The Easter Liturgy
Easter is of course the most important annual feast of the Church, and since ancient times the days from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday have been celebrated by Christians with an exuberance of liturgical practice. Every century, perhaps every generation, has added some new rite or ceremony to evoke more poignantly the pain of the Crucifixion, and to herald more triumphantly the joy of the Resurrection…

A bewildering variety of practices has thus arisen: not merely do different denominations observe Easter with different rites, but even within the same denomination different parishes follow different customs, and even within a single parish, the practice may vary from Rector to Rector, and even under a single Rector, the practice may vary from year to year. The unfortunate consequence is that parishioners are often not quite sure what to expect - so the purpose of this letter, opportunely appearing during Passiontide, is to explain briefly what we shall be doing at St Paul’s.

The mass of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday (7: 00 pm) is, perhaps surprisingly, a sudden burst of festive light immediately prior to the darkness of Good Friday - the colour of the mass is white, the Gloria is sung, and in some church the bells are joyfully pealed before being silenced until Easter. The theme of the mass is twofold: the "Synoptic" theme of the Last Supper as the the occasion for the institution of the eucharist, and the "Johannine" theme of the Last Supper as the occasion for the giving of the "New Commandment": "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, as I have loved you…" (John 13: 34). (It is the Latin word for "commandment", "mandatum", which has been corrupted to the English word "Maundy".) This "new commandment" is associated in John’s account of the Last Supper with Our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet, and many churches (but not St Paul’s) observe a Maundy Thursday footwashing. Kings and Queens of England used to wash the feet of twelve paupers on this day; now they give in stead a monetary gift (of specially minted and eminently collectible Maundy coins) - an innovation probably as welcome to the paupers as it was to the monarchs!

The Maundy Thursday mass goes as normal up to the communion and the post-communion prayers, but then the remnant of the consecrated bread is taken in solemn procession to the Altar of Repose at the back of the church, where the faithful will watch, in memory of the Garden of Gethsemane and of Christ’s injunction to "watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation" (Matthew 26: 41). Finally, the altar and sanctuary are stripped of all their ornaments, to the accompaniment of Psalm 22 - "My God, my God, look upon me, why hast thou forsaken me?" - the "crucifixion psalm" which Jesus himself recited on the Cross. I find this stripping of the altars one of the most potent symbols of Holy Week. The mass ends in silence, without blessing or dismissal - or rather, the mass leads straight into the Watch at the Altar of Repose which will continue until the Good Friday liturgy - even though some of us, like the disciples themselves, may find ourselves nodding off to sleep!

Good Friday is the one day of the year on which traditionally mass is not celebrated: rather, we make our communion (bread only) with the sacrament reserved from Maundy Thursday. The Good Friday Liturgy (12: 10 pm) is thus unique and particular, and is in three parts... Firstly the "Liturgy of the Word", the prayers, readings and sermon, equivalent to the first part of the mass (up to the sermon); the high point, of course, is the reading of the passion narrative from St John’s Gospel. After the sermon, there is a long series of sung prayers, the "Solemn Intercessions", for the Church and for the world; because Easter was traditionally the time for baptism, these prayers have a particular emphasis on those preparing for baptism, and for the ultimate reconciliation of all people into "one faith, one Lord, one baptism".

Secondly, the "Veneration of Cross", when the congregation approaches the unveiled cross to kneel and kiss the wood. The accompanying ancient hymn "The Royal Banners" (Hymnal # 63) - even in its rather curtailed English translation - hints at the beautiful and elaborate patristic devotion to the Cross as a shoot of the Tree of Life which grew in the Garden of Eden, prepared by God from the beginning to be instrument of final redemption.

Thirdly, Communion from the Reserved Sacrament and dismissal. Although we do not have a service of Three Hours Devotion, the church remains open until three o ‘ clock for private prayer.

The Easter Vigil and the First Mass of Easter (Saturday night at 10: 00 pm) is the high point of the liturgical year. Originally, of course - as is still the case in some of the Eastern Orthodox Churches - it was an all night vigil culminating in a daybreak mass, but we aim to get home by one o’ clock…

The Vigil begins with the church in darkness, until (in the narthex) we kindle the Easter Fire and light the Paschal Candle - the Light of Christ, the Light which shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not, the Light which will sustain us through this darkest of nights, the night of Christ’s tomb, until that brightest of dawns, the dawn of His Resurrection. The Paschal Candle is then brought into church, and the priest sings the long and elaborate hymn - the "Exultet" - which celebrates the Paschal Candle in terms of the Pillar of Fire which guided the Hebrews in their escape from Egypt at the first Passover.

There follows a series of Old Testament readings, known as the "Prophecies"; these can be as many as twelve, but we will content ourselves with four, all of them key moments of th Old Testament story which are understood to be "foreshadowings" of the Resurrection:

(1) the Creation of the world and of Adam, a foreshadowing of the New Creation in the New Adam who is Christ.

(2) the Offering of Isaac, foreshadowing the perfect Offering of Christ.

(3) the Exodus, foreshadowing the escape from the bondage of sin into the Promised Land of Heaven.

(4) Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Bones, foreshadowing the final Resurrection and Restoration of the Chosen People in Christ.

The first mass of Easter begins with the Gloria (not said since Maundy Thursday) and proceeds more or less as usual until after the Gospel, when the water of the baptismal font is blessed, and the people renew their baptismal vows. Easter was in the ancient church the time par excellence for baptism, because baptism is essentially a participation in the events of Easter - dying with Christ, being buried with him, and rising to a new life; the renewal of baptismal vows is an opportunity for all Christians to relive that supreme moment of their own rebirth.

One other curiosity of the first mass of Easter - which no one has ever been able to explain to me - is that for some reason the "Agnus Dei" is not said… Well, after all that, the Sung Mass on Easter morning is pretty straightforward!

- Fr Richard Bowyer, March 2008