Last year during Lent I wrote a series of “postcards” from the 4th-century celebration of Holy Week in Jerusalem. Thanks be to God, we have extant writings from two saints of that era – Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, and Egeria, a pilgrim visiting the Holy Land – both sets of which open a window onto the practices of the 4th-century Church. Interestingly, St. Egeria notes that the celebration of the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday as observed in Jerusalem some 350 years after the Resurrection were the same as those celebrated in her native place (France or Spain), lending credence to St. Irenaeus’ seemingly outrageous 2nd-century boast:
As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.
How different from the Christianity of today! In my town alone, we have Christians who have observed Lent and Christians who haven’t, Christians who are aware that yesterday was Palm Sunday and Christians whose pastor never made mention of the fact, Christians who will attend Maundy Thursday services and Christians who don’t even know what they are, and Christians who will mourn the death of the Savior on Good Friday while other Christians attend a baseball game. One Protestant church I used to attend actually held a fund-raising dinner after the Easter Sunday service (since everybody was there already….) Sadder still are the various doctrines being taught to explain why Jesus had to die to save us from our sins, with some denominations blasphemously implying that God the Father “damned Jesus to hell” or that He “forsook His Son when He died on the Cross.” The hallmark of heresy is its pestilent diversity, while one of the notes of orthodoxy is its constancy, holding to “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” It’s been nearly 2,000 years, and Catholics still walk through the events of Holy Week with the Lord, just as they did in Egeria’s time.
St. Egeria outlines the Lenten practices of the Church in Jerusalem, as well as the instruction given to the catechumens by the bishop, St. Cyril. She tells us, for example, what a patient, careful teacher the bishop was:
And as he [the bishop] explained the meaning of all the Scriptures, so does he explain the meaning of the Creed; each article first literally and then spiritually. By this means all the faithful in these parts follow the Scriptures when they are read in church.
Providentially, many of St. Cyril’s writings have survived. Back in those days when becoming Catholic could really cost you, the bishop (who spent his time in and out of exile because of his opposition to the Arian heresy) devoted himself unstintingly to the education of those entering the Church at the Easter Vigil. In his “Prologue to the Catechetical Lectures,” we read his moving address to the catechumens:
Already there is an odor of blessedness upon you, O you who are soon to be enlightened: already you are gathering the spiritual flowers, to weave heavenly crowns: already the fragrance of the Holy Spirit has breathed upon you: already you have gathered round the vestibule of the King’s palace ; may you be led in also by the King! For blossoms now have appeared upon the trees; may the fruit also be found perfect! Thus far there has been an inscription of your names, and a call to service, and torches of the bridal train, and a longing for heavenly citizenship, and a good purpose, and hope attendant thereon. For he lies not who said, that to them that love God all things work together for good. God is lavish in beneficence, yet He waits for each man’s genuine will: therefore the Apostle added and said, to them that are called according to a purpose. The honesty of purpose makes you called: for if your body be here but not your mind, it profits you nothing.
St. Cyril must have left no doubt in the minds of his listeners how meaningful entrance into the body of Christ would be – an “odor of blessedness” wafts from those who are preparing for baptism! Yet entering the Church is not the be-all and end-all, Cyril hastened to assure them; it is just the beginning. Some excerpts:
See, I pray you, how great a dignity Jesus bestows on you. You were called a Catechumen, while the word echoed round you from without; hearing of hope, and knowing it not; hearing mysteries, and not understanding them; hearing Scriptures, and not knowing their depth. The echo is no longer around you, but within you; for the indwelling Spirit henceforth makes your mind a house of God. When you shall have heard what is written concerning the mysteries, then will you understand things which thou knew not. And think not that you receive a small thing: though a miserable man, you receive one of God’s titles. Hear St. Paul saying, God is faithful. Hear another Scripture saying, God is faithful and just. Foreseeing this, the Psalmist, because men are to receive a title of God, spoke thus in the person of God: I said, You are Gods, and are all sons of the Most High. But beware lest thou have the title of faithful, but the will of the faithless. You have entered into a contest, toil on through the race: another such opportunity you cannot have. Were it your wedding day before you, would you not have disregarded all else, and set about the preparation for the feast? And on the eve of consecrating your soul to the heavenly Bridegroom, will you not cease from carnal things, that you may win spiritual?
God has called, and His call is to you. Attend closely to the catechisings, and though we should prolong our discourse, let not your mind be wearied out. For you are receiving armor against the adverse power, armor against heresies, against Jews, and Samaritans , and Gentiles. You have many enemies; take to you many darts, for you have many to hurl them at: and you have need to learn how to strike down the Greek, how to contend against heretic, against Jew and Samaritan. And the armor is ready, and most ready the sword of the Spirit : but thou also must stretch forth your right hand with good resolution, that you may war the Lord’s warfare, and overcome adverse powers, and become invincible against every heretical attempt.
Even now, I beseech you, lift up the eye of the mind: even now imagine the choirs of Angels, and God the Lord of all there sitting, and His Only-begotten Son sitting with Him on His right hand, and the Spirit present with them; and Thrones and Dominions doing service, and every man of you and every woman receiving salvation. Even now let your ears ring, as it were, with that glorious sound, when over your salvation the angels shall chant, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered : when like stars of the Church you shall enter in, bright in the body and radiant in the soul.
Great is the Baptism that lies before you: a ransom to captives; a remission of offenses; a death of sin; a new-birth of the soul; a garment of light; a holy indissoluble seal; a chariot to heaven; the delight of Paradise; a welcome into the kingdom; the gift of adoption!
The race is for our soul: our hope is of things eternal: and God, who knows your hearts, and observes who is sincere, and who is a hypocrite, is able both to guard the sincere, and to give faith to the hypocrite: for even to the unbeliever, if only he give his heart, God is able to give faith. So may He blot out the handwriting that is against you , and grant you forgiveness of your former trespasses; may He plant you into His Church, and enlist you in His own service, and put on you the armor of righteousness : may He fill you with the heavenly things of the New Covenant, and give you the seal of the Holy Spirit indelible throughout all ages, in Christ Jesus Our Lord: to whom be the glory for ever and ever!
Pray for those entering the Church this Saturday evening, and for those who will be reconciled to her. The race is for their souls….
On Monday of Holy Week
Deo omnis gloria!