Tuesday, April 14, 2009

This is the night…

Permit me to be a little liturgical in this Easter season…

One service whose magic many churches manage to miss out on for the sake of a few inattentions is the Easter Vigil. Here's the order it went in where I was this year, with some annotations…

1. The people gather around the new fire (which is already lit) outside the church.

Two things are unfortunate about this: firstly, everyone should see the flame being kindled from nothing, to mark the moment of new light. Secondly, the fire should only come *after* the darkness. Which means definitely not at the beginning of the vigil.

2. The newly lit Paschal Candle, with its pins in, is processed into the church and 'The Light of Christ' is chanted three times, increasing in pitch, while the people's candles (which must be new ones) are lit.

At this point there should be no light in the church. Not even in the organ loft!

3. The Exultet is sung

This is well and good, but two things are important: firstly, that it is sung with all the right words, and secondly that it is sung with meaning (that means understanding what is being sung and singing it with poise and atmosphere). THIS is the night.

4. The vigil readings

These should come right at the beginning of the service, before number 1. above. They should be read while the church is in complete darkness, with only a tiny light for the reader to see with. There should be seven readings. Seven. Not four.

5. The vigil psalms

These should be sung to plainsong, including tonus peregrinus where appropriate. They should not be sung to anglican chant (too pretty) nor responsorially, please. Most importantly, the psalms are NOT to be followed with anything resembling 'Glory be…', since these are forbidden words from Maundy Thursday until Easter and may not rise again until Jesus does.

6. The Gloria

After the vigil readings and psalms, it is either Easter, in which case numbers 1 and 2. may follow, and a MASS. Or, it is considered not yet Easter, in which case the service should conclude (possibly with the Exultet but I am not convinced by this theory).

If it is Easter, then after 1., 2. and 3, there follows the Gloria, which, being (as I mentioned before) the first risen Gloria since Maundy Thursday, should be accompanied with the switching on of the lights in the church (or the rising of the sun, if vigil at dawn), an organ fanfare and, as long as Maundy Thursday was properly celebrated*, the ringing of bells for the first time. The people's candles should not be extinguished until this has happened.

This is the celebration of the resurrection, with light and music bursting through the darkness and silence of the first 'vigil' part, and from this point it is definitely Easter. There follows the First Mass of Easter, including as many allelluias (sung and triple) as possible - this word hasn't been said during the entirety of lent!

At the habitual place in the mass, baptisms, renewal of baptismal vows, blessing of the new water, and so on, may take place. Where I was this year, however, more was made of the water than of the fire. Which is a bit of a confusion.

Ideally, the entire thing takes place not in the evening of saturday, but very early on Sunday morning: "And very early, they came to the tomb…"

I don't know of any church that does all of this entirely as I have described it, though I hear from John that such a place does exist. I do know some places that come quite close to getting it right, and when they do, it's among the most moving services of the year. Quite appropriately, I would say: after all, what more miraculous than the moment of the resurrection?

*On Maundy Thursday when the gloria is sung for the last time, the bells should be rung with glee, and from then on remain silent (the organ also remaining silent from this moment on) until the first Gloria of Easter.


Robert said...

I mostly agree with you here, but I'm a bit puzzled by the sense in which doing the vigil as you describe is "right".

As I understand it, the vigil liturgy is very ancient, and was historically performed with the Exultet preceding the readings. Having the readings before the Exultet is an innovation, which I think may be limited to Anglicanism. (Common Worship provides for either order to be used, although the presentation suggests that the order Exultet, readings is primary and the other order is alternative.)

Now, I think that it's a good innovation, because the prophecies are anticipatory, whereas the light symbolises the Resurrection, so it works better with the light coming after the readings, but it seems a bit much to suggest that it's the one true way of doing the Paschal liturgy.

Also, the traditional (Franco-Roman) Exultet contains a line praying that the Paschal Candle will continue to burn until the day-star rises. Since the First Gloria should coincide with the rising of the day-star, that seems like a pretty small request if the First Gloria immediately follows the Exultet. In other words, the text of the Exultet assumes that it will be sung at the commencement of a night-long vigil. This is not to say that this should be done (although it would be interesting to try), but to suggest that utter liturgical purity cannot be achieved in this life.

Robert said...

As to the number of the prophecies, I'm not sure why you say there should be seven. As it happens, I did a little research on the subject this Easter, because Coventry Cathedral omitted the prophecies entirely (to give themselves more time to confirm an enormous number of candidates, I believe). So Catriona and Sally and I did the vigil readings privately before walking in silence to the Paschal fire.

There were originally twelve readings. I once heard a Dominican arguing that these twelve readings had an internal logic which meant that they were the only correct ones. However, I have been unable to find out which twelve readings they were, so that wasn't really an option. Then Pius XII reduced the number of readings to four. Then in the reforms following Vatican II they were increased to seven, with the proviso that some may be omitted, but there must be at least three including the crossing of the Red Sea. The Church of England lectionary provides for nine, with a similar proviso. (Confusingly, the CW Paschal liturgy provides for 22, of which it suggests something like 6-9 (but at least three) may be chosen to fit the particular context of the service (but must include the crossing of the Red Sea).)

We did the nine set out in the Anglican lectionary, which I found very effective, and I gather from the others that they did too.

As for the psalms, we monotoned them antiphonally. I think this also is very effective. Particularly before the Exultet, the majesty of Gregorian chant is not really desirable here. On the other hand, things like the Song of Moses and Miriam and O Cantate Domino do call for some form of singing, so saying the psalms is not really an option. Also, the singing provides a variety of texture.

Given that you insist the psalms should be sung in pitch dark, it seems a bit odd that you refuse to contemplate responsorial chanting. Are you thinking that the choir/congregation will have memorised the plainsong beforehand?

A further point that I think important is that there should be a lengthy silence between the psalm and the collect for each lection, to give us time to contemplate the saving works of God in history.

Robert said...

I've never seen the Paschal fire being lit. I wonder how it would be lit in that case. It is of course perfectly true that cigarette lighters are fires struck from flint, so it's perfectly regular to light the fire in that way, but if it were being done publically, I wonder if perhaps it should be done with an actual lump of flint.

As Carys pointed out on your mother's Facebook, there is a difficulty with lighting the fire while the congregation watch, in that it may take a while. People would feel awkward, which would risk dispelling the sense of awe created by the prophecies. On the other hand, I do take the point that resurrection is not an instant gratification thing.

I do agree that the light is most effective if there has been dark first. At LSM, I almost think that the church has been pitch black ever since the end of Tenebrae. At Coventry, they rather peculiarly did the pitch black thing after the Stripping of the Altar, with someone carrying a lit torch out of the cathedral and into the ruins of the old cathedral (which we could see, because the west wall is made of glass). Which was a bit odd, because by the time we got back on Good Friday, the cathedral was light again.

Robert said...

I agree with you that it is most effective for the First Gloria to follow immediately after the Exultet. However, given my defence of the option of having the Exultet before the prophecies, I can hardly maintain that that's the only place for the First Gloria to go.

(Coventry contrived to omit the First Gloria entirely, which is Just Wrong. The Exultet was instead followed by the Christos Anesti versicle and response and the clergy trying ineffectually to get the congregation to whoop with joy while the organist improvised. I think that trying to contrive a spontaneous expression of joy is always going to be a non-starter and that the best way for Christian to express their joy at this point is by singing the Gloria and ringing bells.)

A pagan friend of mine once admired the air, fire, water, earth structure of the service*, and I don't think that we need downplay the water element.

I think it's a metaphysical error to think that the First Gloria (or the Exultet) is the moment at which it becomes Easter. I think the whole service is a process of becoming Easter.

The renewal of baptismal vows does not seem to me to be an optional element of the service, but an intrinsic part of what we are celebrating, since it is through our baptism that we share in Christ's resurrection.

So while I've never seen the renewal of baptismal vows follow immediately after the Exultet, I wouldn't have any objection to that (provided it was done by candlelight of course). It is, after all, a rite of initiation. The First Gloria could follow after the sprinkling, which would be similar to ordinary practice of having the Asperges before mass.

*Some pagans would argue that the order fire, air, water, earth would be more correct, which would bring us back to lighting the Paschal fire at the start of the service. This also has the advantage of allowing the Liturgy of the Word to form a continuous chunk, from the prophecies to the homily.

Catherine Osborne said...

Yes, amen to all of this, though your post seems to have migrated from an account of what you got to a description of what we should have, so it's a little unclear which things your folk didn't manage to do quite right.
I see, however, from the Roman Missal of 1960, that "The Solemn Easter Vigil for which Pope Pius gave permission in 1951 and made obligatory in 1956" takes the form that you criticise in your post: that is, it starts with the lighting of the new fire and the marking of the paschal candle, and then the readings (four of them) and psalms take place with the reader using the light of the solitary paschal candle to read by. I assume this Roman practice of 1951 is what your folk were quite correctly following. At LSM where we have it the other way round, and do the readings in the dark before dawn, and have the new fire coincide with dawn, we must be following some other tradition. Maybe older? Or just idiosyncratic? I'll have to investigate.

Catherine Osborne said...

I'm sorry that my comment crossed with Robert's, and his are more informative than mine. But I'm very surprised, Robert, that you've never seen the fire lit in front of the people. How sad! After all, that is surely the liturgical point of the extinguishing of all flames till there is total darkness, and then the creation of a new tiny one out of nothing (unless you think we're supposed to have the experience of the disciples of finding him already risen).
Lighting a new fire can be done either with a match or a flint spark in a lighter: both of these are simply high tech versions of rubbing two flints over kindling. And one can have the fire built with some readily combustible items in it, so it lights with a good flame very quickly. Best to avoid petrol though, or one is likely to eliminate the entire congregation, together with the church building and the windows of local houses, all in one go.