Fri 22 Apr, 2011
Our Sister Lenora Black, OSB shares her thoughts on carrying the light from the paschal candle out into the world and using Easter’s fire to dispel the darkness:
In the small town of Watkins Glen in upstate New York, something new and exciting was about to take place.
It was the night before Easter of 1952, and inside St. Mary’s Church, a parish of some 300 families, expectations ran high while we awaited instructions concerning the liturgy that was about to begin. As a recent convert thirsting for new liturgical experiences, I had heard much in Rochester, New York, about the pastor, Fr. Benedict Ehmann, who had long taught theology and music in Rochester, so I decided to travel 160 miles to be at St. Mary’s for this great “First Night.”
Fr. Damasus Winzen, OSB, founder of Mount Savior monastery near Elmira, New York, and Fr. Ehmann were two of the leaders in liturgical reform before Vatican II. They had arranged to be among the first few in the United States to celebrate the new Easter Vigil liturgy approved by Pope Pius XII in 1951. Since this was before our age of instant communication, and the new liturgy was not yet available in print, they had the entire text cabled to them personally from Rome. Fr. Ehmann instructed us to leave the church and gather outside in silence around the large pile of wood that had been arranged there. The street had been closed to traffic, and the darkness and silence were palpable.
Having participated in the old early morning Holy Saturday services, I was familiar with the fire symbolism. However, the former lighting of a three-branched candle was pale preparation for the bonfire we were about to light. Rubrics for this new rite directed: “A ‘blazing fire’ (rogus ardens) is to be prepared so that the people may gather around it and experience the flames dispelling the darkness and lighting up the night. Thus do the beauty of the fire, its warmth and its light, draw the liturgical assembly together.”
No Easter Vigil that I have experienced in the nearly sixty years since that night has come near the power of that small-town celebration. Rarely is the darkness as complete as it was then, when the great fire gloriously lit up the night, and we all felt its warmth. Whatever form our personal darkness may take, it is good to recall the power of the paschal light to dispel it. In a third century text attributed to Hippolytus we read:
Dark death is destroyed and life is restored everywhere. The gates of heaven are open… The paschal light is the bright new lamp-light, light that shines from the virgins’ lamps. The light in the soul will never go out. The fire of grace burns in us all, spirit, divine, in our bodies and in our souls, fed with the oil of Christ.*
It takes faith to believe that “the fire of grace burns in us all” when we feel overwhelmed by darkness, but the Easter fire is not an ordinary bonfire that we just stand around, enjoying its beauty and warmth. From the new fire the celebrant lights the paschal candle and prays: “May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” May it, indeed.
From the paschal candle we light our small candles to hold while the triumphant Exsultet rings out, extolling in rich symbolism the Light that is Christ. This joyful hymn traces the history of God’s people from Adam’s sin to the Passover feast and Israel’s liberation from slavery. It is our Passover also, “when Christ, the true Lamb is slain.” On this holy night God freed the people of Israel from their slavery and led them dry-shod through the sea.
We can never completely escape the tyranny of cultural pressures surrounding us, and the voices within that would seduce us with power, prestige, possessions and all their pernicious progeny. But:
This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement are restored to grace and grow together in holiness. Lest we be tempted to believe that our faults and sins have robbed us of redemption, we listen attentively to those grace-laden words, O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer.
It is only when we have experienced our personal limitations and weaknesses, and been unable to rise above them by our efforts alone, that we truly appreciate the redemption gained for us by Christ. In the joy of that recognition we can join our voices gratefully and wholeheartedly in this glorious hymn of praise:
The power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy; it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride.
When the paschal candle disappears from the sanctuary, we are the ones who must carry its light forth in our hearts, praying in the final words of the Exsultet:
May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning: Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all humankind, your Son who lives and reigns forever and ever.
* A Triduum Sourcebook, edited by Gabe Huck and Mary Ann Simcoe, Liturgy Publications, Chicago, 1983, p. 73.
(originally published in Spirit&Life magazine, March-April 2011)
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.