We can approach the Holy Father’s magnificent Easter Vigil sermon on many levels. Since WDTPRS is mainly interested in our Catholic life of prayer, let’s look at it from the stand point of what Benedict XVI is offering for our own reflection on our present liturgical practices.
First, some remarks:
I have been maintaining that the Holy Father has a program, a vision for the Church. He is trying to revitalize our Catholic identity. I often refer to his "Marshall Plan", as I call it, for the Church. Just as Europe was devastated after the war and needed rebuilding, the Church and our identity as Catholics has been devastated over the last 40 or so years. We need rebuilding. For Benedict, liturgy is the key. It is the "tip of the spear" so to speak. Change our approach to liturgy and you change everything.
One of the most devastating changes after the Council was the widespread abandonment of ad orientem worship. Authors like Klaus Gamber, for whom Papa Ratzinger has such great respect, thought that changing our altars around was perhaps the most damaging change in the post-Conciliar reform. Sadly, the destruction of ad orientem worship was based on misuse of scholarship, surely, but most on ideological choices rooted in a hermeneutic of rupture and a ecclesiology which was little in harmony with our Catholic faith. The results for Catholic worship were viciously corrosive.
Pope Benedict has long written of the meaning and need for ad orientem worship. In practical terms he knows that we cannot force abrupt changes. We must be gentle in reintroducing it.
However, as we have been watching him during the last year or so reintroducing many traditional elements our Roman Rite into the full view of the world, including ad orientem worship in the Sistine Chapel, I think we can say that he thinks the time has come for more decisive moves.
Let’s turn to the Holy Father’s sermon for the Vigil of Easter.
Again, the are many levels on which we can read this sermon and I urge you to read it once, perhaps, with an eye on baptism, on illumination, etc. But let’s take some time for what his words could provide for some liturgical starting points, helpful to a reform of our contemporary liturgical practices.
Here is the Holy Father’s Vigil sermon, with my emphases and comments.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In his farewell discourse, Jesus announced his imminent death and resurrection to his disciples with these mysterious words: "I go away, and I will come to you", [A Second Coming, a return.] he said (Jn 14:28). Dying is a "going away". Even if the body of the deceased remains behind, he himself has gone away into the unknown, and we cannot follow him (cf. Jn 13:36). Yet in Jesus’s case, there is something utterly new, which changes the world. In the case of our own death, the "going away" is definitive, there is no return. Jesus, on the other hand, says of his death: "I go away, and I will come to you." It is by going away that he comes. [Again, a return.] His going ushers in a completely new and greater way of being present. By dying he enters into the love of the Father. His dying is an act of love. Love, however, is immortal. Therefore, his going away is transformed into a new coming, [Again, the return.] into a form of presence which reaches deeper and does not come to an end. During his earthly life, Jesus, like all of us, was tied to the external conditions of bodily existence: to a determined place and a determined time. Bodiliness places limits on our existence. We [because of human limitations.] cannot be simultaneously in two different places. Our time is destined to come to an end. And between the "I" and the "you" there is a wall of otherness. To be sure, through love we can somehow enter the other’s existence. Nevertheless, the insurmountable barrier of being different remains in place. Yet Jesus, who is now totally transformed through the act of love, is free from such barriers and limits. [The Lord can be simultaneously on every altar in the world.] He is able not only to pass through closed doors in the outside world, as the Gospels recount (cf. Jn 20:19). He can pass through the interior door separating the "I" from the "you", the closed door between yesterday and today, between the past and the future. [Christ is not bound by the limits of space (He can be on all the altars of the world at once), but neither is He limited in time. Consider that when we follow carefully the liturgical books, the baptized at Mass are in unity with everyone else doing the same thing everywhere. At the same time, when we worship in a way that is continuous with the past, we the baptized are also, because Christ is the true actor in Holy Mass, transcending the barriers of time. We are in unity with all the generations that went before us and we are opened outward to those who will follow.] On the day of his solemn entry into Jerusalem, when some Greeks asked to see him, Jesus replied with the parable of the grain of wheat which has to pass through death in order to bear much fruit. [This makes me think of the cleft in the rock through which God commanded Moses to glimpse Him, as He passed. In a sense, the Crucifix is the same. Therefore the position of the Crucifix for Mass is of great importance.] In this way he foretold his own destiny: these words were not addressed simply to one or two Greeks in the space of a few minutes. Through his Cross, through his going away, through his dying like the grain of wheat, he would truly arrive among the Greeks, in such a way that they could see him and touch him through faith. His going away is transformed into a coming, in the Risen Lord’s universal manner of presence, in which he is there yesterday, today and for ever, in which he embraces all times and all places. Now he can even surmount the wall of otherness that separates the "I" from the "you". This happened with Paul, who describes the process of his conversion and his Baptism in these words: "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20). Through the coming of the Risen One, Paul obtained a new identity. His closed "I" was opened. Now he lives in communion with Jesus Christ, in the great "I" of believers who have become – as he puts it – "one in Christ" (Gal 3:28).
[At this point the Holy Father has give you some hooks to hang ideas on in an organized way, a "hermeneutic" or lens through which you can hear what follows. He has talked about the Lord’s Coming, and how He establishes a continuity for the baptized that is not limited in space or in time.]
So, dear friends, it is clear that, through Baptism, the mysterious words spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper become present for you once more. [So, the starting point for "active participation" is our baptismal character. This "active participation" starts with an interior dimension of the human person. In his sermon for the Chrism Mass he spoke to the "active participation" of priests in liturgy, starting from "correct celebration" brought to completion by "interior participation". More on this below.] In Baptism, the Lord enters your life through the door of your heart. We no longer stand alongside or in opposition to one another. He passes through all these doors. This is the reality of Baptism: he, the Risen One, comes; he comes to you and joins his life with yours, drawing you into the open fire of his love. You become one, one with him, and thus one among yourselves. [Think of the liturgical unity we have.] At first this can sound rather abstract and unrealistic. But the more you live the life of the baptized, the more you can experience the truth of these words. Believers – the baptized – are never truly cut off from one another. Continents, cultures, social structures or even historical distances may separate us. But when we meet, we know one another on the basis of the same Lord, the same faith, the same hope, the same love, which form us. Then we experience that the foundation of our lives is the same. We experience that in our inmost depths we are anchored in the same identity, on the basis of which all our outward differences, however great they may be, become secondary. [Think of this in terms of the "continuity" the Holy Father is seeking to reestablish.] Believers are never totally cut off from one another. We are in communion because of our deepest identity: Christ within us. Thus faith is a force for peace and reconciliation in the world: distances between people are overcome, in the Lord we have become close (cf. Eph 2:13).
The Church expresses the inner reality of Baptism as the gift of a new identity through the tangible elements used in the administration of the sacrament. The fundamental element in Baptism is water; next, in second place, is light, which is used to great effect in the Liturgy of the Easter Vigil. Let us take a brief look at these two elements. In the final chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, there is a statement about Christ which does not speak directly of water, but the Old Testament allusions nevertheless point clearly to the mystery of water and its symbolic meaning. Here we read: "The God of peace … brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant" (13:20). In this sentence, there is an echo of the prophecy of Isaiah, in which Moses is described as the shepherd whom the Lord brought up from the water, from the sea (cf. 63:11). Jesus appears as the new, definitive Shepherd who brings to fulfilment what Moses had done: he leads us out of the deadly waters of the sea, out of the waters of death. In this context we may recall that Moses’ mother placed him in a basket in the Nile. Then, through God’s providence, he was taken out of the water, carried from death to life, and thus – having himself been saved from the waters of death – he was able to lead others through the sea of death. Jesus descended for us into the dark waters of death. But through his blood, so the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, he was brought back from death: his love united itself to the Father’s love, and thus from the abyss of death he was able to rise to life. Now he raises us from death to true life. This is exactly what happens in Baptism: he draws us towards himself, he draws us into true life. He leads us through the often murky sea of history, where we are frequently in danger of sinking amid all the confusion and perils. In Baptism he takes us, as it were, by the hand, he leads us along the path that passes through the Red Sea of this life and introduces us to everlasting life, the true and upright life. Let us grasp his hand firmly! Whatever may happen, whatever may befall us, let us not lose hold of his hand! Let us walk along the path that leads to life.
In the second place, there is the symbol of light and fire. Gregory of Tours recounts a practice that in some places was preserved for a long time, of lighting the new fire for the celebration of the Easter Vigil directly from the sun, using a crystal. Light and fire, so to speak, were received anew from heaven, so that all the lights and fires of the year could be kindled from them. This is a symbol of what we are celebrating in the Easter Vigil. Through his radical love for us, in which the heart of God and the heart of man touched, Jesus Christ truly took light from heaven and brought it to the earth – the light of truth and the fire of love that transform man’s being. He brought the light, and now we know who God is and what God is like. Thus we also know what our own situation is: what we are, and for what purpose we exist. When we are baptized, the fire of this light is brought down deep within ourselves. Thus, in the early Church, Baptism was also called the Sacrament of Illumination: [I am reminded of the new prayer for Jews on Good Friday.] God’s light enters into us; thus we ourselves become children of light. We must not allow this light of truth, that shows us the path, to be extinguished. We must protect it from all the forces that seek to eliminate it so as to cast us back into darkness regarding God and ourselves. Darkness, at times, can seem comfortable. I can hide, and spend my life asleep. Yet we are not called to darkness, but to light. In our baptismal promises, we rekindle this light, so to speak, year by year. Yes, I believe that the world and my life are not the product of chance, but of eternal Reason and eternal Love, they are created by Almighty God. Yes, I believe that in Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, in his Cross and resurrection, the face of God has been revealed; that in him, God is present in our midst, he unites us and leads us towards our goal, towards eternal Love. Yes, I believe that the Holy Spirit gives us the word of truth and enlightens our hearts; I believe that in the communion of the Church we all become one Body with the Lord, and thus we encounter his resurrection and eternal life. The Lord has granted us the light of truth. This light is also fire, a powerful force coming from God, a force that does not destroy, but seeks to transform our hearts, so that we truly become men of God, and so that his peace can become active in this world.
[Now we get to the meat of what I am talking about. This is where he reveals more clearly what he is driving at.]
In the early Church there was a custom whereby the Bishop or the priest, after the homily, would cry out to the faithful: "Conversi ad Dominum" – turn now towards the Lord. This meant in the first place that they would turn towards the East, towards the rising sun, the sign of Christ returning, whom we go to meet when we celebrate the Eucharist. Where this was not possible, for some reason, they would at least turn towards [the liturgical East] the image of Christ in the apse, or towards the Cross, so as to orient themselves inwardly towards the Lord. [interior orientation toward the Lord who is coming!] Fundamentally, this involved an interior event; conversion, the turning of our soul towards Jesus Christ and thus towards the living God, towards the true light. Linked with this, then, was the other exclamation that still today, before the Eucharistic Prayer, is addressed to the community of the faithful: "Sursum corda" – "Lift up your hearts", high above the tangled web of our concerns, desires, anxieties and thoughtlessness – "Lift up your hearts, your inner selves!" [Again, this signals an interior orientation. Now the Holy Father returns more closely to baptism.] In both exclamations we are summoned, as it were, to a renewal of our Baptism: Conversi ad Dominum – we must distance ourselves ever anew from taking false paths, onto which we stray so often in our thoughts and actions. We must turn ever anew towards him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We must be converted ever anew, turning with our whole life towards the Lord. And ever anew we must allow our hearts to be withdrawn from the force of gravity, [this phrase surprises me a little, given Pope Benedict’s knowledge of Augustine’s amor meus pondus meum… but there it is.] which pulls them down, and inwardly we must raise them high: in truth and love. At this hour, let us thank the Lord, because through the power of his word and of the holy Sacraments, he points us in the right direction and draws our heart upwards. Let us pray to him in these words: Yes, Lord, make us Easter people, men and women of light, filled with the fire of your love. Amen.
What is going on here? I think the Holy Father has made another contribution to support the benefits of ad orientem worship. The Holy Father has raised the stakes, so to speak. It seems to me that he is now pressing the issue.
I believe that it is time for bishops and priests around the world to take the hint and start, first through catechesis, to start turning our worship back toward the Lord in ad orientem worship.
I made a point I wanted to return to about active participation.
I wrote that, the starting point for "active participation" is our baptismal character. This "active", participation" starts with an interior dimension of the human person. In his sermon for the Chrism Mass he spoke to the "active participation" of priests in liturgy, starting from "correct celebration" brought to completion by "interior participation". I often speak of the need for strong active interior participation which then comes to be expressed in outward gestures, movement, singing, etc. However, here the Holy Father is speaking about how the correct outward celebration of the priest, is brought to completion in interior participation. I don’t want to put to much on this at this moment, but it has started me thinking. First, perhaps there is a possible distinction to be made in active participation of laypeople and that of priests. Also, this expression may also represent the other side of the coin of lex orandi lex credendi. There is a reciprocal relationship between how we pray and what we believe. Sometimes the one or the other will have logical priority.