An Introduction to the liturgy and practices of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter
School of Prayer and Study
(ForThe Anglican Church in Greece and the Anglican Diocese of Cameroon
An Introduction to the liturgy and practices of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter
Revd. Canon Leonard Doolan
Senior Chaplain of the Anglican Church in Greece; Apokrisiarios of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece; Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Cameroon.
This short booklet is intended to help the reader to have a greater understanding of the richness of this season; its liturgies and practices; to give a brief overview, not a detailed and exhaustive history. The hope is that it will enhance your worship, and maybe explain a little more about why we do certain things. It certainly is intended to encourage the reader to engage with and experience as much of this season as possible. The whole season revolves around the mystery of Christ’s passion and resurrection, but there are liturgical ways in which we express this, and the booklet seeks to describe some of this.
It is only in the last 50 or so years that the Church of England has been developing its liturgies for parish use. Up until Common Worship in the year 2000 the Book of Common Prayer determined official liturgical use. Those who were more exotic in their taste turned to Roman manuals for other material. Rich in its language and much loved in English culture, nonetheless BCP was restricted – restricted by the very thing that makes it beautiful, namely its old English, but also by the efforts of the Reformation itself to eradicate certain practices that were unacceptable at the time.
The Army chaplains of the First World War were the first to realize how inflexible the Prayer Book was as they ministered to dying men in the trenches of Northern Europe. More contemporary language was needed; pastoral flexibility in extremis was desirable. 1928 saw the first real attempt to revise the book that had determined how the Church of England worshipped. This failed to get approval in Parliament. The 1950’s saw the Parish Communion movement emerge, and there was need for different ways to express both the shape and structure of our worship, and the finer details of liturgical seasons.
With Vatican II coming along there was also greater co-operation between the Roman Catholic and Anglican (along with Methodists and URC) liturgical scholars, and the Church of England was becoming a more ‘liturgical beast’ wishing to rediscover things in the different seasons of the church’s year, especially the seasons that revolve most tightly around our Lord’s life, namely the Incarnation and the Resurrection (known better to us as Christmas and Easter). We were encouraged to think of seasons, or cycles, and not individual feasts. So there emerged the ‘incarnation cycle’ comprising Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (with all its wonderful themes of manifestation of God’s glory in Jesus, unity, mission.) The other great cycle is that of the resurrection, including Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and the Great Fifty Days that embrace Ascension and Pentecost.
For the development of the way we celebrated the Eucharist along came Series 1, 2 and 3; Then the ASB (1980), and ultimately Common Worship (2000). Accompanying developments in shape and text for the eucharist and other important services in the life of the church ‘resource books’ were published, principally The Promise of his Glory, Lent Holy Week and Easter, Celebrating Festivals, and Patterns for Worship. The publication Times and Seasons has brought together much of the material in these other books
These resource books present the church with bits of texts, freshly and refreshingly created, that allowed the worship leader to ‘put together’ family services to mark special occasions and the like. Other developments however were digging deep into the seams of the ancient liturgies that had all but been obscured by the reformers in 16th century England.
It is likely that much of what we do liturgically in this very important season of Lent, Holy week and Easter is not deeply embedded in the Anglican psyche and practice, and for the reasons expressed above, much of what I describe is not used in every parish context. I hope however that by offering this short and simple guide to the treasures of this season more people will feel confident about it and feel encouraged to participate more deeply in the beauty of these liturgies.
Much could be said here, but the only source I will highlight is The Journey of Etheria (sometimes called Egeria). This is an extant source of a pilgrimage undertaken by a woman towards the end of the 4th century AD. She travelled from Western Europe via Constantinople to Jerusalem. She charts her journey and describes what she experiences as Christian practice in that holy city, the city where the great Cyril of Jerusalem was bishop. Cyril has been of particular influence on the shape of our baptismal (initiation) rites, and we still have copy of the lectures he gave to baptism candidates, both before and after they had been baptized.
The liturgies as described by Etheria, illustrate a very mobile style of worship. Those who like using parts of a church for various sections of the liturgy, or for ‘mood setting’ would be in their element.
This was only possible because at the beginning of Etheria’s century Empress St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, had travelled to Rome with the blessing of her son and the Pope, Sylvester. (By the way, Evelyn Waugh wrote a lovely book, simply called Helena, which you might read if this interests you; published by Penguin). On the sites where there were important happenings in the drama of Our Lord’s life, Helena built significant basilicas (churches). These marked out the sites of, for example, the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, his Crucifixion and burial (Holy Sepulchre Church) and the place of the Ascension.
So by the 4th century Christians in Jerusalem were able to celebrate Holy Week and in particular the Triduum (means 3 days; Holy Thursday, Holy Friday, and Holy Saturday or Easter Ceremonies).
Much of the liturgy that we now use in Holy week has its origins in the practices that Etheria encountered. Our own liturgical development has therefore been able to dig deep into these ancient practices, and we have been able to share in what the eastern and western churches (Orthodox and Catholic) have been doing for centuries. There is always a danger that in such things we become liturgical archaeologists, only looking backwards, but there are times when in ‘proclaiming the gospel afresh in every generation’ we look to the life-giving elements that shaped the foundations of our past. Etheria’s description of 4th century worship in Jerusalem has a great influence on how our own liturgies have developed.
A day on which we ‘Remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus’. The ash reminds us of our frailty and mortality, and our capacity to sin and therefore our need of repentance. Shrove Tuesday was more than just a pancake day – it was a day to be shriven, to make a confession.
The ash comes from burning the palm crosses blessed the previous year and gathered in again. There is something quite moving about the ‘circle of life’ in this practice. Every Ash Wednesday recalls the previous year’s Palm Sunday and we are caught up in the sweep of this.
Receiving the cross of Christ’s passion on the forehead resonates also with the cross placed there at baptism. It is etched not just on our foreheads, but burned deep into our hearts. Liturgy on 6th March at 10.00hrs with Imposition of Ashes
First, read Mark 1,12 and 13, then Matthew 4, 1-11
Forty days and forty nights
Thou wast fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights
Tempted and yet undefiled.
‘This is probably the most popular and widely used Lent hymn in the Church of England, and Anglicans are very much influenced – if sometimes unconsciously – by the hymns they sing. The frequent singing of this hymn has done much to encourage the widespread idea that Lent is supposed to be observed as a deliberate imitation of our Lord’s forty days in the wilderness after his baptism, and that is why it came into being. The most that can be said is that this factor had some influence in determining the length of Lent, for there was a great deal of variation over this in the early days; it had nothing to do with its institution. To find the real significance of Lent we have to study its liturgy.’ (Greenacre p9 – see small bibliography at the end).
Here then is the salutary warning that nothing is to be gained by trying to calculate how many days are actually in Lent!
Lent has been a moveable number of days, dictated by forces not overly connected with the 40 days referred to in the gospel. The reference to 40 days is most likely connected to the biblical parallels of the people of the first covenant being in exile for 40 years, and 40 is a very biblical number.
(How many days and nights did it rain at the time of Noah? How many years in the exile? How many days after Easter does St. Luke calculate the Ascension of our Lord?)
It is quite clear that the gospels do not connect in any way chronologically the forty days our Lord spent in the wilderness, and the drama that begins to unfold when he enters the city of Jerusalem riding a donkey.
The early church, and certainly the church in Jerusalem in the time of Etheria had established a period of time in which Christians denied themselves (fasting etc); and in which new followers of the faith, called variously neophytes, catechumenoi were prepared for the great sacrament of baptism. At this time baptism was administered at the Easter ceremonies, connecting baptism with the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. See Romans 6, 3-4 for example.
In the Byzantine Rite of the Orthodox the Lenten period was used as a time for fasting, and for exorcisms, and was the culmination of a period as long as three years of preparation for baptism! In their tradition Lent lasted from between three to six weeks. In time both Rome and Constantinople came to observe the forty day period, and of course excluded the Sundays from Lent. So it was six weeks in length, each week consisting of six fasting days. (see Wybrew p11).
In our own Anglican tradition we have tended to use Lent as a period of ‘giving up’ something, but the original intention was of thorough fasting, and of baptismal training. Nowadays there is more encouragement to read a book especially fitting for the season, or to join a study group; there may be a simple Lent lunch on a weekly basis, and perhaps a special charitable collection for the money one would have spent on a main meal that day. All these things are of value, but we should be paying attention always to where God is calling us in our keeping of this season, and how are we ultimately changed and prepared for Easter by what we do in our practice or devotions.
There are a few things we might do give Lent a greater significance.
- Pay attention to the Sunday gospel readings
- Develop a regime (a duty and a joy) of praying daily (use of the Morning and Evening short booklet)
- Attend devotions particular to the season (eg the hour of Silent Prayer or a bible study)
- More regular fasting
- Confession (see Holy Oils)
Greenacre in his book suggests that the key to understanding Lent more fully is to regard the themes of the Sundays in Lent. The Byzantine Rite is more prescribed than we are, for example Lent 4 is always the parable of the Tax Collector, and Lent 5 the parable of the Prodigal Son. Nonetheless in the Anglican lectionary the gospels merit special attention during Lent. They will direct us to penitence, to sacrifice, and eventually to the suffering of our Lord. If you can join a Lectio Divina group it is worth studying the gospels and praying about them in advance of hearing them each Sunday.
We are urged to pray frequently and fervently, but often we don’t know how to begin doing so. There is a huge gulf between just throwing out a spontaneous prayer to God in desperation and experiencing ‘God in prayer’. The answer is to set up a daily discipline of prayer time, and to become so familiar in the practice that a genuine spirituality of prayer can develop. In the parish we have supplied a simple form of Prayer for Morning and Evening. If used frequently the format will allow you to relax into the rhythm of the simple pattern set before you, and daily prayer will become an enhancing part of your daily life – a time when we can both draw comfort (strength) from knowing God in prayer, but also channel our frustrations and failures in a positive way.
Stations of the Cross (available in some churches)
This may be more known to you as something that Roman Catholics do as a devotion in Lent, but that need not deter us from benefitting from the principles that ‘Stations’ offer. The foundation of Stations is the Christian practice of Pilgrimage. No Christian denomination has a monopoly on this, so we as Anglicans can enthusiastically join in.
The liturgy that was experienced by Etheria in 4th century Jerusalem allowed the faithful to travel around the city to worship in certain’ holy places’ that had a sanctity, a holiness, to them. Their worship was pilgrimage. If you go to Jerusalem today you will see many pilgrims doing just that – they follow a route that might well have been taken by our Lord through the narrow streets of the city (holy imagination is needed as the city of Jesus’ day is a few feet beneath the modern pilgrim). However many people get a real sense of travelling with our Lord to his cross.
Many people, of course, were unable to travel to Jerusalem to undertake this spiritual journey; some having made the journey felt the need to recreate what they had experienced; and so ‘Stations of the Cross’ became part of church furnishings in some places, and the Lenten devotion flourished. Some Anglican churches have ‘Stations’ on the wall, some just crosses, others use pictures that are put up temporarily just for this time.
Times and Seasons (one of the publications of Common Worship) allows for Stations to be part of our Anglican keeping of Lent, but in the real spirit of pilgrimage, also allows for Stations of the Resurrection. Pilgrimage is a powerful motivation in human life, and in Christian practice.
This is not noticeably a strong feature in the way Anglicans keep Lent though it is a feature in African practice. Yet, for many, fasting is an integral part of celebrating a major time of rejoicing, by way of preparation. Orthodox Christians have scores of fasting days in their calendar, and Roman Catholics have always observed Friday as a day of discipline, and certainly some Roman Catholics will not eat meat on a Friday, others take their fasting even more seriously.
I am always deeply moved and impressed by fellow Anglicans in Africa and the importance they place on fasting. Many of them would be thankful for one meagre meal a day, yet they find the discipline of fasting an essential part of prayer, and as a preparation for some important event.
‘Fasting is a person’s whole body, natural response to life’s sacred moments. Because fasting is natural it is found in all the great world religions and philosophies. Unfortunately, fasting is the most misunderstood of the Christian spiritual disciplines.’ (Mc Knight page xiv).
Mc Knight goes on to identify fasting as: an act for others; a sacred rhythm and a discipline; as an inner resolution. If we are to continue to associate the Forty days of our Lord’s wilderness with our keeping of Lent, then his fasting is an aspect of Lent we must all pay more heed to.
‘Brothers and sisters in Christ: since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of our Lord’s passion and resurrection. It became the custom of the Church to prepare for this by a season of penitence and fasting.
At first this season of Lent was observed by those who were preparing for Baptism at Easter and by those who were to be restored to the church’s fellowship from which they had been separated through sin. In course of time, the Church came to recognize that, by a careful keeping of these days, all Christians might take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel, and so grow in faith and in devotion to our Lord.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self –examination and repentance; by prayer and fasting, and self denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.’ (Lent Holy Week and Easter p14)
The 4th Sunday in Lent is traditionally given this name because it marks (almost) the middle of Lent, and was a Sunday for rejoicing, hence its name. (It’s equivalent in the season of Advent is Gaudete Sunday.) This is often the Sunday when we keep Mothering Sunday when we celebrate our mothers, that notion of ‘mother church’, and Mary, the mother of our Lord. In its popular culture it is thought to have its roots in a day when children, scattered by work demands, visited their mums and traditionally took flowers. Simnel cake is traditionally consumed on this day, emphasizing through food the context of fasting that surrounds this day. In churches where they have them, pink vestments are used on this Sunday.
This is the name we give to the Sunday before Palm Sunday. (Note that Roman Catholics call Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday). For us it is that Sunday in Lent where the theme is everything – we are directed towards the cross, and our Lord’s suffering. On this Sunday we also have a rich feast of Passiontide hymns. These are quite distinct in mood – O sacred head sore wounded; My song is love unknown; The royal banners forward go. These and many more direct our attention, within the general Lenten themes, towards the Passion of our Lord. It can be accompanied by very moving Passion-tide services of lessons, hymns and anthems to prepare us for what will happen the following Sunday when the drama of Holy Week begins.
This is the start of the week. The liturgies in this week are distinct from anything we do on other Sundays and holy days. We are back with the experience of Etheria in Jerusalem. We are alongside our Lord in the week of his passion, crucifixion, death, and we await the joy of resurrection. Liturgy on April 14th at 10.15hrs with outside procession.
Read Matthew 21, 1-11.
There are 2 gospels set for the liturgy of Palm Sunday. That is unusual in itself. The first belongs to the Commemoration of the Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem. This lends itself to pilgrimage, or journey. The gospel begs us not to be sitting still in rows of pews or huddled in chairs, but to get up and do something. Many will start outside and this part of the liturgy of the day will begin the procession from another point into the church – it is also public witness.
Palm branches will be blessed, but here we may have some discretion. I can remember one year when I was on some study leave, being present in Montcuq, in the Lot Valley, for the Mass of Passion Sunday, and instead of crosses made of palm leaves, the congregation brought from their own gardens branches of box. At the end of Mass they made their way home through the Sunday market breaking off pieces of the box branches to give to family and friends who had not attended Mass. It was inviting and inclusive. Similarly, in Greece on the feast of the Commemoration of the True Cross (Sept 14th) I saw worshippers handing out bunches of basil that had been blessed at the Liturgy. Going back to Empress St. Helena, the only way to discover the True Cross on Golgotha, was to dig beneath the wild basil that was growing there – ‘basil’ comes from the Greek word for ‘king’. The point I am making is that local greenery could be used on Palm Sunday if the practice of handing our palm crosses seems too ‘artificial’.
The second of the gospels is the first full reading of a Passion Narrative in this Holy Week. The other occasion will be Good Friday. Often this is presented in dramatic form with a number of dramatis personae.
Many churches will use the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after Palm Sunday to focus on the events that happen with our Lord in the days after his arrival in Jerusalem. But we are essentially waiting for things to ‘kick off’.
Maundy Thursday Liturgy at 20.00hrs on 18th April. (Preacher: Archdeacon Colin)
In many traditions this day is known as Holy Thursday. ‘Maundy’ resonates particularly with British Christians because of the tradition of the monarch handing out the ‘Maundy money’.
The origin of this, however, is quite different, and goes back to the Gospel of John, who on this particular day of the week prefers not to narrate the words of our Lord at his Last Supper which resonate for us the sacrament of the eucharist, but instead relates to us an action that ‘sacramentalizes’ the service of one person to another.
At the supper John 13, tells of our Lord washing the feet of his disciples. After this he tells them, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 1, 34-35). This new commandment ‘novum mandatum’ is what the word ‘maundy’ comes from. At one time the monarch used to wash the feet of commoners. Sadly now it is just a gift of money. The washing of feet by the monarch would be a more powerful sign of service, and an example of humility that would more than humble those who have assumed too great an influence on our society.
In most dioceses now there is the custom of having what is called in some circles the Chrism Mass. At this 2 pertinent actions take place.
- Clergy renew their vows of ordination.
- The Oils are consecrated (blessed) by the bishop.
It is a highly appropriate occasion for the clergy to consider their calling, and to renew their vows of ordination, for this is a day when we recall our Lord as the ‘Servant King’. Bishops, priests and deacons all renew their ‘original’ vocation to serve the one who came, not to be served, but to serve. There is a connectedness between the vows taken at this liturgy and the evening liturgy where clergy will be washing the feet of fellow Christians. It is an occasion when we are also reminded of the place of the bishop as the principal minister of the sacraments, and the chief pastor of the diocese.
There are three oils to be consecrated.
- The Oil of the Sick (Infirmarum)
- The Oil of the Catechumens (Baptism)
- The Oil of Chrism
These oils are to be used in everyday parish ministry. Oils are used in the Old Testament and the New. They are outward signs of God’s presence in healing, of anointing, and of ‘setting apart’ in baptism (ie. of giving someone a ‘new dignity’).
The Oil of the Sick will be used at Healing Services, or at the bedside of someone who is ill or dying. This used to be known as Extreme Unction, and may well be used at death, or near to the point of death. However, this oil is now offered in the spirit of reconciliation and wholeness, so even when it is administered at the point of death, it is done so in the assurance that we are healed even in death, for Christians believe that in death life is not taken away but transformed. This perhaps should be called the Oil of Wholeness, as this is how it is frequently used.
The Oil of the Catechumens, or the Oil of Baptism. The origins of this oil lie deep in the practice of exorcism. In the early church exorcisms were an integral part of the whole process of preparing for baptism, and in the baptismal rite itself. In our present day baptismal rites exorcism is only scantly observed, a rump of how it was. This is probably because it is pastorally, and humanely difficult to emphasize a baby’s ‘original sin’ in a culture that would prefer to emphasize original innocence.
At this point, as we consider sin and exorcism, we should mention Confession. The Sacrament of Penance, as it was once called, is scarcely used in the Church of England, though it is allowed for in the 39 Articles of Religion (by another name). Penance became important in the life of the church in the 3rd and 4th centuries because of persecutions. Many Christians recanted of their faith under threat of suffering, but when all was calm again what was to be done? Many asked to be baptized again. The church had to wrestle with this issue. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in North Africa, had, as it were, the final say on this matter. Re-baptism is not possible. In place of it Confession and Absolution was encouraged as a sacramental way of ‘rehabilitating’ a lapsed believer.
Nowadays the origin of Confession has been slightly lost. In some ecclesiastical cultures it has become a bit too mechanical – in others it has almost died on the branch.
Many adults now seek some way of affirming a faith that has been dormant since the time of baptism and seek a re-baptism. Some denominations are happy with this, but others who adhere to a more traditional catholic heritage are most uncomfortable with re-baptism. Renewal of Baptismal Promises has become a popular way of addressing this, but maybe some regard to Confession would play some part in reconciling some people ‘back into the fold’. Many Anglican priests are happy to hear Confessions.
The Oil of Chrism is the one used principally in the bishop’s ministry of Confirmation, and of Ordination, though some priests will use the Oil of Chrism after someone has been baptized,so although technically Confirmation has not taken place, Chrismation has. It is the oil that represents sacramentally the Holy Spirit.
In the evening of Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday) our celebration resonates with the Last Supper. The biblical evidence does not quite serve a common purpose in terms of whether this supper was a Passover or not. I do not intend to use this booklet to argue one way or the other.
At the Last Supper our Lord offers to his church the ‘words of institution’. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke relate this to us (though Luke adds his own idiosyncracy to the proceedings- see Luke 22,14 and following, then compare it to Mark 14, 22-15, and Matthew 26, 26-30.
In addition, John’s gospel tells us of our Lord washing the feet of his disciples – John 13, 1-11. This washing of feet has more recently become part of the Maundy Thursday Liturgy.
At this Liturgy the Gloria is sung again – the first time since before Ash Wednesday, and in some churches bells are rung or whistles blown at the start of the Gloria to mark its return. It won’t be said or sung again for three more days.
In some churches, and according to ancient liturgical practice, at the end of the Maundy Thursday Liturgy the Eucharistic breads are carried with ceremony to an altar elsewhere in the church, which will be festooned as a garden and full of candles. This is called the Altar of Repose.
At this Altar of Repose 2 distinct things are happening liturgically. With the Sacrament (Christ’s sacramental presence) we move from the place of the Last Supper (the eucharist) to the Kidron Valley and the Garden of Gethsemane. The Altar of Repose is the representation of Gethsemane. Here people keep vigil – either to midnight or right through the night. Jesus says to his disciples ‘Could you not keep awake one hour?’ (Mark 14, 32-42). So this vigil is about keeping awake with our Lord at this vital hour.
While we move our attention to the Altar of Repose the ornaments and coverings of the sanctuary are removed – the Stripping of the Altars – and the Tenebrae are said or sung (or more usually Psalm 22).
The Eucharistic breads taken to the Altar of Repose will be the breads used for the Liturgy of the Day on Good Friday. The church is stripped of colour and dressing; the Altar of Repose has the Sacrament placed upon it; the people pray in vigil. It is highly dramatic and very moving.
The Passion Narratives of the 4 gospels, ancient discrete texts, go on to tell of the mockery of a trial, and the sufferings of our Lord at the hands of the authorities. In the Orthodox tradition all four narratives are read at the Great Thursday ceremony.
Good Friday Liturgy at 13.30hrs (Preacher: Archdeacon Colin)
We focus on the Crucifixion and on the cross. In some places Christians in an ecumenical witness will process through our towns and villages, cross carried aloft or on shoulders.
Traditionally, the eucharist is not celebrated on this day. For the Holy Communion the breads from the night before will be distributed. The old name for this was ‘the Mass of the Pre-sanctified’. Really, it is difficult to celebrate the eucharist as each eucharist is about death and resurrection. Today, talk of resurrection is premature.
In some places a Reformation practice of preaching the 3 hours takes place, and this is can be a powerful witness. In other places, there will be some preaching until the beginning of the Liturgy of the Day.
The clergy enter in silence, and in places prostrate themselves before the altar. This is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ but for those of us who do it on Good Friday it is a mighty powerful reminder of how frail humanity is, and of the cross. For the second time this week a whole Passion Narrative is read out.
This will be followed by a procession of a cross down through the church – stopping three times with these words, or similar, ‘This is the wood of the cross, on which our Redeemer hung. Come, come , let us adore; come , come let us adore, the Saviour of the World.’
The cross is then placed centrally and people come forward to pray before the cross, touch it, or kiss it. This is called The Veneration of the Cross. Not all traditions within the Anglican Church are comfortable with this, but I have witnessed a full church of people of all types of traditions movingly coming forward to acknowledge the centrality of the cross in their faith.
At the appropriate time for administering Holy Communion the Sacrament is brought from the Altar of Repose, and all is consumed. If the church has an aumbry (St. Paul’s Athens has one in the sancturary), it is at this point that the aumbry door is left open, and the light that represents the sacramental presence of Christ is extinguished. And so it is throughout Holy Saturday until the Resurrection is proclaimed, and the first Eucharist of Easter is celebrated.
The empty aumbry is a powerful sign that Christ is not present in OUR world – he has died, and he has gone to redeem even Hell itself. If everything is not redeemed, including Hell, then Christ has not fulfilled his universal task. Christians believe that he has overcome sin, death, and Hell itself. We rehearse this every time we say the Creed. It is a central evangelical truth.
Easter Vigil Liturgy at 20.00 hrs on Saturday 20th April (Preacher: Archdeacon Colin)
‘When the new fire bursts into flame in our monastery chapel, it is difficult not to feel that this Christian community here and now has suddenly reached back across twenty centuries to that moment in time when the tomb first burst open, the angels appeared, and life, for us as much as for those first visitors to the tomb, was for ever irrevocably changed. Only this time it is our life that is being saved from the inevitable decay of the world around us.’ (Chittister p158)
It is from this emptiness, this darkness, that the fullness and light of the resurrected Christ emerges. Whether this liturgy is held late on Holy Saturday night, or as the new dawn approaches on Easter morning, the whole of the Christian story is here. No other service in the whole year is able to proclaim with such economy or clarity the essence of our faith. And yet so many Christians miss out on it. It seems like our best kept secret!
In some places the liturgy begins outside, perhaps in the churchyard. The new fire is lit, and from it the paschal candle,
‘Christ yesterday and today,
the beginning and the end,
Alpha and Omega,
all time belongs to him,
and all ages;
to him be glory and power,
through every age and for ever. Amen.’
‘By his holy and glorious wounds
may Christ our Lord guard and keep us.’ (LHE p229)
Just as the cross is carried on Holy (Good) Friday, so the new paschal candle is processed, and three times we stop and sing, ‘The light of Christ; thanks be to God’.
Placed then in its candle-stand one of the ministers (where there is a deacon this is usually deacon’s ministry) an ancient song of triumph is said or sung, called the Exultet. This is followed by a series of readings from scripture as we mark our ‘salvation history’ from the beginning of time to our salvation in Christ. The resurrection is then proclaimed amidst the rejoicing of the Gloria, the singing of Alleluias, and the reading of the Resurrection gospel.
To reflect its ancient place in the Easter Liturgy baptisms can take place, but if not, then certainly the renewal of baptismal promises. This leads ultimately to the celebration of the eucharist and the sacrament is again placed in the empty aumbry and the aumbry light re-lit. The alleluias continue as we celebrate with joy the wonderful work of God in Christ.
‘This is the very center (sic) of the church. This, not the birth of a baby, is the reason we celebrate Christmas. This is the reason for all the feasts of the church. This is the place from which we all draw fire’. (Chittister p159)
As the priest says at the beginning of the Easter Liturgy,
‘Brothers and sisters in Christ, on this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus Christ passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and in prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which through word and sacrament we share in his victory over death.
As we await the risen Christ, let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, recalling how he saved his people in ages past and in the fullness of time sent his Son to be our Redeemer, and let us pray that through this Easter celebration God may bring to perfection in each of us the saving work he has begun.’ (LHE p228)
It is no wonder that Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem was able to say to his baptism candidates that at this moment in their lives the hair would be standing on the back of their necks! (φρικτός)
And now we have 50 days of Easter to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection, glorious ascenscion, and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Eastertide Liturgy 10.15hrs on Sunday 21st April (Preacher: Archdeacon Colin)
This is a fifty day period, the Great Fifty Days. During this time we read always from the Acts of the Apostles as one of the Sunday eucharist readings, for this book above all else tells of the work of the early Easter church, and the sharing of the kerygma, the proclamation of Christ crucified and raised from the dead. The proclamation was not just about sharing the good news, it is also about living the good news, for essential to the good news is the church. Alleluia’s abound in the Liturgy.
The gospel readings in this season revolve around those wonderful life-giving post resurrection narratives that speak of not seeing, then seeing; not believing then believing; being the dark, than in the light; being hidden then revealed. We read of Christ as Good Shepherd, as the early church pastors her new flock.
It is worth comparing John 20, 19-23 with the presentation St. Luke gives us. In John’s gospel the Easter event is all joined up with the Ascension and Pentecost experience. The church has followed St. Luke, with his scheme of forty days until the Ascension and fifty days from Easter for Pentecost.
There was a time when the paschal candle would have been extinguished on the feast of the Ascension – ceremonially snuffed out at the appropriate line in the Creed. This signified that the earthly Lord had gone to be with the Father. However, it is more common now, and I think preferable, that the paschal candle remains lit until after the eucharist on the day of Pentecost, as this brings this whole thrilling cycle to an end.
Books referred to:
Mc Clure and Feltoe The Pilgrimage of Etheria SPCK
This is a very old edition and more modern versions are available
Greeneacre R The Sacrament of Easter publ by the Faith Press
Wybrew H Orthodox Lent Holy week and Easter SPCK
Mc Knight S Fasting The Ancient Practices series Nelson
Chittister J The Liturgical Year The Ancient Practices Series Nelson
Lent Holy Week and Easter CHP