A Guide Through the Poetic Theology of the Triduum

The annual commemoration of the Easter Triduum is marked by contemplation of the essentials, “on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.”[1] The Paschal Mystery—the divine love revealed and made efficaciously present in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—is theologically the raison d’etre of the Church. The Church is not an assembly of like-minded citizens, who get together because we share core principles about politics, art, or even family life. We do not gather in the same space because we happen to like being around one another. The Church is the communion of the faithful made possible because of the salvation offered by Christ. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and it is the crucified and risen Bridegroom who has brought her into existence. Christ is the one who does the gathering, the wooing of the human family, and we answer the invitation.

In a typical year, this invitation is answered by us through participation in the liturgies of the Triduum. We are present on Thursday night as we sing once more the sacrifice of praise in the Gloria, as we contemplate the gift of the Last Supper, as feet are washed, and as we keep sacred vigil in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord. We come together on Good Friday, turning our eyes to the salvation made available by the suffering servant. We intercede through the wood of the cross for the whole human family and adore this cross with a kiss of our lips. We commune with hopeful sorrow through eating Christ’s Body and Blood in the sacrament of the altar. We sit in silence on Holy Saturday, as Christ has descended into the total darkness of hell. And we gather that evening, in a darkened church, to join Mary Magdalene at the tomb of our Lord. We celebrate that our Lord is risen from the dead. And it is the very sacramental life of the Church in which this resurrection unfolds hic et nunc, here and now, through the baptism, confirmation, and communion of the neophytes.

This is not a typical year. The sacred rites will still take place but with few people in the pews. The rest of us will be gathered in our homes, keeping vigil not only for the Resurrection of our Lord but for the safety of our towns and cities, for the health of our loved ones. The contingency of human life, the pangs of death, and the very suffering that Christ endured on the cross as the God-man, has rarely been more real to us.

Yet, the Triduum will be celebrated. It will be celebrated in parishes, in cathedrals, and in the domestic church of our homes throughout the world. Christ is the Bridegroom, risen from the dead, and our more sober liturgical celebrations in the year of COVID-19 does not change this fact. The Lord is risen. He is risen, indeed, even if we cannot be there.

Still, the liturgies of the Triduum as contemplated by the faithful provide an occasion to delight in the salvation provided by our Lord. We may be absent from our parishes this day, away from that sacred space but the chants and hymns of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil still manifest to us the mystery of salvation. When we turn to the poetry of these chants and hymns, we not only discover anew the essentials of the Triduum but are invited to perform the beauty of the feast in our very lives.

Poetics, Liturgy, and Salvation

Poetry is often treated as superfluous to human life. It is seen as being extra and excessive, an obstacle to the kind of direct communication that facilitates efficiency. Even the leadership of the Church tends to fall into this assumption. Pastoral plans are praised for directness of speech, for both the quality and number of bullet points that lay out a process for proceeding.

But, as Karl Rahner argues in his essay “Priest and Poet,” the poetic unlike this kind of direct discourse deals with the essential. Poetic speech is not extraneous but that which allows the human person to dwell in a world infused with meaning. He writes:

Blossom, night, star and day, root and source, wind and laughter, rose, blood and earth, boy, smoke, word, kiss, lightning, breath, stillness: these and thousands of other words of genuine thinkers and poets are primordial words. They are deeper and truer than the worn-down verbal coins of daily intellectual intercourse, which one often likes to call “clear ideas” because habit dispenses one from thinking anything at all in their use.[2]

Such words are rooted in the fundamental experience of what it means to be human. The rising of the sun may be treated as nothing more than the commencement of another day for work, another opportunity to participate in the economic order, yet another. But it may also be understood as the advent of hope, the light shattering the darkness of night. The latter is the language of the poetic, the essential, the primordial. The former is the discourse of an age immersed in technique and efficiency.

Poetic speech, though, is not simply about the contemplation of an otherwise absent truth. As Rahner further argues, poetry makes present the very primordial meaning that poetry incarnates through the word. Once more, Rahner writes:

The primordial word is in the proper sense the presentation of the thing itself. It is not merely the sign of something whose relationship to the hearer is in no way altered by it; it does not speak merely “about” a relationship of the object in question to the hearer; it brings the reality it signifies to us, makes it “present,” realizes it and places it before us. Naturally the manner of this presentation will be of the most diverse kinds, depending on the kind of reality evoked and the power of the evoking word. But whenever a primordial word of this kind is pronounced, something happens: the advent of the thing itself to the listener.

For this reason, the stance of the one listening to the poem is that of expectation, an almost eschatological posture awaiting the arrival of what the poem reveals or manifests to the reader or listener. The one who hears Canto 15 of Dante’s Paradiso is not only thinking about luscious harmonies of heaven, an abstract musicality to paradise. Rather, through the proclamation of the poem, one becomes present (at least in a mediated way) to the sacred harmonies of heaven and to the fecund silence of the beatific vision:

Benigna volontade in che si liqua
sempre l’amor che drittamente spira,
come cupidità fa ne la iniqua,
silenzio puose a quella dolce lira,
e fece quieter la sante corde
che la destra cel cielo allenta e tira.

Good will (to which the love that breathes aright
will always in its distillation flow,
as does cupidity to wickedness)
brought silence to that sweetly sounding lyre,
and stilled the motions of its holy strings,
which Heaven’s right hand both plucks and modulates.[3]

The reader or listener, through this encounter, is invited to change how he or she relates to reality. Silence is no more to be understood exclusively as absence but an excess of presence, a foretaste of the beatific vision itself.      

Rahner’s account of poetry explains why the liturgy so often speaks in a poetic key instead of simply proclaiming facts about salvation, listing a series of doctrines that are linked to this or that feast. There is a performative nature to these chants and hymns, not simply because they are publicly performed. But rather, through their proclamation, they enable the participant to enter fully into the events of salvation. The participant must also thus become a performer in this drama.

Take the Gloria in excelsis Deo sung at the introductory rites of Holy Thursday. A priest or prelate tempted by didacticism (and not a few are) could just as easily replace this hymn of exuberant praise with a statement: “God is worthy of our glory, therefore it is proper that we offer this glory to God who is the highest.” But that is not the way the Gloria functions. It is precisely in the excess of praise, of doxological language that cannot entirely pin God down, that divine glory becomes present. We repeat ourselves in this Latin hymn, “Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adormaus te, gloricamus te, gratias agimus tibi proper magnam gloriam tuam, Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens (We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you according to your great glory, Lord God, King of heaven, all-powerful God the Father). Praise, blessing, adoration, glorification, and thanksgiving are offered to God, even if they happen to be synonyms. Our attestation of names to God is not univocal in this hymn of praise but a polyphony of denomination. Entering the presence of the triune God is itself a poetic task, one that the Gloria in excelsis Deo performs. It is for this reason that a tritely sung Gloria, one that eviscerates the poetry of the text, must be eschewed. The Gloria is not a musical, poetic interlude from the serious business of teaching people about Christ. It is what facilitates an entrance into this divine glory.

Attention to the language and music of hymnody, for this reason, is not just a more pleasing mode of engaging in theology. Rather, the poetry employed by the liturgy becomes for us the means by which we enter the events of salvation, into the presence of the triune God. During this Triduum in which we are not bodily present in our churches during these liturgies, such chants and hymns become integral to the celebration of even our domestic liturgies.      

The Gift of Communion: The Liturgical Poetics of Ubi Caritas

On Holy Thursday, after the homily, the celebrant of the liturgy washes the feet of 12 members of the assembly. During this footwashing, there is to be a singing of the ancient Latin hymn Ubi Caritas:

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exsultemus, et in ipso jucundemur.
Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur:
Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus.

Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites.
Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Simul quoque cum beatis videamus,
Glorianter vultum tuum, Christe Deus:
Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum,
Saecula per infinita saeculorum. Amen.

Where there is charity and love, God is there.
The love of Christ gathered us into one
Let us exult and be glad in him.
Let us tremble before, and let us love the living God.
And let us lovingly regard one another with sincerity of heart.
Where there is charity and love, there is God.

When therefore we are gathered into one
Let us beware that there be no division of mind among us.
Let there be an end to malicious strife, let quarrels cease.
And in our very midst, let there be Christ our God.
Where there is charity and love, there is God.

Thus let us exultingly see with the blessed,
Your face, Christ God:
Such joy is immense and even right,
For ages upon infinite ages, Amen.

The liturgical hymn plays with a poetics of both presence and absence. The hymn states with heartful confidence that where there is love, God is there. Where there is God, there is also love. And yet such presence necessitates a human response not of familiarity but of awe-struck devotion, of trembling joy before the face of God. As the priest washes the feet of the assembly, the hymn reveals the meaning of the foot-washing. It is the occasion to recognize that Christ’s love unto the end, the sacrifice upon the Cross, has brought the Church into being. Our communion is possible, because God first loved us.   

This presence is not a dismissal of the darkness that may have fallen upon the assembly, the continued attraction to human sinfulness. In the assembly, there may be division of mind, hatred, and violence—the very darkness that Christ, the light of the world, came to dispel. When the assembly relies exclusively upon itself, upon its own virtues (and thus often vices), it adores not the presence of the living God but the idols of the age. The footwashing is therefore not merely a pleasant act of recognizing the image and likeness of God in each person. Instead, it is an occasion of healing, of salvation. The members of the assembly must learn once again to look upon the faces of one another with a sincere heart.

This work of gazing with love upon our neighbor, the one who has been sanctified along with me through the blood of the Lamb once slain, is itself preparation for a future seeing. It is the blessed, the communion of saints, that enjoy in totality the face of Christ who is God. They experience the fullness of joy, an immensity, that is ultimately the vocation of the human person baptized into Christ. In this sense, the footwashing is not a re-enactment of what Jesus did once upon a time in an upper room. It is a making present, as the hymn manifests, the love of Christ that is the very origin, the reason for the existence of the Church.

In this way, even if we are not present on Holy Thursday at Mass, we remain necessarily present to one another. For to be Christian, to belong to the holy Catholic Church, is to be inextricably linked to our neighbor. We are tied together by a bond of love, a caritas that precedes us.

The task of Holy Thursday, therefore, is not simply to remember the Last Supper. It is to attune ourselves to the total, self-giving love of Christ present in the Church. As we become practiced in this love, in this gaze, we become increasingly aware of the iconic presence of Christ among us.    

The Mercy of the Tree: The Liturgical Poetics of Pange Lingua

Pange, lingua, gloriosi
proelium certaminis,
et super Crucis trophaeo

dic triumphum nobilem,
qualiter Redemptor orbis
immolatus vicerit.

De parentis protoplasti
fraude Factor condolens,
quando pomi noxialis
morte morsu corruit,
ipse lignum tunc notavit,
damna ligni ut solveret….

Vagit infans inter arcta
conditus praesepia:
membra pannis involuta
Virgo Mater alligat:
et manus pedesque et crura

stricta cingit fascia.

Lustra sex qui iam peracta
tempus implens corporis,
se volente, natus ad hoc,

passioni deditus,
Agnus in crucis levatur
immolandus stipite.

En acetum, fel, arundo,
sputa, clavi, lancea:
mite corpus perforatur,

Sanguis, unda profluit
terra, pontus, astra, mundus,
quo lavantur flumine!...

Crux fidelis,
inter omnes
arbor una nobilis;

nulla talem silva profert,
flore, fronde, germine.
Dulce lignum, dulci clavo,
dulce pondus sustinens!

Flecte ramos, arbor alta,
tensa laxa viscera,
et rigor lentescat ille,

quem dedit nativitas,
ut superni membra Regis

miti tendas stipite.

Sola digna tu fuisti
ferre saeculi pretium,
atque portum praeparare
nauta mundo naufrago,
quem sacer cruor perunxit,
fusus Agni corpore.

Sing, my tongue, in exultation
Of our banner and device!
Make a solemn proclamation
Of a triumph and its price:
How the Savior of creation
Conquered by his sacrifice!
For, when Adam first offended,
Eating that forbidden fruit,
Not all hopes of glory ended
With the serpent at the root:
Broken nature would be mended
By a second tree and shoot . . .

Hear a tiny baby crying,
Founder of the seas and strands;
See his virgin Mother tying
Cloth around his feet and hands;
Find him in a manger lying
Tightly wrapped in swaddling-bands!

So, he came, the long-expected,
Not in glory, not to reign;
Only born to be rejected,
Choosing hunger, toil and pain,
Till the scaffold was erected
And the Paschal Lamb was slain.

No disgrace was too abhorrent:
Nailed and mocked and parched he died:
Blood and water, double warrant,
Issues from his wounded side,
Washing in a mighty torrent
Earth and stars and oceantide.

Faithful cross the Saints rely on,
Noble tree beyond compare!
Never was there such a scion,
Never leaf or flower so rare.
Sweet the timber, sweet the iron,
Sweet the burden that they bear!

Lofty timber, smooth your roughness,
Flex your boughs for blossoming;
Let your fibers lose their toughness,
Gently let your tendrils cling;
Lay aside your native gruffness,
Clasp the body of your King!

Noblest tree of all created,
Richly jeweled and embossed:
Post by Lamb’s blood consecrated;
Spar that saves the tempest-tossed;
Scaffold beam which, elevated,
Carries what the world has cost!

Many of us know Thomas Aquinas’s Pange Lingua, sung on the feast of Corpus Christi. Yet, St. Thomas’s composition was inspired by an earlier hymn by Fortunatus from the 6th century.

This hymn is to be sung in the liturgy during the Adoration of the Cross. A single cross, perhaps possessing a relic of the true cross, is brought into the assembly. The faithful come to adore this cross as two hymns are sung.

The first hymn is that of The Reproaches, a lyric poem in which Jesus addresses the gathered assembly. The God who scourged Egypt in the Passover is now scourged himself on the cross. The God who rained down manna from heaven is plummeted by whips and scourges. The one who exalted the People with great power, choosing us among all the nations, is lifted high on the cross. The refrain of this hymn cries out, “My people, what have I done to you? / Or how have I grieved you? Answer me!”

At the same time, the cross is recognized not only as an instrument of death, but as the very source of salvation. The Trisagion, an ancient Greek hymn of praise to God, interrupts this lyric poem. Like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, one that interprets the unfolding drama, we hear in The Reproaches Hagios o Theos, Hagios Ischyros, Hagios Athanatos, eleison himas (Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us).

The Reproaches give way to the hymn of the Pange Lingua by Fortunatus. There is a self-consciousness to the hymn. Fortunatus tells us from the beginning that he is about to compose a hymn to the trophy or “triumph” of the Cross. The battle has been won, evident as the assembly approaches this sacred trophy with a kiss.

Fortunatus, then, explains to us the merciful logic of the tree. The first sin of our parents took place through the seizing of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This fruit was noxious, poisonous, introducing the very violence into the world that led to the crucifixion of Jesus. And yet God had a plan for another tree, another fruit that would heal the human family.

The self-emptying of the Incarnation is the root of this new tree. The God-man, Jesus Christ, was born to suffer. At his birth, he was wrapped in swaddling bands, an image of the burial clothes he would wear in the tomb. Christ was born for this moment, for this suffering on the wood of the tree. He hungered and thirsted in the desert, he cried at the tomb of Lazarus, because he came to take on the fullness of the human condition.

Furthermore, the human condition, in all its violence, is on display in the crucifixion. The body of our Lord bleeds and oozes, is perforated by the nails and the spear. The blood and water that comes forth does so not in a gentle manner but in a torrent. The world itself is renewed through this washing, through this river of love flowing from the side of Christ.

But the hymn does not stop there! Like in the Reproaches, there is another voice that now speaks. It is not the voice of an absent narrator, proclaiming what has happened. It is each of our voices, crying out to the wood of the cross to show mercy. This cross, as it turns out, is the tree of life in the Book of Genesis. It is the tree that God promised to humankind from the beginning.

We cry out to this tree, to this triumph, to this trophy to go lightly on the body of our King. Do not stretch out his body, wracking it with pain, but bend down, O tree, in an act of mercy. We know this is our salvation, we know that this is the mystery hidden from the foundation of the world, but still, he is our brother, he is ours.

By the end of the hymn, the wood has been transformed. It has become the trophy of salvation, consecrated with the blood of the Lamb. This wood is tossed out into the ocean of desolation to save a drowning humankind. This wood is lifted high for all to see. This hymn is not the end of the liturgy. In an almost solemn manner, we celebrate a liturgy of the pre-sanctified gifts, eating Christ’s Body and Blood on this day of fasting. For the cross has born the sweetest of all fruits. It is the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, that is the fruit of the tree of life. And yet this year, as many of us sit in our homes, we will not eat this fruit. We will grow hungry.

However, such hunger need not be a mere absence. Instead, like St. Bonaventure in his work The Tree of Life, we may still feast on this fruit. We may cry out:

O how marvelous are all these things,
how full of sweetness,
but only for that soul
who, having been called to so distinguished a banquet,
runs  with all the ardor of his spirit
so that he may cry out
with the Prophet:
As the stag longs for the springs of water
so my soul longs for you,
O God! (Ps 41:2).[4]   

Therefore, let us gaze in our homes on the cross of our Lord, the cross of Christ. And let us long for the fruit of the tree of life, the fruit of his Body and Blood, that heals the sin-sick soul of humankind.

This Is the Dazzling Night: The Liturgical Poetics of The Exsultet

Exsúltet iam angélica turba cælórum:
exsúltent divína mystéria:
et pro tanti Regis victória tuba ínsonet salutáris.

Gáudeat et tellus, tantis irradiáta fulgóribus:
et ætérni Regis splendóre illustráta,
tótius orbis se séntiat amisísse calíginem.

Lætétur et mater Ecclésia,
tanti lúminis adornáta fulgóribus:
et magnis populórum vócibus hæc aula resúltet…

Hæc nox est,
in qua primum patres nostros, fílios Israel

edúctos de Ægypto,
Mare Rubrum sicco vestígio transíre fecísti.

Hæc ígitur nox est,
quæ peccatórum ténebras colúmnæ illuminatióne purgávit.

Hæc nox est,
quæ hódie per univérsum mundum in Christo credéntes,
a vítiis sæculi et calígine peccatórum segregátos,
reddit grátiæ, sóciat sanctitáti.

Hæc nox est,
in qua, destrúctis vínculis mortis,

Christus ab ínferis victor ascéndit.

Nihil enim nobis nasci prófuit,
nisi rédimi profuísset.
O mira circa nos tuæ pietátis dignátio!
O inæstimábilis diléctio caritátis:
ut servum redímeres, Fílium tradidísti!

O certe necessárium Adæ peccátum,
quod Christi morte delétum est!

O felix culpa,
quæ talem ac tantum méruit habére Redemptórem!

O vere beáta nox,
quæ sola méruit scire tempus et horam,
in qua Christus ab ínferis resurréxit!...

In huius ígitur noctis grátia, súscipe, sancte Pater,
laudis huius sacrifícium vespertínum,
quod tibi in hac cérei oblatióne solémni,
per ministrórum manus
de opéribus apum, sacrosáncta reddit Ecclésia.

O vere beáta nox,
in qua terrénis cæléstia, humánis divína iungúntur!

Orámus ergo te, Dómine,
ut céreus iste in honórem tui nóminis consecrátus,
ad noctis huius calíginem destruéndam,

indefíciens persevéret.
Et in odórem suavitátis accéptus,

supérnis lumináribus misceátur.

Flammas eius lúcifer matutínus invéniat:
ille, inquam, lúcifer, qui nescit occásum.
Christus Fílius tuus,
qui, regréssus ab ínferis, humáno géneri serénus illúxit,
et vivit et regnat in sæcula sæculórum.

Even now, let the angelic host exsult
Let the divine ministers exsult:
Let the trumpet of salvation resound for the victory of the King

And let the earth rejoice, illuminated by such great splendor
The whole earth lit up by the splendor of the eternal King
Knowing now that darkness has been banished.

And let Mother Church rejoice,
Adorned with such brightness of his glory
And let this holy building resound with the mighty voices of the peoples…

This is the night,
when first you led our fathers, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt
you made them to pass through the Red Sea dry-shod

This therefore is the night,
that a fiery column 
purged the darkness of sin.

This is the night,
that even today through the whole world, 
separates believers in Christ from the vices of the world
and from the gloom of sin,
restoring them to grace,
and uniting them to the holy ones.

This is the night,
when Christ having destroyed the bonds of death,
rose as victor from the place of darkness.

For our birth would have profited nothing,
unless we had been purchased back.
O wonder concerning your tender esteem for us
O love, of such incalculable charity
that in order to purchase a slave, you handed over the Son.  

O truly necessary sin of Adam,
that was blotted out by the death of Christ!
O happy fault, that merited so great, so generous of a Redeemer.

O truly blessed night,
Which alone merited to know the time and the hour,
in which Christ was raised from the underworld…

Therefore, on this night of grace, accept, O holy Father,
this candle, this evening sacrifice of praise, this solemn offering,
being the work of bees and of your minister’s hands,
this holy gift given by the Church.

O truly blessed night,
in which heavenly things are wed to earthly things,
divine to human!

Therefore we pray to you, Lord,
that this candle might be consecrated in honor of your name
to scatter the darkness of this night,
that it might be preserved undimmed.
Receive it as an odor of sweetness,
that it might mix with the heavenly lights. 

May the Morning Star find this flame still burning,
that one Morning Star that never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, returning from the dark abyss,
shed serene light on the human race,
and now lives and reigns for ages unto ages. Amen.  

The Exsultet is a chant sung after the lighting of the Paschal Candle. It is an ancient chant, likely composed between the 5th and 7th centuries. Sung by the deacon, the Exsultet has the form of a blessing, akin to the prayers that we offer in the Eucharistic liturgy. In remembering God’s mercy from the past, we await with joyful hearts the good joy that God will accomplish in the present.

The poetry of the Exsultet is inseparable from the ritual action that surrounds it. The people gather outside the church, the sun having set. The only light available to the gathered assembly is a blazing fire, the church building shrouded in darkness.

At the beginning of the Easter Vigil, there is nothing but the essential elements—light and darkness, flame and candle, wind and the starry skies above. And yet, this candle made of wax will be transformed through the action of the Church. It will be marked with the Sign of the Cross, infused with incense in the shape of the five wounds of Christ. This candle will lead the people lost in darkness into the wondrous light of salvation.

The text describes the cosmic transformation not only of this candle but of all matter through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cosmic quality of praise begins with the hosts of heaven and ends with the gathered assembly, the Church made for praise. The candle is part of the occasion for this praise, for it has enlightened the darkness of the church building itself, shrouded in shadows since the death of our Lord on Good Friday. But note, this is no ordinary candle, no ordinary night.

A common refrain throughout the chant is the Latin, Haec est nox (This is the night). The Exsultet presumes a kind of harmony in the calendar. This night is the night of all nights, dazzling is this night, full of gladness. For on this night, Israel was rescued from slavery in Egypt. On this night, they wandered through the desert illuminated by a pillar of cloud. And on this night, Christ rose from the dead.

The Latin of the hymn describes the salvation effected by Christ employing terms drawn from economics. Our birth would have been worthless if Christ had not bought back the human race through his death and resurrection. Yet, this purchase exceeds the bounds of economics, of a pure exchange, of do ut des, I give that you might give. For the Father showed an incalculable charity, a love beyond measure in handing over his Son as payment for the debt of sin.

The Exsultet demands that we take this debt seriously. Unless we recognize the wages of sin and death, what is at stake in the Resurrection, we will not get what makes this night so wondrous. It is the pure generosity of a love that is excessive, a love beyond measure, a love that didn’t need to give but did nevertheless. The advent of this love in our lives forces us to look anew at history itself. Adam’s sin is now a happy fault (felix culpa), for it “paid” or “merited” the generosity of a Redeemer who operates according to a foolhardy economics.

In fact, night itself has been transformed in the process of this redemption. At a purely human level, night is the time for terror. It is the time for darkness, for the unknown, for the invasion of nightmares. After the Last Supper, Judas left the company of the apostles to sell Jesus over to the authorities. In the Gospel of John, as he left, the evangelist draws our attention to the time of day. In the Latin Vulgate, the text reads, “Erat autem nox” (Jn. 13:30). Judas went into the darkness of despair, the shadows of sedition.

However, night is no more a time for terror. Night is now “truly blessed.” For night alone kept watch over the Resurrection. Darkness is no longer something to fear, to dread, since it too has been redeemed through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The candle, therefore, is a symbol, the very presence of Christ, redeeming the darkness. The light has shone into the darkness, scattering the shadowy world of sin and death. And this gift of life that the candle offers becomes the presence of this generous love, this marvelous union of God and the human person in Jesus Christ. As Romano Guardini writes about the candle:

There it rises, firmly fixed in the metal cup on the broad-based, long-shafted candlestick, spare and white, yet not wan, distinct from whatever background, consuming in the little flame that flickers about it the pure substance of the wax in softly-shining light. It seems a symbol of selfless generosity. It stands so unwavering in its place, so clear and disinterested, in perfect readiness to be of service. It stands, where it is well to stand, before God.[5]

The candle is an image of all creation, the work of bees and the work of human hands. It is creation and thus human history itself that is consecrated through the blessing of this candle. The sweetness of the wax, the self-generating light, is given entirely over to God. The smoke that ascends into the heavens is the presence of this total offering, this return gift of love that the Church makes to the God who first loved the human family.

The candle is thus the advent of the wedding feast. That which is human is now wed to the divine, that which is divine is now united to the human. Everything, on this night, on this blessed night, can be consecrated to God. The rest of the Easter Vigil makes this clear. Water, bread and wine, the human body is consecrated unto God.

Perhaps, the joy of this total consecration, of this embodied sacrifice, is what makes an Easter away from church so hard. Easter is not just an occasion for us to piously remember the Resurrection of the Lord. It is the foundation of the entire life of the Church, the sacramental system in which matters now becomes the means of our redemption. Humanity is wed to God.

We will not be present at the blessing of the Paschal light this year. But the Resurrection nonetheless has taken place. Creation has been transfigured, because the God-man has redeemed the human race. Night is no longer for terror but for keeping vigil before the presence of God. Still, this keeping vigil necessitates a kind of patience. The candle may be a symbol of that Morning Star, that one Morning Star that never sets. But this candle will set, will burn itself into oblivion. The last wax will fall from the blessed candle. So too, we human beings will still die. Death’s darkness will befall us.

Yet, we wait with patience, for the generosity of a God who gives more than we can perceive. As Fr. Jean-Yves Lacoste writes in his phenomenological account of the Vigil:

Between God and us the world remains that which we can neither leave nor abolish. It must be understood then that, in being patient, we renounce . . . all pretensions to being the project managers of the definitive, and put ourselves in God’s hands . . . as the giver of all that does not pass away . . . Our time must thus be lived in patience.[6]

The liturgical Vigil, including the singing of the Exsultet, is not an escaping of the human condition. Resurrection does not mean that we no longer must wait patiently before the tomb. Instead, it means that such patience, such humble dwelling, such awaiting, is the mode by which we celebrate the redemption, awaiting a generosity, a serene light, that no human person can measure.

Easter, in the time of COVID-19, is still to be celebrated. We will not attend as embodied persons the liturgies of our parishes. Most of us will be locked in our homes, not unlike the disciples in the upper room. Unlike the disciples, the poetics of the feast are still available to us. Through contemplation of this poetry we are not aesthetes, delighting simply in word play. Instead, through this contemplation, the very fruits of salvation, of the Resurrection become available to us.

[1] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, §35.

[2] Karl Rahner, “Priest and Poet,” in Theological Investigations—Volume 3 (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 298.

[3] Dante, Paradiso, trans. Robin Kirkpatrick (New York: Penguin, 2007), 15.1-6.

[4] Bonaventure, The Tree of Life 16 in Bonaventure (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).

[5] Roman Guardini, Sacred Signs (St. Louis, MO: Pio Decimo, 1956), 26.

[6] Jean-Yves Lacose, Experience and the Absolute: Disputed Questions on the Humanity of Man (New York: Fordham, 2004), 93.

Featured Image: Mikhail Nesterov, Angel at the Tomb, 1911; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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