Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Day of Gloom and the Coming of the Light

Paolo Veronese, Dead Christ Supported By Angels
Italian, 1587-1589
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


On a typical Holy Saturday the church is quiet, the tabernacle empty, the altar stripped.  People come for services such as Tenebrae, made up of readings, songs and symbolic acts such as the snuffing out of candles or for Confession to ask God for forgiveness.

 Basically, the prevailing mood is quiet, a little gloomy even, but with a hint of excitement nonetheless.

This year of 2020 things are very different.  The churches are very quiet, indeed they are empty.  There will be no public celebrations of Tenebrae, no Confessions, unless they are drive through or by appointment in carefully distanced surroundings.  There will be an Easter Vigil, however, even if there is no one in the church building except the minimum necessary.  The major portion of the Christian world is in isolation, staying at home in an attempt to reduce the raging pandemic of COVID-19, a virus no one knew existed until four months ago.

But the congregations will be there, virtually, attending the services of the churches that have found a way to live stream the Holy Week liturgies.  In this we are so much more privileged than our ancestors who endured previous plagues and epidemics.  In these last days I have been present virtually at liturgies in several countries and in different states:  Rome, Paris, Turin, New York and California.  In spite of the pandemic, which has caused me to hunker down in my apartment due to my several prior "comorbidities" I feel highly blessed to be able to live in a time when this is possible.

So, today while we remember the hours between the evening of Good Friday, when the body of Jesus was laid hurriedly in the tomb with little ceremony, and the morning of Easter Sunday, when the women who came to complete the proper burial customs found an empty tomb we find ourselves enduring a kind of burial as well.

But, underneath it all is still the sense of expectation.  And, late in the afternoon, we will turn to the screens of our television and computer or tablet to celebrate the Easter Vigil, the great Vigil in which the darkness of the tomb is turned to the light of resurrection.

As the massive newly carved and lit Paschal Candle is carried down the aisle of the darkened church we will be confronted with a symbolic image that has come down to us from remote centuries, for the light represents the Risen Christ.  This year we cannot light our small candles with the rest of the congregation, though perhaps we may light one at home.  But we should try to hold in memory what happened year after year as the individual candles are lit from the great one.  The church gradually filled with light.  What was obscure and gloomy just moments ago was seen clearly.  It is a magnificent symbol of the Resurrection, of the share we each have in it and of the effect that spreading that light can have on the world.  This year the light may come only from the screen, but it is none the less a manifestation of the Light of Christ.  And if all the tuned-in screens in the world could shine together, we might have a very different world.

Deacon Singing the Exultet 
From  an Exultet Roll
Italian (Montecassino), ca. 1072
In this scene he gestures toward the Paschal Candle, which is being incensed

For more information on the images that relate to both the day of waiting and of the Paschal Candle, please click on the following:

The Harrowing of Hell here

The Dead Christ in the Tomb here

Easter Vigil and the Paschal Candle here

©  M. Duffy, 2015, updated 2020

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