Easter takes place on April Fools’ Day this year, the first time this has occurred since 1945. The week leading up to Easter is known as Holy Week. It is my parish’s busiest week of the year.
There are special services each day beginning on Spy Wednesday, the day in which Judas Iscariot plotted his betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Although there will be six services on Easter, most with standing room only, I would like to share with you my favorite service of the year, the Easter Vigil.
This 3-hour service occurs on Holy Saturday and begins at 8 p.m. This ancient rite goes back to the early centuries of the church.
It begins after the sun is set and the whole campus is dark. We meet outside where there is fire prepared in a special pit designed for this annual event. I bless the Easter fire and from that fire we light the large candle known as the Paschal (Easter) Candle. This candle will be lit at every service of the 7-week Easter season and at all funerals and baptisms that take place in the church.
After my associate pastor sings, “Christ our Light,” smaller candles are lit from the Paschal candle for everyone present. Carrying the Paschal Candle, he leads us all around the church then into the entrance, while all follow in procession holding their candles. I am the last one to enter the church.
The Paschal Candle is placed on a stand next to lectern where the Scripture readings are read. Standing next to the candle, the cantor sings the Exultet, an ancient Easter hymn. Once he finishes, all put out their candles. The only light left in the church is that of the Paschal Candle.
We begin the Liturgy of the Word in darkness, with readings from Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, and Ezekiel from the Hebrew Scriptures, and Romans and Mark from the New Testament.
My introductory words to these extensive readings go as such:
“Dear brother and sisters, now that we have begun our solemn Vigil, let us listen with quiet hearts to the Word of God. Let us meditate on how God in times past saved his people and in these, the last days, has sent us his Son as our Redeemer. Let us pray that our God may complete his paschal work of salvation by the fullness of redemption.”
After all the readings are done, I deliver my talk (known as the homily) based on these Scripture readings.
The next phase in this service is the Celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation. I will be baptizing 12 candidates who have gone through an extended period of preparation know as the catechumenate.
Unlike infants whom I baptize by pouring water over their heads, I baptize these differently. I go down into the baptismal pool and one by one immerse them. The pool is the symbol of the tomb where Christ lay for three days.
The candidates descend the three steps of the pool on the side closest to the entrance of the church and, having been baptized, arise from the pool on the altar side. It symbolizes their dying and rising with Christ.
While the newly baptized are changing into dry clothes, I invite the entire congregation to renew their baptismal promises. They are then sprinkled with the very water that was used to baptize a few minutes earlier. When the newly baptized return to the main part of the church, their godparents put on them the baptismal garment, a white robe, as a sign of their new life in Christ.
Then their godparents light a baptismal candle and present it to them. Finally, I administer to them another sacrament, Confirmation, where I anoint their foreheads with an oil called chrism that had been blessed earlier in the week by Archbishop Gomez.
The initiation is not complete until these persons receive for the first time the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ. I give them the bread, and the other priests give them the cup. We believe that during this ritual of the Mass, ordinary bread becomes the body of Christ and ordinary wine becomes the blood of Christ. Their initiation into the Catholic Church is now complete.
I invite you to witness this ancient rite on Saturday, March 31. Because of its length, it is the one service at Easter that will have room for all.
Monsignor David Sork is Pastor of St. John Fisher Catholic Church, Rancho Palos Verdes. Masses are on Saturday evening at 5 p.m. and on Sunday at 7:30, 9 and 10:45 a.m., and 12:30 and 5 p.m. Monsignor Sork can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.