Postcard from the Easter Vigil

In our final postcard from 4th-century Jerusalem, St. Egeria describes the celebration of Easter, including the Octave, beginning with the Vigil. The Paschal Vigil was “held as with us,” she said, meaning that it was celebrated in Jerusalem as it was in her Latin Rite parish back home, except for the additions which she details. Egeria’s description of Lent and of the Easter Triduum gives us food for thought.

First of all, she mentions the remarkable fact that the celebration of the Vigil and of Easter were essentially the same in Jerusalem as they were thousands of miles away in France or in Spain. Christians all over the known world were celebrating the same Resurrection in essentially the same manner – and with the same doctrinal beliefs, I might add, despite the fact that at this point in time (c. 383 A.D.) no canon of Scripture had as yet been decided upon. The bishops of the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea in 325 had standardized the date for the celebration of Easter. They also rejected the Arian proposition that Jesus was a creature, insisting that He was “begotten, not made” as well as “homoousios,” consubstantial (i.e., of the same substance) with the Father. Therefore, the One Who rose on Easter was God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. The bishops would, in a few short years from the Easter celebration that Egeria chronicles, meet again in council to discern the canon of Scripture (more on that as my series on the canon continues next week).

Secondly, we see the 4th-century Jerusalem Christians acting out the events of the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. This lends credence to the Catholic insistence on the observance of Lent. Every year Catholics “walk through” the events of the life of Jesus, because human beings learn by doing. We can read about it, talk about it, think about it, watch The Passion of the Christ till our eyeballs fall out, but there is no substitute for doing it. Catholics reenact the suffering, death and Resurrection of the Lord every year, making us in a small way participants of those events. It changes us. I hope this year you have let it change you!

The 4th-century Christians would not have dreamed of missing their opportunity to participate in the Easter Triduum. I beg you, if you have never taken part in the Easter Vigil at a Catholic parish – don’t miss this God-given chance! Be there this evening!

The Tomb of Jesus

On the next day, the Sabbath, the usual services are held at the third and sixth hours; but at the ninth hour on the Sabbath the service is not held, for the paschal vigils are prepared for in the Great Church – i.e., in the Martyrium. The paschal vigils are held as with us, with this addition only, that the children when they have been baptized and robed, after coming out of the font, are escorted along with the bishop first to the Anastasis. The bishop goes inside the rails of the Anastasis, one hymn is sung, and then the bishop offers prayer for them, and so comes to the Great Church with them. There, when all the people are keeping vigil after the customary manner, the same ceremonies are observed as are usual with us, and the oblation having been offered, Mass is celebrated. And after the Mass of vigils is over in the Great Church, they come straightway with hymns to the Anastasis, and there again is read the passage of the Gospel about the Resurrection. Prayer is made, and again the bishop makes an offering, but all is done quickly, on account of the people, that there may be no more delay, and so the people are dismissed. The Mass of vigils is held on that day at the same hour as with us.

Thus in the evening those paschal days are observed as with us, and Masses are celebrated in proper order throughout the eight paschal days, as is everywhere done through out the octave of Easter. There is the same decoration and the same order of service throughout the eight days of Easter as throughout Epiphany in the Great Church, at the Anastasis, at the Cross, in Olivet, also in Bethlehem and at the Lazarium, and everywhere else.

On the day itself, the first Lord’s day, there is a procession to the Great Church – i.e., the Martyrium – and on the second and third day also; so, however, that always when Mass has been celebrated at the Martyrium they come to the Anastasis with hymns. But on the fourth day they go in procession to Olivet, on the fifth day to the Anastasis, on the sixth day to Sion, on the Sabbath in front of the Cross, and on the Lord’s day – i.e., the octave – to the Great Church, the Martyrium, again.

Daily during these eight paschal days after breakfast the bishop, with all the clergy, and all the children who have been baptized, and all who are Renuntiants, both men and women, and as many of the people as wish, goes up to Olivet. Hymns are sung and prayers are offered both in the church in Olivet, where is the cave in which Jesus used to teach the disciples, and also in Imbomon, that is, the place from which the Lord ascended into heaven. And after that psalms have been sung and prayer offered, they descend again to the Anastasis with hymns at the hour of vespers. This is done throughout the whole eight days. But on the Lord’s day – i.e., Easter day – after vespers at the Anastasis, all the people escort the bishop with hymns to Sion. When they have come there, hymns suitable to the day and place are sung, prayer is offered, and that place is read from the Gospel where on the same day the Lord entered in to the disciples when the doors were shut in the same place where the church now is in Sion. That was the occasion on which one of the disciples, viz., Thomas, was not there, and when he returned and the other Apostles said to him that they had seen the Lord, he answered, ‘I will not believe, except I see.’ This having been read, prayer is again offered, the catechumens are blessed, also the faithful, and everyone returns to his own home late, about the second hour of the night.

On Holy Saturday

Deo omnis gloria!

Photo credits: Voice in the Wilderness blog:

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