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What Easter means to me

30 November, 1999

Fr George Wadding remembers back to childhood Easters and prays that Easter would recover its former status as the most important feast in the Christian year.

When I recall the Easters of my childhood, what stands out most clearly is Good Friday. There was no Easter Vigil in those days, and Lent itself ended at midday on Holy Saturday. So it was natural for people’s pieties to focus instead on Good Friday.

Endurance test
What I remember most about that day was its deadly silence. Shops were closed and the entire world seemed to be in mourning. From noon to 3.00 p.m., the adults went to packed churches to listen to a three hour sermon on the Seven Last Words of Jesus. It was surely a gigantic endurance test.

Meanwhile, we little ones were not allowed to play on the streets or to make any noise. For some reason, one particular image has stayed fixed in my memory. It was a warm, sunny day, and I remember standing alone in the back garden shrouded in a holy silence, and improving my skill with the least noisy toy of them all, a yo-yo.

Later, in boarding school, other memories would accumulate and push aside these earlier recollections. We were not allowed home for Easter in those days, so for three evenings we attended devotions of Tenebrae in the nearby Redemptorist church. They were a bit eerie. The vaulted church echoed the sounds of the priests and the brothers as they chanted the psalms and readings of the Divine Office in mumbled Latin.

But the piece de resistance came for us towards the very end of the service. As the service had progressed, the church lights had gradually dimmed. When we begun the Benedictus, the only lights left on were those on a triangular candelabrum in the sanctuary. After every phrase of the Benedictus, these, too, were extinguished one by one until, at the end, the entire church was engulfed in impenetrable darkness. For a few moments there was also the deep silence that followed when the pounding drone of the chanting stopped. We were meant to share the darkness and loneliness of Calvary.

Shattering the silence
And then came our moment. We shattered the silence by banging our missals and breviaries to represent the sound of the earthquake which rent the veil of the temple and opened the graves of the dead. You can imagine young fellows like us waiting for our opportunity to cut loose and hammer hell out of our books with complete abandon.

On Good Friday itself, we were gathered in the church for the Stations of the Cross. Around one hundred of us boys went from station to station as a priest in the pulpit led the prayers and meditations. You could hear the mothers in the congregation ‘ooh-ing and aah-ing at the younger boys all dolled up like angels in their surplices and soutanes. And you could see the girls casting the odd amorous glance at some of the older boys.

The ceremony of the Paschal fire was celebrated at six in the morning on Holy Saturday. We were among the very few people in the country who attended it. In most churches it was celebrated only by the priests and a handful of people. Whether it was the early hour or the haphazard way the rite was celebrated, I don’t know, but I find no trace at all of this ceremony in my memory of Easters past. What I do remember is the expectant wait until the angelus bell at midday heralded the ending of Lent. The store would then be opened and we would gorge ourselves on whatever goodies had come from home. This was the highlight. This was our Easter moment. After all, in those days we observed a strict fast right throughout the 40 days of Lent. Looking back, you could say we were a people of the cross, a people whose spiritual journey ended on Calvary. Because of our history, I think that we Irish were at home with the image of a Calvary people. An ancient Irish hymn goes like this:

O King of the Friday
whose limbs were stretched on the cross,
O Lord who did suffer the bruises,
the wounds, the loss,
we stretch ourselves
beneath the shield of thy might,
some fruit from the tree of thy passion
fall on us this night!

It was always said that if you rose very early on Easter Sunday, you could see the rising sun dancing in the sky. But as a child I never met anyone who was able to confirm this story first hand.

New rites
Early in my seminary days, the new rites of Easter were introduced, as we have them today. But it would be another 14 years before we had English in the liturgy. Ever since then, the ceremonies of Holy Week have become a very important part of my life. For the first time I began to realise that I was an Easter person, that the story of Christ and of every Christian does not end in the ignominy of Calvary but in the glory of Easter Sunday. For the Eastern churches, Easter has always been the most important feast of the year. Even the communists were unable to prevent the Russian people from greeting each other on Easter morning with the words, “Christ is risen,” to which the reply is “He is risen indeed.”

New life
Just as mid-winter is the ideal time to celebrate the coming of Christ, the Light of the World, into our darkness, so Easter is celebrated at the height of spring when nature itself conspires to teach us the message of the feast.

Winter has passed. Summer is tapping at the window. Nature, stripped naked and shivering in arctic coldness, is dressing herself in her spring finery. The dull greys and browns of the landscape change to greens and yellows and whites. The warm sun begins to steal back hours from its enemy, the dark. The seeds and buds that lay stiff and cold in the frozen embrace of death, now spring to life again and proclaim to the world, “Death is not the end. There is life after death. There was for Christ. There is for us.” And we all want to cry out” Alleluia!”

My favourite Easter carol is “Now the green blade rises”, by J.M.C. Crumm:

Now the green blade rises
from the buried grain,
wheat that in the dark earth
many days has lain.
Love lives again
that with the dead has been:
Love is come again,
like wheat that springs up green.
When our hearts are weary,
grieving, or in pain,
your touch can call us,
back to life again,
fields of our hearts
that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again,
like wheat that springs up green.

Most important feast
I would like to see Easter recover its position as the most important feast of the year. While things have improved immensely since the introduction of the new rites 30 years ago, Easter still plays second fiddle to Christmas and to Calvary, though at least we can be grateful that consumerism has not yet succeeded in commercialising our Easter feast.

After a life spent in bringing the Good News to people, I find myself praying more and more for the followers of Christ that we might become soaked with the Resurrection message of Easter. The Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: “Since all the children share the same blood and flesh, he too shared equally in it, so that by his death he could take away all the power of the devil, who had power over death, and set free all those who had been held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.”

Once the disciples of Christ experienced his Resurrection, their entire lives changed. He told them that he was going to prepare a place for them. They knew that death would not be their end either, that they would live too. “If we share Christ’s sufferings,” they said with complete confidence, “we shall also share his glory” (Rom 8:17). Nothing could be more certain for the apostles. Nothing should be more certain for us too.

My prayer for each of us on this Easter is that we will always be Easter people, people whose lives are full of hope. And not just hope, but full of certainty that the Resurrection of Christ is our guarantee that we too will be raised to share his glory for eternity. Or, as that text from the Letter to the Hebrews, which I quoted above, says: “May the Lord’s Easter victory set free all those who had been held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.”.


This article first appeared in Reality (April 1999), a Redemptorist Publication.

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