Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Traditional Vigil of Easter – Part 2: From the Blessing of the Font to the Vigil Mass; General Conclusion

The Harrowing of Hell

(Continued from Part 1.)

Following the twelve prophecies, in the traditional rite, the baptismal water is blessed in the font. There is much significance to the baptismal character of Easter, as indicated already in the twelve lessons. Baptism is a spiritual regeneration, a resurrection, a rising from the dead. Christ's resurrection is the source of the baptismal efficacy. With Christ we too rise from a spiritual death. After He died, He descended into hell to draw into eternal life the fathers of the old covenant who waited there. The catechumens who are traditionally baptized today symbolize these fathers, and the conferring baptism parallels the resurrection of their souls from the death of hell. 

The blessing of the font is one liturgical event in which the architecture of the church building bears much symbolic importance. Traditionally, the baptismal font is placed in a room, called the baptistery, near the entrance of the church, to symbolize that baptism is the sacred initiation or entrance into the Church itself, the beginning of membership among the sacred people who constitute the mystical Body of Christ. The baptistery itself was in the shape of an octagon, to signify baptism as the representation of the eighth day of creation, a day which signifies the renewal of creation, and hence the renewal of life itself – resurrection. In the Old Testament, circumcision occurred on the eighth day after the child’s birth. Jewish liturgical celebrations were often extended over a period of eight days. God Himself rested on the seventh, a fact which implicitly contains the truth that the eighth is when the cycle of creation begins anew, but in a higher and more perfect way. Christ Himself rested in the sepulcher on the seventh day of the week, and rose on the next day. This symbolism of the number eight deeply penetrates the entire structure of the traditional liturgy, and has been lost in other areas besides Holy Week; hence it is a subject of its own. But it is especially relevant tonight, on the vigil of Easter, which is the first and foremost celebration of the Eighth Day: new life, new creation, regeneration, and resurrection, all of which take a certain form in baptism. 

Since the blessing of the font occurs in the baptistery, the clergy must process from the sanctuary to the back of the church, and the faithful follow them. This procession is accompanied by the chanting of Psalm 41, the Sicut Cervus, famously set to polyphony by Giovanni Palestrina. This chant has a ritual and symbolic function: those who process towards the font of baptism, particularly if they be catechumens, are like the deer who longs for the fountain of living water; and they express this longing in the sacred chant itself, as they process towards the living water which they seek. The blessing of the font then occurs, followed by the administration of the sacrament of baptism. Then all return to the main part of the church, whilst singing the Litany of the Saints, who make up the body of Christ’s Church, to signify the welcoming of the newly christened by the holy people of God.

This sequence of the ritual has been heavily changed in the reform of 1955, in a manner that is often symbolically and ritually unintelligible. First, I would argue that it is itself an element of the current liturgical crisis that the symbolism of architecture is so lacking in most churches built from the 60s and 70s onward. Traditionally, the church space is just as much a part of the liturgy as any other element; it is not a merely functional space, but an element of the ritual. Few churches now retain the octagonal baptistery at the entrance of the church, which is but one example of the lack of appreciation for liturgical symbolism. Secondly, in the reform of the specific ritual for the Easter vigil, this symbolism has been distorted even more inexcusably by several changes: the blessing of the baptismal water occurs, not in a font, but in a bucket that is placed, not in the back of the church, but in the sanctuary. This has the result that even the unbaptized may enter the Holy of Holies itself, a privilege not traditionally granted even to the baptized laity. Thus, the symbolism of baptism as the entrance into the Church is gone, and there is a complete loss of the hierarchical distinction between the sanctuary and the nave - the space of the priests, and the space of the laity. After any baptisms have been conferred, there is a rite, wholly novel, of the renewal of baptismal promises, preceded by an exhortation that is stylistically incongruent with the traditional Roman rite. The idea of a renewal of baptismal promises is itself theologically dubious, to say the least, and introduces a man-centeredness that distracts from the authentic focus of worship. This is followed by a communal praying of the Lord’s prayer, which is traditionally prayed by the celebrant alone until the final phrase, sed libera nos a malo. This prayer too is preceded by an exhortation that is stylistically inappropriate, and bears the marks of modern sentimentality rather than traditional liturgical piety. A focus on the community acting together has been introduced where previously the focus was entirely on the liturgical action itself (the real point of the Christian community). Further, the Litany of the Saints has been split into two parts, the first sung before the blessing of the baptismal bucket, and the second afterwards – an interruption that is unjustified in itself, and is moreover unintelligible from a symbolic point of view. Further still, the Sicut Cervus is sung after the blessing of the font and the baptisms, whilst the newly blessed baptismal water is carried to the actual font, wherever that is located. The ritual and symbolism of this sacred text has thus been completely lost: the text speaks of one who thirsts for the water of baptism which he has not yet received; and yet, while it is sung, the baptisms have already been conferred, and this text is no longer relevant to the actual ritual. It is now merely decorative, much like the Exsultet earlier.

Following these rituals, in both the old and the new rites, the mass of the vigil is celebrated. As mentioned earlier, the time of the mass in the new rite differs from the traditional time of its celebration and its character as anticipation – i.e. not a "first mass of Easter Sunday." Traditionally, the mass was not even the most important part of the vigil, symbolically. The traditional vigil mass was only a partial celebration of Easter, since it reintroduces some of the liturgical signs of joy, but in a restrained fashion. This was in accord with its time of celebration, which was just before Vespers, on the evening of Holy Saturday, near sunset. Thus, in place of a Communion antiphon there was sung an abbreviated form of Vespers. This means that later in the night, in the traditional office, the sacred hour of Matins of Easter would be sung, followed by Lauds. As Matins is the most important hour of the divine office, and tonight is the most important night of the year, it was crucial that these be sung as the formal beginning of the celebration of Easter itself. But in the reform of 1955, tonight's Matins has been entirely lost, due perhaps to a dubious historical opinion that the twelve prophecies constituted a kind of Matins and that tonight's mass belonged properly to Easter Sunday itself. This opinion is long outdated, and clashes with the very character of the vigil liturgy. Hence, at the end of the mass, instead of Vespers there is sung an abbreviated Lauds, which itself falls far short of the traditional Lauds. This had at least two notable effects: first, the ritual character of the Easter vigil mass, which is still that of an incomplete celebration of the resurrection, is now simply incongruent with its celebration as a first mass of Easter Sunday itself. Secondly, the most important hour of the office, namely Matins, is now in fact nonexistent for the most important night of the entire year. This is perhaps one of the worst aspects of the new Holy Week, especially if one takes the very plausible interpretation that it was precisely at the hours of Matins and Lauds that the Church traditionally understood the Resurrection itself to take place. This is symbolically the most sacred moment of the liturgical year. In short, the upgrade of the vigil mass to a first mass of Easter Sunday has yielded nothing but liturgical incongruity, and has rid us moreover of the most important moment of the entire liturgical cycle.

Some concluding remarks: The foregoing account which I have given, as lengthy as it is, is by no means a complete or adequate treatment. Much more could be said in depth concerning the loss of symbolism and theological significance in the new rite. I will simply state some of the most important things here, in a general way. The mystery of Easter is in many ways the most complete and all-encompassing mystery of the Christian faith and its liturgical expression. The Resurrection of Christ is the defining moment in the history of salvation and man’s relation to God. On Palm Sunday, we saw a figure of Christ throwing open the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem by the power of the cross, hailed by palm and olive branches; and we beheld a figure of ourselves following Him into Jerusalem by participation in the triumph of His death. On Good Friday, the mystery of Christ’s death actually takes place. The flipside of that mystery is the Resurrection, which completes Christ’s triumph by the cross. He has conquered death and come to life again, never again to be subject to death. In order to follow Him into the New Jerusalem, we must share in His winning eternal life, eternal victory over death. We must therefore share not only in His death by the cross, but also His resurrection from the tomb. This we do first by the sacrament of baptism, by which we are immersed, “buried,” with Christ, and rise again with new life, the life of God – a new creation, the realization of the eighth day. But this first resurrection is continued as we take advantage of its fruits by living out the Christian mystery into which it has initiated us; and this we do especially by the liturgy itself, which seems to offer us this day the very means of participation in the mystery through the sacred symbols, which are an extension of the sacraments. The symbolism of light in the New Fire and the Paschal Candle, the many layers of symbolism contained in the sacred texts of the Prophecies, and the symbolism of water and baptism in the blessing of the font, the placing of the font in the architectural setting, etc. - all of these point, in all their details, to the mystery of Resurrection in the myriad ways through which it manifests itself in God’s revelation. The liturgy itself seems to proclaim to us: “See! Here is the Resurrection of Christ, which is also your resurrection, presented before you so that you may take hold of it for yourself, and participate in it, so that you might become gods through Christ, the God-Man!” The drastic reduction and distortion of this symbolism has the effect of diminishing that very participation to which the traditional rite exhorted us, since we can no longer see in the sacred rituals the meaning of those symbols; and our contemplation of the sacred mysteries is thereby impaired.

The liturgical heritage of the Church is not merely a thing of sentimental nostalgic value, but is the most precious element of our religion, the sacred means of God’s worship and of our deification, which God Himself has bequeathed to us through tradition. Therefore the liturgy is something which we must preserve according to its tradition, and not reinvent according to our own fancies, lest we hinder our own sanctification by a kind of liturgical Pelagianism. Liturgical symbolism is not merely a poetic pleasantry to accompany our acts of piety; rather, it is itself the means whereby we encounter God in His mysteries - an encounter which is indispensable for the transformation of our souls, and for the true worship of God, who reveals Himself to us only in His mysteries.


  1. I've heard a number of people say, in defense of the HW de/reformation, that the Pian Holy Saturday is a restored version, yet I've never actually heard the arguments of why this is so. Have you? Are they based on the faulty archeology which you mentioned in this piece?

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  3. I should think much of its "restoredness" is in the change in time of celebration it from Saturday morning to Saturday evening. The Holy Week liturgies of Holy Thursday, Friday, and Saturday were formerly celebrated in the mornings, with matins and lauds anticipated the night before as tenebrae. This seems to have been an accommodation to the requirement of total fasting from midnight prior to reception of the Eucharist. One could perhaps concede an improvement in the clarity of the symbolism, at least in this respect.

    In terms of content, it's indisputable that the symbolism scintillates a bit more freely in the older from: the twelve prophecies are the memoirs of the saints of the twelve tribes of Israel whom Christ rescued from Hades–the first spoils of the conquest of death. This is even more explicit in the Saturday liturgy of the Eastern rites, where the vestments of Easter are suddenly put on in the middle of the liturgy. In both East and West, this is obviously the commemoration of the Harrowing of Hades. as distinct from his bodily resurrection, departure from the tomb and appearances to the holy women and disciples, celebrated on Sunday.

    1. Right, it was purportedly a restoration of the "correct" times for the celebration of the vigil, although as the Rad Trad has argued, this was based on a profound misunderstanding of liturgical time. It is true though that the morning celebration was something irregular, but this even may have taken on a real liturgical and symbolic significance. But the mass of the vigil was never, as it is post-1955, a First Mass of Easter Sunday. So whatever one might think of the morning celebration, it is certainly not a "restoration" or an improvement to turn the vigil mass into a midnight mass of Easter Sunday. Even if the morning times were a little odd, the vigil mass was always in keeping with the *vigil* character of the whole liturgy of Holy Saturday: anticipation, waiting, and not full celebration.

      I have seen elsewhere some arguing that the restored rites were more in line with the form they took during the time of Bede the Venerable, but I cannot seem to find where I saw that argument; nor can I recall if that was a separate argument than the one regarding the proper times for celebrating the vigil.