It is dusk—8:00 on the night before Easter. At the front doors of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Clovis, California, parishioners have gathered around a large copper tray in which a fire is crackling. As the flames produce sparks and popping sounds, Father Robert Borges, our parish administrator, blesses the fire and lights the three-foot-tall paschal candle. Our newly ordained permanent deacon, Gary Stevens, holds the candle high and begins the ancient acclamation, “Christ, our Light. Thanks be to God.”
Following him in procession, everyone walks into the dark church. As the acclamation is sung three times, the flame of the paschal candle is used to light the small candles that are being held by each person in the church. In a matter of moments, the completely dark church is bathed in soft candlelight.
The Exultet is sung a capella by Father Robert as everyone stands during this Easter proclamation while holding their candles—everyone, except for 16 nervously excited people. These are the catechumens—the elect who are going to be baptized Catholic tonight. They are standing, but in a small area of darkness, for they have not yet received the Light of Christ. They listen as the mysteries of God are sung in wonder and awe.
The Exultet is finished, and the candles are extinguished and collected. The people settle in their pews and darkness envelops them once again. It is time to hear seven specially selected Scripture readings from the Old Testament.
Beginning with the story of creation, salvation history is retold again tonight as it has been on this night for many centuries. Psalms are interspersed with the proclamation of the Scripture readings. They are sung in much the same way as our ancestors sang before us—“As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1). They evoke wonder.
From Calvary to Easter
And then, it is time for joy! As the jubilant sound of the Gloria is sung by the choir, with the organ thundering mightily, the lights of the church come on and people blink their eyes in surprise.
The sanctuary, barren during the preceding six weeks of Lent, has now been filled with beautiful bouquets of flowers. Lilies, colorful azaleas and blue hydrangeas are everywhere, blending their scents with the incense of the Mass. The altar linens are resplendent in gold and white. The bells are being rung during the entire Gloria.
Father Robert’s face, alive with the joy of the event, shows no signs of the sadness of Good Friday. He too sings out the words, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth!”
The Gospel story is retold as it has been for almost 2,000 years. “Jesus, who was crucified, is risen from the dead! Let us be glad and rejoice!”
Father Robert, who had walked the road to Calvary with us through all of our Holy Week liturgies, shares this exciting message with all and gives particular attention to the 23 people who now know that their life-changing moments are almost here. They squirm in their pews in anticipation and finally the 16 catechumens are invited to follow Father Robert to the baptismal font.
The Journey Begins
On their way, the Litany of Saints is sung. The names of those great followers of Christ who have gone before us in faith provide a rich heritage of which these catechumens will now become a part. At the font, the water is blessed and baptismal promises are made. Godparents stand close.
“Patti Lynn, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Alleluia!”
Fifteen more times holy water is poured over the heads of the catechumens as the assembly watches and prays. Happy family members take pictures and wipe tears from their eyes. Each newly baptized “neophyte” receives a white robe and a very large candle, lit from the paschal candle.
“Receive the light of Christ.”
As the 16 neophytes stand in front of the assembly, applause breaks out to welcome these newest members of our faith. Then they are seated as the seven candidates for full profession of Catholic faith process forward. These seven are already baptized Christian, so no Baptism will take place. Instead, the candidates make a solemn statement of faith as they stand in front of everyone clothed in their white garments. The neophytes smile in joy as they share in this moment with their fellow journeyers.
Applause breaks out again and the 23 new Catholics come forward to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.
“Thomas, be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peace be with you.”
The sacred chrism is perfumed and the confirmandi smell the scented oil on their foreheads as they wait for the others to be anointed. Another round of applause erupts and the newly confirmed gratefully return to their pews to begin to absorb all that has happened in such a short time.
But there is more joy for the neophytes to experience, because they are now welcome to receive the sacred Body and Blood of Christ. For so long they have waited in anticipation of this precious gift. They have watched as family members and friends have received this food for the soul and waited for the time when they, too, would be able to enjoy the eucharistic banquet. Finally, the moment arrives.
“The Body of Christ.”
“The Blood of Christ.”
Three hours have passed. It is now after 11:00. Father Robert concludes the Mass with the special blessing and the choir begins the sending-forth song. The 23 clothed in white walk joyfully in procession out of the church.
Around the bell tower they wait for family and friends to rejoin them. Soon the flashes of cameras in the dark night light up the jubilant faces of loved ones. Plans are made among themselves to continue the celebration.
And then, it begins to be understood—the Mass never ends. We may go forth for a while, but we will return to celebrate together, again and again, at the table of the Lord.
The Lord is risen! Alleluia!
An Easter Message from Pope Francis
Dear Brothers and Sisters: On this radiant night, let us invoke the intercession of the Virgin Mary, who treasured all these events in her heart and ask the Lord to give us a share in his Resurrection. May he open us to the newness that transforms, to the beautiful surprises of God. May he make us men and women capable of remembering all that he has done in our own lives and in the history of our world. May he help us to feel his presence as the one who is alive and at work in our midst. And may he teach us each day, dear brothers and sisters, not to look among the dead for the Living One. Amen.
Karen Mentlewski is the director of religious education for Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Clovis, California.
The Last Supper. The post-resurrection appearances of Christ to the apostles. Pentecost. These three key moments in the founding of the Church all took place in the same spot. In Meeting God in the Upper Room, Monsignor Peter Vaghi explores these three events, showing how they can guide us to a deeper appreciation and understanding of living the Christian life in prayer, worship and service. Find it in our bookstore.