mood becomes somber. The Office of Tenebrae, traditionally celebrated mornings and evenings during the week, turns the focus from celebration to death. The Tenebrae dates back to the 7th or 8th century. It is a ceremony of shadows, the slow extinguishing of all the lights and candles in the Cathedral until we are left in darkness. We hear Christ's lament, "Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help."

Yet Holy Thursday is hopeful again. The evening mass marks Jesus' Passover supper with his disciples. It also begins the Easter Triduum, the three days which end in Easter evening and form the center of our year, three days in which we balance grieving and joy. We celebrate the gift of the Eucharist this evening. And then, we seek help with two of the more difficult things we are asked to do. We ask to learn to serve others, truly and humbly as Christ served, washing the feet of his friends. And we ask for reconciliation, remembering that we have all betrayed, have all disappointed.

At midnight, the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the church. The altar is stripped, crosses and icons shrouded. It is Friday. For as long as anyone can remember, a Good Friday Liturgy has commemorated the passion and death of Jesus.

The service itself is simple: celebration of the word as the story of Christ's passion and death is read and sung; veneration of the cross, another ritual that goes back centuries to a time when believers lined up to kiss pieces of the real cross; and finally, another old ritual made new just the night before, communion. Despite the rituals, we're not quite sure what to do. It's as if a friend, who was doing well with an illness, suddenly took a turn for the worse and died. We don't believe it. Things looked fine, even just last night. We don't know how everything could have ended like this.

But of course, it doesn't end in tragedy. Saturday, Easter Eve, is our vigil day: we wait, knowing that somehow we'll be comforted. Years ago, penitents, who had fasted through Lent, were sent home forgiven on Holy Saturday to feast. Converts and babies were baptized outside the church. And the celebration of Easter began that night, the church awaking into light as the Paschal candle was lighted and Christ's resurrection proclaimed. People leaving the church took home thin tapers, still lit, to relight the fires they had put out the day before in their hearths. Bonfires illuminated the hillsides of the great cathedrals all night. It was said that those who waited up might see angels in the first light of Easter dawn.

And then the sun is up. It's all over; it turned out well, better than we could have hoped. And everything is glorious: the choir finally sings free, as if their hearts had been broken all this time. Gold and white vestments glitter in the sun shining down on the altar. Sunlight glitters through the saints on the windows. We sing "Alleluia" again and again.

Mary Bourguignon is a parishioner and a principal at Cedar River Associates, a public policy consulting firm. She is an active religious education volunteer at St. James Cathedral.


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