We cannot be grateful enough that the Holy Father, Pius XII, has given back to us the ancient Easter Night! Even as children we felt that something was not quite as it should be when the Church broke out early in the morning of Holy Saturday in the threefold Alleluia, while the Gospel told us that Our Lord was resting in the grave to rise on Easter Sunday morning.
Now the word of the Holy Father has put things straight and Holy Saturday has regained its ancient character. Apart from the one choir rehearsal for Easter, it is quiet around our house, everybody busying himself with preparations for Easter inside and outside.
Some are getting flowers and candles ready to be put into the chapel upon our return from the parish church after midnight. Others are working out a new scheme of decorating the dining room for the greatest family meal of the year–the Easter breakfast. Practically everybody is preparing some special Easter eggs for someone else.
In the late afternoon it is time for Confession, and after supper we sit together with the booklets containing the rites of Easter Night, reading and discussing the beautiful texts of this most holy liturgy. An air of expectancy is descending over the house and family which can only compare to Christmas Eve.
With the exception of one person who has to stay behind to guard the house, everybody piles into the cars to be down in Stowe a little before eleven. Invariably a voice out of the group will remind us: “Don’t let’s forget the lantern and the bottle for the Easter water.”
Many of the traditions and customs, as I have related them so far, are centuries old, handed down from father to son. In the celebration of the Easter Night, however, we are experiencing the making of a tradition, and that is something precious, too.
As we come down to the little parish church in Stowe, we see people arriving from all sides. We are all silently waiting outside around a little pile of wood logs in front of the church door.
Now comes the altar boy and, with a lighter–it is prescribed that the new flame should be made with flint–he sets fire to the wood. Meanwhile the whole community is congregated, a few hundred people waiting in the crisp air of the early spring, under the starry sky, for the “Feast of Light” to begin.
Now a solemn little procession approaches from the dark church–the altar boy, our pastor, and our Father Wasner as deacon carrying the Paschal candle. First the new fire is blessed by the pastor. Then he turns solemnly to the Paschal candle around which this “Feast of Light” centers.
With a knife the priest cuts a cross on the candle. Then the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the Alpha and Omega, and finally the numbers of the year, in this form, while he says:
Christ yesterday and today
the Beginning and the End
Alpha and Omega
His are the times
To Him be glory and dominion
Through all ages of eternity
Then he fixes five blessed grains of incense in the cross on the Paschal candle, saying:
By His holy
and glorious wounds
may He guard
and preserve us
Christ the Lord.
The deacon lights a small candle from the new fire and presents it to the pastor, who solemnly lights the Paschal candle, saying:
May the light of Christ
In glory rising again,
Dispel the darkness of
Heart and mind.
All of us are holding unlighted candles, and now the procession forms and enters the church. First comes the altar boy with the cross, then the deacon with the lighted Paschal candle, then the pastor, the rest of the altar boys, and finally the people. At the threshold of the church, the procession stops. The deacon raises the candle and sings “Lumen Christi” (Light of Christ) while all of us, genuflecting toward the candle which represents Christ, the Risen Saviour, answer “Deo gratias” (Thanks be to God).
After the first “Deo gratias” the pastor lights his candle from the Paschal candle. In the middle of the church we are stopped again by the deacon, who repeats, one tone higher, “Lumen Christi.” After the second “Deo gratias” the rest of the clergy present and the altar boys light their candles.
When the deacon reaches the sanctuary, he chants for the third time, again a tone higher, “Lumen Christi,” and at this “Deo gratias” the rest of the people light their candles from the new holy light. The deacon places the candle on a stand and in the warm glow of the many flames he sings in a jubilant tone the most beautiful hymn of praise, the ancient “Exsultet.”
With this, the “Lucernarium” (the Feast of Light), the first of the three major parts of the Easter Night, is completed and all the candles of clergy and people are extinguished.
Now begins the second part, the baptismal service. Once more the priests change their white vestments for violet and read at the altar four lessons. After each lesson the deacon admonishes the people, “Flectamus genua,” whereupon the congregation kneels down in silent prayer until he bids them, “Levate.”
After the four lessons, priests and people start to sing the Litany of All Saints. The Litany is sung as far as “Omnes Sancti et Sanctae Dei, intercedite pro nobis.” Then it is interrupted.
In the middle of the sanctuary, next to the Paschal candle, a large vessel with water is prepared, which the priest now blesses most solemnly–the Easter water.
Every family wants to take a bottle of this most holy water home. Therefore, a large quantity is set aside for the use of the faithful.
Into the rest the holy oils are mingled, turning it into baptismal water. If anyone is waiting to be baptized in this holiest of nights, this is the moment when the baptism would be conferred right there in the sanctuary.
Then the vessel with the baptismal water is carried by the deacon, followed by the rest of the clergy in procession, over to the baptismal font. While the procession returns in silence to the sanctuary, the candles of clergy and people are lit again, the priests change from purple back to white, and the pastor steps over to the Paschal candle, facing the people, and prepares them for the most important moment of the year:
“…Therefore, my dearest Brethren, now that the Lenten observance is over, let us renew the vows of our Holy Baptism, by which we have of old renounced Satan and his works, and also the world, which is the enemy of God, and promised to serve God faithfully in the holy Catholic Church.” And then he asks us gravely:
“Do you renounce Satan?”
And the whole church resounds with the answer: “We do renounce him.”
“And all his works?”
“We do renounce them.”
“Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty….”
“And in Jesus Christ….”
“And in the Holy Ghost….”
After the third thunderous “We do believe,” we may rightly be convinced that our baptismal innocence is restored. When the meaning of all this dawns on one for the first time, one feels shaken to one’s innermost being.
“Let us now with one voice pray God as Our Lord Jesus Christ has taught us to pray,” says the pastor, and a renewed congregation, “born again by water and the Holy Ghost,” says the Lord’s Prayer.
All this happened to us once when we were infants and our godparents gave the answers in our name and held the baptismal candle for us. Now we are privileged once a year to renew these vows while holding the candle ourselves. This is truly a holy night!
Kneeling down, we finish the litany together with the priest, and then comes the third part–the Eucharist service, the midnight Mass.
Every year we repeat that the greatest reward for being a singing family comes when we can sing these jubilant Alleluias at the Easter Mass!
After the official liturgy is fulfilled, there still comes for us the observance of some ancient religious customs that belong to the liturgy of the home. In the lantern we take home some of the new blessed Easter light, with which we shall relight the vigil lamp at home. The bottle we fill with Easter water, and on the way out of church we take some of the blackened logs from the Easter fire and preserve them at the fireplace, where they work as sacramentals in times of danger from storms and lightning.
We try to keep up the customs we learned from the people in the Alps when they say the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary on Good Friday. Toward three o’clock of that day the father of the house goes to the corner where the vigil light burns before the crucifix and gravely blows it out; then he pours water on the fire in the fireplace. No flame is allowed around the house between the hour of Our Lord’s death and His Resurrection, in honor of Him Whom we call the Light of the World.
When we return, therefore, in the Easter Night with the blessed light in the lantern, the vigil light is lit from it and also the fire in the fireplace, and all the holy-water fonts are filled with Easter water.
Following a custom going back to the tenth century, all the kinds of food that were forbidden during the weeks of Lent are arranged in baskets and the Church has a special blessing to be pronounced on this food on Easter morning by the priest–the meat and eggs and butter, salt and Easter bread.
We remember how in small country churches these baskets would be placed on the Communion rail, and how in larger communities the people would hold them in their arms while the priest, after pronouncing the blessing, would go down the aisle sprinkling holy water over the food.
This is what singles out the Easter breakfast from among all other meals of the year–that we partake of this solemnly blessed food. Ham and Easter bread and colored eggs and many, many flowers and pussy willows and silken ribbons give the table a festive look.
Artistically painted eggs are usually kept by the owners throughout the year, but the simply colored eggs and many, many flowers and pussy willows and silken ribbons give the table a festive look.
The simpler eggs are now used for “Eierpecken.” Around the table everyone takes an egg in hand, and now, by two’s, they try to “peck” the other one’s egg first. The one who indents the other’s egg, while his own remains uncracked, harvests the cracked egg. The one who finally has the most is hailed as victor.
In the old country all the big feasts, but especially Easter, are accompanied by “Boellerschiessen.” The young men use old fashioned heavy rifles, and particularly in mountainous parts of the country where the echo takes up those cannon-like detonations, they add tremendously to the festive character of the day.
And there’s still another thing–the Easter fire. On all the heights and summits innumerable bonfires are lit in honor of the Risen Lord.
For Easter Monday there is an old custom, still very much alive in the old country, which might well be duplicated here, even though Easter
Monday is not generally a holiday, as it is in Europe. In honor of the Gospel of the day, which tells of the two disciples who went to Emmaus and met Our Lord on the way, Easter Monday became a visiting day.
Wherever there are old or sick people, they are visited by young and old.
The Sunday after Easter we still remember as White Sunday, for it was the day when the little children were led in a small procession by the rest of the parish into the church for their First Communion.
In the weeks between Easter and the Ascension there are four days set aside where the Church has her children go out into the fields and pastures chanting the litany of All Saints and asking God’s blessing for a good harvest and as protection against hailstorms, floods, and droughts. One day is the feast of St. Mark, April 25th, and the other three days are called “Rogation Days” and are the Monday, Tuesday, and
Wednesday preceding the Ascension, which always falls on a Thursday. We always make these outdoor processions up on our mountain. The very first hue of green is appearing in the meadows, the birds are singing in the woods again, and the whole atmosphere is one of spring and hope.