Editor's note: NCR is sharing with our readers a liturgy resource put together by board member and composer Dan Schutte. During this time of global crisis, Schutte said he was feeling the loss of being able to celebrate the liturgy of the Easter Triduum with his home parish. This sadness inspired him to create a virtual celebration to help us be in communion, even though we are physically separated. You can find the entire Easter Triduum virtual celebration here.
This great vigil has its roots in the night of Passover when the Israelites stayed awake waiting for the Lord to deliver them. Like them, we gather as a family to tell the stories of our salvation and draw strength from the remembering. The most important thing is to allow the symbols of this night — the light, darkness, Paschal candle, the waters of baptism, the bread of life — to capture our imagination as we wait together in joyful hope for the good news of God's victory over death. In the process we discover for ourselves the glory of the cross.
More Holy Week resources:
- Sign up to receive NCR's weekly Scripture for Life reflections.
- Pencil Preaching: Daily sketches of the Word by Pat Marrin.
- Watch a conversation with NCR national correspondent Heidi Schlumpf and composer and NCR board member Dan Schutte.
- Together we embrace the cross: paschal mystery during pandemic, from Colleen Gibson, a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, at Global Sisters Report.
- Commentary from Mary E. Hunt: Catholic progress in extremis
- Scripture for Life for Easter Sunday: Blessed are the confused
- From darkness to light when all is dark, writes NCR columnist Michael Sean Winters
- Where is God in the agony of coronavirus? asks St. Joseph Sr. Christine Schenk at Global Sisters Report.
- Daily Easter Reflections
Prelude: Holy darkness
Friday's liturgy ended in silence. Tonight's service begins in darkness. We often forget Holy Saturday, the Day of the Lord's Entombment, a day clothed in darkness and despair. Imagine the sadness and despair of the disciples on that day. Their dream had been shattered and they watched their friend, the one in whom they had put their hope, die a horrible death. So before we begin the Easter Vigil, let us allow ourselves to sit in the darkness and gather into our hearts all those places in our hearts that long for the Light of Christ.
Easter proclamation: Most holy night
After the Easter candle is carried in solemn procession into the darkened church and all the congregation's candles have been lit, we hear the first proclamation of Easter in the "Excultet," a song of joy and exultation. This version, rather than being sung by a solo voice, is structured in three musical parts: the assembly's refrain, verses for two male and female singer, and a choir bridge between the two. The music is joyful, but solemn and majestic compared to the exuberance of the "Glory to God." As we imagine the church filled with candlelight and faces lit in quiet hope, we sing of the triumph of God's mighty love.
Scripture reading: Ezekiel
The Easter vigil liturgy, as we normally celebrate it, is a night watch harkening back to the night the Israelites stayed awake in vigil waiting for the Lord to deliver them from their slavery in Egypt. Like they did, we tell the stories of our salvation from Creation to the recounting of Easter morning. For this virtual celebration of Easter Vigil, the readings have been condensed to three: one from the prophet Ezekiel, one from Isaiah and the Gospel reading from John. If you'd like to experience all the Vigil readings, here’s a page with all of them including the Psalms between them. We begin with the reading from the prophet Ezekiel.
Psalm response: On this most holy day
Usually between each of the Vigil readings we sing a different Psalm. "On This Most Holy Day" allows us to enjoy those unique Psalms by combining many of them into this one setting. With each piece of music we sing during this liturgy, the expression of joy becomes a bit more exuberant from the previous hymn. Let the joy of this piece seep into the crevices of your soul.
Scripture reading: Let all who thirst
Rather than proclaiming this familiar Scripture passage from the prophet Isaiah in spoken word, I invite you to hear it in a different way through this hymn. Let the words and images wash over you. Bring to this moment all those places in your soul that may feel dry and barren, in need of the life-giving water of God's grace. Imagine what it feels like as the water splashes on your face and awakens a new day.
Glory to God
Within the structure of the Vigil Liturgy of the Word, the “Glory to God” is traditionally inserted immediately after the readings from the Old Testament. As we prepare ourselves to hear the New Testament account of Easter Sunday morning, we allow ourselves to sing with a level of joy we’ve not yet expressed on this night. Imagine yourself being able to dance in the joy of this hymn that proclaims God’s glory.
Easter gospel and acclamation
The church has always considered the proclamation of the Gospel to be one of the high points of any liturgy. To set this Scripture off from the rest, we sing the Gospel Acclamation, the "Alleluia," to announce the reading, much like a trumpet fanfare announces the arrival of an important person or event. As we do when gathered in church, I suggest that you stand for this reading as a way of acknowledging the presence of Jesus, the Word of God and the bearer of Good News.
Jesus Christ is risen today
As mentioned previously, the proclamation of the Easter gospel is a high point of the Vigil liturgy and, as such, calls for a special acclamation on our part. This is just not like any other Sunday and so we do special things to help us experience it as special. Singing of this hymn draws us into the amazement of the Scripture text we've just heard and allows us to sing our affirmation from the depths of our soul. As you sing this, imagine your church, filled to capacity with standing room only, joining in this hymn with full heart and voice.
This Easter homily was given by Fr. John Baran, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Fairfield, Connecticut in 2017. Since then, John has made his own journey home into the arms of God.
Renewal of baptism and profession of faith
In the early tradition of the church, Easter was the day when new members were welcomed into the community by baptism. The symbols of baptism permeate the Vigil liturgy. This is the time when the catechumens would make their profession of faith. The entire community is invited to renew their baptismal promises and make their profession of faith along with them. And so we are invited now to make those promises again and profess the faith we share.
Preparation of altar and gifts
This is the point during the liturgy that we dress the altar table and bring up our simple gifts of bread and wine. As you know, this moment is often, especially on feast days, accompanied by a hymn that we sing as the rituals are being completed. "Join in the Dance" is very much an Easter hymn. It's verses proclaim the victory of Christ over darkness and death. As you sing/listen, allow yourself to be carried away by the joy of the music. This moment prepares us to enter into the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving which follows.
Prayer at the table: Mass of Christ the savior
This solemn prayer marks the high point of the entire liturgy. The documents of the church call this prayer "the center and summit of the entire celebration." It's called the Eucharistic Prayer from the greek word "eucharistia," which means to give thanks and praise. Everything in this night's liturgy up till now has been leading us up to this moment where we proclaim our thanks and praise to a God who has blessed us with such abundance even in the midst of our darkness and brokenness. And so, together we lift our hearts in thanksgiving.
Lamb of God litany
The "Lamb of God" is a title for Jesus of Nazareth that appears in the Gospel of John. The lion-like lamb that rises to deliver victory after being slain appears several times in the Book of Revelation. And, of course, it's a direct reference to the Passover lamb whose blood the Israelites put on their doorposts to protect them from death. During much of history, the Lamb of God ("Agnus Dei") was sung with tropes verses each one expressing a different aspect of Christ. During a usual Mass, this song is sung as the baskets and cups are being prepared for distribution at communion. For us now we can lay upon the sacrificial Lamb of God all the things that keep us from experiencing the fullness of God's life and grace.
Communion hymn: Glory in the cross
For the third time, we visit this hymn that expresses the central theme of the entire Triduum celebration. "Let us glory in the cross of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who is our hope and our salvation." This is the song and theme that weaves together the three days of the Triduum. You may notice that this Easter version of the song is much more joyful and majestic. Today it becomes our song as we share communion in a different way, physically apart while still be bound together as the Body of Christ. As we pray this piece, let us hold each other close.
Closing hymn: The wondrous news
And now it is time for us to go forth, sent by Jesus Christ to be disciples of hope in the world. Surely this is a time in the story of humanity when hope is needed in a very real and particular way. We pray together that these days celebrating the Triduum might have nourished our own hope and will allow us to be beacons of hope to our brothers and sisters. And next year, may we again gather as community in our churches and chapels and embrace each other with the peace of Christ.
[Dan Schutte, an NCR board member, is the composer-in-residence at the University of San Francisco.]