Pruned, dying, and finally dead upon the threshold of the tomb

All during Lent we were being stripped down and put to a slow death.   I speak liturgically, of course.   But as Catholics our spiritual lives ought to reflect our liturgical lives and Holy Church’s liturgical seasons. 

We were liturgically eviscerated through Lent and Passiontide, Holy Week.

Now, Holy Church has experienced liturgical death.  

In the Extraordinary Form, so important for our self-understanding as Catholics, the Alleluia was lost with the pre-Lenten Sundays.

Instrumental music and flowers went on Ash Wednesday. 

On 1st Passion Sunday we were deprived of statues and images when they are draped in purple.  In the older form of Mass the “Iudica” psalm in the prayers at the foot of the altar and the Gloria Patri at the end of certain prayers was no longer said.  
The pruning cuts more deeply as we entered the Triduum.

After the sudden Gloria during the Mass on Holy Thursday bells were replaced with wooden noise makers. 

The Blessed Sacrament was removed from the main altar.

The altar was stripped, left bare and exposed.

Holy Water, water being so essential to life, is removed.

On Good Friday, there is no Mass.  First no water … now no food.

On Saturday, aside from somber Tenebrae – for we do not cease to pray when we are being emptied out – there is not even a liturgical action, no liturgical sound.  At Tenebrae all lights but for a single candle are snuffed out. 

It dies before night falls.

By the time we come to Saturday evening and the setting of the sun – increasing darkness until the buried sun no longer gives any illumination to the sky, we will be deprived of light itself.

It is liturgical night in the fullest sense.

As night truly falls in the physical realm, Holy Church is motionless, soundless, bereft of sound, motion, warmth, light itself. 

We are in our liturgical tomb.

Holy Church is liturgically dead.

The Vigil is to be celebrated after night has fallen. 

In the darkness a single spark will be struck from flint.

It’s bright glint will be startling in the darkness and silence.

The spark will spread into flames, casting greater and greater illumination as they flicker and wave, as they breathe air and consume the food of its fuel.  The flames will spread through the whole Church.  The glorious Christ Candle will take its place within the sacred space of the church building’ holy of holies, the sanctuary.

Holy Church springs to life again at the Vigil of Easter.   

The dead rise.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Nice liturgical summary of how the liturgy reflects the spiritual realities.

    Have a blessed Easter, Father.

  2. Jim says:

    The Church breathes with two lungs.

    Holy and Great Friday is similar in the Byzantine tradition. Altar covered in black; priest in black vestments. Singing of solemn stychera, similar to Latin reproaches. The Holy Cross is not venerated today, veneration having already occurred during Great Lent. Instead, the holy shroud (epitaphios, an icon of the Lord’s body on precious cloth) is carried round the Church, then laid on a bier. The faithful approach in family groups making solemn prostrations and kissing the epitaphios. Faithful do not partake of the Holy Mysteries as there is no presanctified liturgy today.

    There is much similarity with the traditional Roman Rite, including a sense of great solemnity. We are in awe of the Lord’s pouring Himself out on the Cross. The Royal Hours are chanted through the day, beginning in early morning. It is a day of total fast and mourning as we await Pascha and the Resurrection.

  3. Walter says:

    Dear Father,

    What are the wooden noise makers called and when were they introduced? Why are they used in a procession?

  4. RichR says:

    It does seem cold and sober today. When I prayed Compline last night on my Blackberry at Divinum Officium, it didn’t have the Gloria Patri’s or some of the introductory prayers. Things were paring down. It all seems to fit together with the architecture and Mass in the EFRR, too. It’s neat to rediscover old things.

    As Chesterton once said, “We don’t realize what we’re doing because we don’t realize what we’re undoing.”

  5. Gorgasal says:

    Thank goodness not all the liturgy ceases over the triduum – I just prayed Vespers (it’s afternoon in Europe). After all, it’s called “Liturgy of the Hours” for a reason.

    But apart from this minor nitpick – thanks for drawing our attention to this gradually more severe liturgical fast!

  6. Tomas says:

    Thanks for the beautiful meditation, Father. I wonder if we can call this the Church’s Dark Night of the Soul?

  7. Kevin says:

    Thanks, Father. I’ve never considered it that way. Your reflection was profound and has DEEPLY moved me. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Mysterium Paschale sit semper tecum!

  8. Rachel says:

    Beautiful! You’ve just expressed why I love the Catholic Church, and in particular the Easter Vigil.

  9. cuaguy says:

    Thanks Fr. for this wonderful expression of how liturgy can reflect our physical needs.

  10. BobM says:

    The wooden clapper is called a “crotalus” – literally a “rattlesnake” from the sound it makes when used. You can see a picture of one here:

  11. Gloria says:

    Since I live more than an hour’s drive to Sacramento, I can’t make all the Holy Week liturgies at St. Stephen’s. But the feel in the church, and among parishioners, from Passion Sunday on, has been truly dark and heavy. The silence in church seems more pronounced, unless it’s my imagination. Palm Sunday gives us a brief “Hosanna” and mutes it with the reality in St. Matthew’s Passion. Holy Thursday gives us hope, but we see the suffering that begins before the night is over. I did make it to Good Friday Tenebrae, albeit late. It began at 9am and ended about 11:20am. There were twelve young men from our schola and some visitng seminarians, plus one of our priests, divided on either side of the altar, chanting. At the end, when there is supposed to be “a little noise” representing the earthquake, graves opening, rending the temple veil, I had chills and tears. They slammed books on the floor and on chairs, loudly and strongly for at least 30 seconds. It was so affecting. Stations followed at noon before the Liturgy at 1pm. Confessions have seen long lines, even with the availability, daily, and before and after all Masses to accomodate all who want to confess. The priests will stay until the last person has finished. Holy Thursday the church was overflowing. On Good Friday, I could not believe it. Chairs were set up in front of the first pews, down the side aisles, three rows across the back and people standing in the vestibule and flowing out from there. It took forever for Veneration of the Holy Cross, even with two stalwart altar boys directing people to genuflect and moving them forward. They helped during Holy Communion, too. Even with three priests distributing, it was longer than I can remember. I also heard that groups had come on Holy Thursday and on Good Friday from two and three hours away for the Liturgy at St. Stephen’s. Something is happening here. I believe that people are waking up to what’s happening around us and to us. This Holy Season is perhaps more important to many than at any time in recent memory. I don’t remember it being this way even after 9-11.

  12. David Martin says:

    Wonderful father. Thank you.

  13. Jeff Pinyan says:

    I need what you have just described, Father.

  14. Very well said Father! Regrettably you didn’t go beyond the New Fire at the Vigil. In the older Rites these things were gradually and beautifuly restored. The Vigil in the Novus Ordo makes no sense with the Baptismal rite moved to after the Gospel and the Gloria In Excelsis made to bear the full burden of the budding forth of the new life.

  15. Kavi says:

    Fr, I have a question. I have a brand new (2007) missal which the FSSP Good Friday service followed to the letter (and very nice it was, too). My mother has a 40’s edition which says (I paraphrase) that the “Oremus” and genuflection in the prayer for the conversion of the Jews is omitted. In the new missal, the Oremus and genuflection is the same as with the other prayers (for the Pope, Pagans, & c.) I was wondering, what was the theological rationale for leaving that “Oremus” out, and when was it put in? [This is not really the topic. However, I have a clear recollection that we went over the pretty carefully in discussions here on this blog when the Holy Father inserted the new Good Friday prayer for the Jews into the 1962 Missale Romanum.]

  16. J. C. Oberholzer says:

    When serving Mass in the late forties, we servers called the wooden noise makers “clappers”.

  17. Ricky Vines says:

    I don’t know which is more poetic the liturgical days that depicts the Kenosis in sacred time and space or Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s narrative. (Besides the sacraments, is grace given out during sacred times like these?)

    What I like share is a unique para-liturgical service that I’ve attended before. Watch a short clip of the Good Friday Service
    at the Holy Land Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C.

  18. Londiniensis says:

    Wonderful meditation Father, Thank You.

    « Victimae paschali laudes immolent Christiani. Agnus redemit oves: Christus innocens Patri Reconciliavit peccatores. »

    May you have a Holy and Happy Easter

  19. Mitchell NY says:

    Holy Church is liturgically dead….To some this may sound dreadful, but I think it is a beautiful metaphor…I never realized the full impact of the lessening of liturgical actions before. It also is a striking example of how well thought out and organically developed, through the centuries, the Extraordinary Form has been. I am happy to see it nce again a part of the life of the Church and pray for its’ continued growth. What had been essentially stalled since 1970 has seen its’ own Resurrection Thanks to this Holy Father. God Bless the Pope his Pontificate and to everyone Happy Easter !

  20. Kavi says:

    @ Fr. Z –

    “This is not really the topic.” Sorry, I asked my mother, she didn’t know and told me to type it up here :D

    “However, I have a clear recollection that we went over the pretty carefully in discussions here on this blog when the Holy Father inserted the new Good Friday prayer for the Jews into the 1962 Missale Romanum.”

    Could I please have a link?

  21. ENL says:

    In our parish, our pastor has also used these images and symbols of death, our Lord’s Passion and the liturgical, figurative and literal cleansing we all do during Lent. However, his byword this year is JOY — which is not to be confused with transient happiness — thus when the fire was lit last night in the Great Vigil, we were ready, individually and communally to complete the Triduum (the 3-day mass) in JOY for the hope Christ has givien us – gives us every moment!
    PEACE & BLESSINGS at Easter and evermore! — Elizabeth from Stella Maris, Sullivan Island SC

  22. Joe says:

    Being well aware that no Mass is celebrated after Holy Thursday until the Easter Vigil (after sundown on Saturday) I noticed something Saturday morning.

    I placed flowers on my grandfather’s grave on the morning of Holy Saturday, at Queen of Heaven cemetery in Peters Twp., Pennsylvania. As I was leaving the cemetery, I noticed that the conclusion to a funeral was taking place at the cemetery chapel. There was a hearse and several cars.

    Is an exception made for a Funeral Mass to take place on Holy Saturday? I was not aware of this.

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