As the Church prepares to enter Holy Week, there are several special celebrations that help Christians prepare for the Feast of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday, April 9, signifying the anniversary of our salvation from sin by Jesus’ death on the cross.
As Catholics, at the moment of baptism, we enter into that salvation, officially becoming a member of the family of the Church. This year, the Diocese of Nashville across its 60 churches will welcome more than 500 new members to that family at the Easter Vigil.
“The celebration of the Easter Vigil, which takes place in the night, I believe it’s a great way of unity with Christ,” said Father Zack Kirangu, pastor of St. Patrick Church in McEwen, where two catechumens will receive the sacraments of initiation and five candidates will receive full communion into the Church. “It’s a great, great moment of worship, a great moment of prayer, and a sign of our faith, the faith of the Church.”
Leading up to the Easter Vigil
Before the Church celebrates the Easter Vigil, many feasts continue to prepare its people for the great feast.
First, the Church celebrates Palm Sunday and the Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, April 2.
“On Palm Sunday, we read the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” said Father Bala Showraiah, OFM, pastor of St. Catherine Church in McMinnville, who will receive eight candidates into full communion with the Church at the Easter Vigil. “This is the day when we realize our own passion, our own struggles, our own difficulties and that we have strength and courage to face them because Christ has faced them.
“The Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ is quite long, but it also reminds us of our life itself is long with many sufferings and difficulties apart from the good things in life,” Father Showraiah continued.
The celebration of the Chrism Mass comes on Tuesday, April 4, when all the priests of the diocese come to renew their promises to Bishop J. Mark Spalding and to the people. It is also when the Oil of the Catechumens and the Oil of the Sick are blessed, and when the Sacred Chrism is consecrated. These newly blessed and consecrated oils will be used for the first time on the catechumens and candidates at the Easter Vigil.
“That feast shows our unity as a Church,” Father Showraiah said. “All of us become one family through it.”
That unity continues as the celebration of the Sacred Triduum begins on Holy Thursday, particularly with the washing of the feet, and the remembrance of the institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper.
“When the priest is washing the feet of the people, the whole community is taking part in washing their feet,” Father Showraiah said. The washing of the feet “is a service of the community. … For the priests, it’s a commitment to the people. We will love you and will serve you. As Christ washed the feet of the apostles, so I wash your feet.
“That day also, we realize that there is something beautiful because everyone is important in the community,” he concluded. “Even the worst person in life can be converted through the Eucharist, so we do not look at the sin of somebody, but we look at the conversion of somebody through the Eucharist.”
From Holy Thursday, the Church enters into Good Friday, the remembrance of Christ’s Passion and Death on the Cross, and the Passion reading from the Gospel of John is read once again.
“When we hear the suffering and death of Jesus, we remember the people who died in our own life,” Father Showraiah said. “That is the day where we also remember the saints who gave up their lives for the sake of Christ.”
“It all brings us to the new day … the Resurrection, when Jesus rose from the dead,” he continued. “Now, we rise from our own way of thinking to the Resurrection and begin a new life.
“For me, the Holy Week is all about newness, and that’s why Easter Vigil is so important for the people entering into the Church because they, too, are receiving new life.”
The symbolism of the vigil
The Easter Vigil is the longest service of the Church year, and it is full of symbolism beginning with the Service of Light when a fire is ignited, and the Paschal Candle is lit.
When the Paschal Candle is lifted three times, the celebrant proclaims with each lift, “The Light of Christ” to which the congregation responds, “Come, let us adore.”
“It’s a great celebration of adoration of our Savior, the light of our Christian life,” said Father Kirangu. “It’s a reminder of who our Lord is.”
“When the Paschal Candle is lit, darkness is dispelled,” added Father Showraiah. “Jesus said, ‘I am the Light of the World.’ This is the light of Christ, therefore, Christ is in us. No longer do we run after sin, but we run away from sin towards Christ, the light.”
With candles ablaze to alight the church, each of which are lit by the Paschal Candle, the Exultet is proclaimed, bringing the good news that Christ has indeed destroyed death and risen to new life.
Following the Service of Light, the Liturgy of the Word begins as the congregation listens to seven Old Testament readings from Genesis through Daniel, reminding us of the history of our salvation. It is followed by a New Testament reading and the Gospel, proclaiming the Resurrection of Christ.
“It’s the unfolding of our own salvation through the prophets through the Old Testament,” said Father Kirangu. “It’s the unfolding of salvation history and the fulfillment of that salvation in Christ himself, who is our Lord.
“We are able to connect with the past and thus the scriptures become alive for us,” he said. “They become real.”
Welcoming new Catholics
The height of the celebration of the Easter Vigil comes with the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion for the catechumens and candidates.
This year, 183 catechumens, unbaptized persons, and 311 candidates, persons who were baptized in another Christian church, will enter the Church. And the people of faith serve as witnesses to that rebirth.
“If you’re going to have a grandchild, you want to be part of the grandchild’s life when they’re born. You want to be there to welcome the child. You want to celebrate. This is the same thing,” Father Showraiah said. “A child is born into the Church, and we need to be there, not because we’re baptized or somebody is being baptized, but because that person is part of my community. I am an example and a living witness of the larger Church, and we’re welcoming new people into the Church.”
Father Andrew Forsythe, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Lawrenceburg, who will welcome one catechumen and two candidates on the Easter Vigil, knows firsthand the importance of the Church family being there for that moment.
Father Forsythe is a convert to the Church, having joined the Church during the Easter Vigil on April 15, 2006, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation.
After receiving the sacrament of baptism from the late Bishop David Choby, Father Forsythe said he immediately recalled a line from the song “Baptism” by Kenny Chesney and Randy Travis that says, “I felt like a newborn baby cradled up into the arms of the Lord.”
“I remember distinctly the water dripping down from my head as I stood there watching everybody else get baptized after me, and I felt like that. It was a real experience of feeling like a newborn child,” Father Forsythe recalled. “I got this great consolation from the Lord that I was where I needed to be, and I had been born again surrounded by my family, my church family, and my bishop.
“It was then that I had that experience of belonging,” he said. “Up until that time in my life, I didn’t have a home in that sense. I had an earthly home, and I had great parents and a great family, but it wasn’t until I was there that it was fully realized.”
Now, as a priest he gets to be a part of that moment for others each year.
“That’s the beauty of God’s gift to us in the sacraments,” Father Forsythe said. “They’re not meant to be kept in ourselves; they’re meant to be shared. In this unique ministerial way, I’m sharing the gift that God gave me with others. It’s passing it on.
“After receiving our gift of grace, we give that grace to others through Christ,” he said. “That in and of itself is very fulfilling and life-giving. It’s generative love.”
“St. Augustine said, ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord,’” Father Forsythe added. “To enter into his rest is to celebrate the communion that he shares with us not just as God, but as one of us, as a human, and we are participating as his body in the fullest of ways at that liturgy.”
Renewal of baptismal promises
Not only does the Church witness the promises of the newly baptized at the Easter Vigil, but each member of the congregation renews their own baptismal promises as well.
“Just like the priests renew their obedience to the bishop at the Chrism Mass, so we, too, renew our baptism, our obedience to Jesus Christ and also to the teachings of the Church” at the Easter Vigil, Father Showraiah said. “This is the day when we realize that we have not just received baptism for the sake of becoming a member of the Church, but to obtain eternal life.”
During this time, the holy water is blessed and the sprinkling rite happens “as a reminder of our baptism. We’re reminded that we no longer have original sin. Because of our baptism, we are freed from that,” he added.
Jesus is the cornerstone
The rest of the great celebration culminates in the climactic moment of every Mass, the consecration of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and the receiving of the Eucharist.
And then, the faithful are dismissed with a chorus of “Alleluia” for the first time since Ash Wednesday, a signal that Christ truly has risen.
“All this, the Liturgy of the Word, the ringing of the bells, the baptism, the receiving of the Holy Eucharist and the dismissal with the proclaiming of the ‘Alleluia, Alleluia,’ it’s the proclamation of He who is the stone, the foundation, who was rejected by the builders and is the cornerstone,” said Father Kirangu. “Jesus is the cornerstone for all of us. We know he died and has risen, so we rise with him. We will rise from death, from our weakness, our own brokenness, to new life in heaven with him for all eternity.”