The history of ancient liturgical and devotional customs is generally of great edification, for although the practices related are no longer observed, at least not in the same manner, they nevertheless tell us of the faith and fervor of ages gone by. Easter is a time in the Liturgical Cycle which is rich with such history.
Matins of Easter Sunday morning used to be celebrated in a most dramatic manner. In most of the churches of the West during the Middle Ages, as soon as the third Lesson was read, and before the Te Deum, the clergy went in procession, singing a Responsory, to the chapel where the Blessed Sacrament had been kept since Holy Thursday, which was called the Chapel of the Sepulcher. Three clerics were vested in albs, and represented St. Mary Magdalene and her two companions. When the procession reached the chapel, two deacons, in white dalmatics, representing the two Angels who were standing at either end of the tomb, thus addressed the three clerics: Whom seek you in the sepulcher, friends of Christ? The clerics answered: Jesus of Nazareth, O ye citizens of Heaven! Then the deacons: He is not here; He hath risen as He foretold: go, say that He is risen.
The three clerics here went to the altar, and raising up the cloths which covered it, they reverently kissed the stone. Then turning towards the Bishop and the clergy, they sang these words: Alleluia! This day the Lord hath risen: the strong Lion, Christ the Son of God, hath risen.
Two cantors stepped forward towards the altar steps, on which the clerics were standing, and addressed them in these words of the Sequence: Tell us, O Mary, what thou sawest on thy way?
The first cleric, who represented St. Mary Magdalene, answered: I saw the sepulcher of the living Christ: I saw the glory of the Risen One. The second cleric, who represented Mary the mother of James, added: I saw the Angelic witnesses: I saw the shroud and cloths. The third cleric, who represented Mary Salome, completed the reply thus: Christ, my Hope, hath risen! He shall go before you into Galilee. The two cantors answered with this profession of faith: It behooves us to believe the single testimony of the truthful Mary, rather than the whole host of wicked Jews. Then the whole clergy joined in this acclamation: We know that Christ hath truly risen from the dead. Do Thou, O Conqueror and King, have mercy on us!
The two deacons then opened the tabernacle. Taking the pyx, in which was the Blessed Sacrament, they laid It upon a portable throne and carried It in procession to the high altar. Clouds of incense perfumed the way while a beautiful Responsory was sung. The procession having reached the sanctuary, the deacons placed the Blessed Sacrament upon the altar. The Bishop, after offering the homage of incense, intoned the Te Deum, in thanksgiving for the Resurrection of Our Redeemer.
This touching ceremony, from which probably originated what were called The Mysteries, was not officially part of the Roman Liturgy; still, it was an expression of the lively and simple faith of the Middle Ages. It gradually fell into disuse during the 16th and 17th centuries, when men became absorbed in material things, and lost that appreciation of the supernatural which their forefathers loved to encourage by every possible means. The ceremony we have just described varied in the manner of its being carried out; but we have given its chief traits, such as we find them mentioned in the ancient Ordinaries of great cathedrals.
The Churches of Bohemia, Hungary and Poland used to keep a custom, borrowed from the Orientals, of spending the night preceding Easter Sunday in prayer. At break of day, the hour of the Resurrection, the Blessed Sacrament was taken from the "sepulcher" (altar of repose) and Benediction was given. Up to the 19th century, in certain towns of Spain, two processions started from the principal church: in one was borne a statue of the Blessed Virgin, which was covered with a veil; in the other, the Blessed Sacrament was carried under a canopy. The two separated, and marched in silence through the streets, until the sun appeared on the horizon, when they met at an appointed place. The veil that covered the statue of the Holy Mother of God was then removed, and the whole people sang the anthem, Regina Coeli, laetare, alleluia! thus commemorating the joy experienced by Mary when She was visited by Jesus after His Resurrection, that same Jesus Who was there really present in the adorable Sacrament. The two processions then returned together to the church.
Another demonstration of Paschal joy consisted in the kiss of peace given by the faithful in the church at the announcement of the Resurrection. This custom, which was taken from the Oriental Churches, was kept up in the West until the 16th century. In some places, it was at the beginning of Matins that this kiss of peace was given, and with these words: Surrexit Christus! Christ is risen! In others, it was given after the ceremony described above.
The hour of Tierce (9 o'clock in the morning) was formerly the hour for the principal Mass of Easter Sunday. The pavement of the great churches were strewn with flowers, the walls covered with rich tapestry, and festoons hung from the sanctuary arch to the pillars of the nave and aisles. Lamps fed with the purest oil, were suspended from the canopy above the altar. The Paschal candle, burning ceaselessly since the Easter Vigil the night before, stood on its marble pillar. But by far the most interesting object was the group of neophytes – the newly baptized – clad in their white garments, like the Angels that appeared at the sepulcher. They were the living expression of the mystery of Our Lord's Resurrection. The day before they were dead in sin; now they were living, by that new life which is the fruit of Jesus' victory over death. Oh happy thought of our Mother the Church, to choose for the day of their regeneration that on which the Man-God won immortality for us His creatures!
In many of the Western churches, the hymn Salve Festa Dies, written by St. Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, was sung during the procession before the Mass. This hymn is replete with the same enthusiasm that inspired the same author when he composed the hymn Vexilla Regis, used during Passiontide, and the hymn O Redemptor, used during the consecration of Holy Chrism. The beautiful chant, to which this hymn was sung, can still be heard in old recordings:
Hail, thou festive, ever venerable day! whereon Hell is conquered and Heaven is won by Christ. Lo, our earth is in her spring; bearing thus her witness that, with her Lord, she has all her gifts restored. Hail... For now the woods with their leaves, and the meadows with their flowers, pay homage to Jesus' triumph over the gloomy tomb...
At the Papal Mass, during the Middle Ages, while the Pontiff recited the Secret, the two youngest Cardinal-deacons came forward, vested in white dalmatics, and stood at each end of the altar, with their faces turned towards the people. They represented the two Angels who kept guard over Our Savior's tomb, and announced to the holy women that He had risen. The two deacons remained in that position until the Pope left the altar at the Agnus Dei, in order to receive Holy Communion at His throne.
Another impressive custom used to be observed at St. Mary Major's. When the Pope, after breaking the Host, addressed the faithful with the usual greeting of Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum, the choir did not answer the usual Et cum spiritu tuo. It was the tradition that St. Gregory the Great was once officiating in this Church on Easter Sunday, when, having sung these words, which bring down the Holy Spirit of Peace on the assembled people, a choir of Angels responded with such sweet melody, that the singers of earth were silent, for they feared to join in the celestial music. The year following the cantors awaited the angelic response to the words of the Pontiff: the favor, however, was never renewed, but the custom of not answering the Et cum spiritu tuo was observed for several centuries.
It was the practice in the ancient Church of Gaul to chant a solemn appeal to the people, who were about to receive the Bread of Life. It was sung in cathedral churches even after the introduction of the Roman Liturgy into the Kingdom of the Franks by King Pepin and the Emperor St. Karl the Great. It was not entirely discontinued until the 19th century came with its unsanctioned and ever-to-be-regretted innovations. The music which accompanied the Antiphon is most impressive and appropriate: Come, O ye people, to the Sacred and Immortal Mystery! Come and receive the Sacred Libation!
In later times, when the Papal Mass was at St. Peter's, the Pope, directly after the Mass, would be carried on the sedia gestatoria to the great nave, where he would descend and humbly kneel. Then, from the tribune (balcony) of the cupola, priests vested in white stoles would display the Wood of the True Cross and the Veil, called the Veronica, on which is impressed the Holy Face of Our Redeemer. This commemoration of the sufferings and humiliations of the Man-God, at the very moment when His triumph over death has been celebrated with all the pomp of the Liturgy, eloquently proclaimed the glory and power of our Risen Jesus, and showed how faithfully and how lovingly He fulfilled the mission He had so graciously taken upon Himself. It was on this very day, that He Himself said to the disciples of Emmaus: "Thus it behooved Christ to suffer and to rise again from the dead the third day" (Luke 24: 46). The Christian world, in the person of its Supreme Pastor, thereby paid its homage to the sufferings and glory of its Redeemer. The Pontiff would then be carried to the balcony, where the Papal Blessing would be given to the people assembled in the piazza of St. Peter's.
Formerly, when the Lateran Palace was the Papal residence, and the Station of Easter Sunday was held at St. Mary Major's, the Sovereign Pontiff, vested in a cope and wearing the tiara, went to the Basilica on a horse caparisoned in white. After the Mass, he proceeded to the banquet hall, called the Triclinium Leonianum. It was built by St. Leo III, and was decorated with mosaics representing Christ, St. Peter, Constantine and St. Karl the Great. A repast was prepared, to which were invited, as guests of the Pontiff, five Cardinals, five deacons, and the first in dignity of the clergy attached to the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. Near to the Pope's own table, a seat was prepared for a twelfth guest – the prior, called the basilicarius. The Paschal Lamb was then served up, laid on a rich dish. The Pope blessed it, and thus signified that the severe law of abstinence was at an end. He himself cut it into portions and sent one to each of his guests; but first of all he cut off a small piece, and gave it to the basilicarius, saying to him what would have seemed a harsh allusion, but for the words that followed: "What thou hast to do, do quickly! But what was said as a condemnation, I say to thee as a pardon." The repast began with joyous conversation; but after some time the archdeacon gave a signal, and a deacon began to read. The papal choristers were afterwards introduced, and sang such of the favorite sequences as the Pope called for. This done, the choristers kissed the feet of the Pontiff, who gave to each of them a cup of wine from his own table, as well as a coin from the treasurer.
Our object in mentioning such customs as this, is to show the simple manners of the Middle Ages. The custom of blessing and eating lamb on Easter Sunday still continues in some places, although it generally has lost its meaning. For those who, from false pretexts, have scarcely observed a day's abstinence during the whole of Lent, the Paschal Lamb is a reproach rather than a consolation. We here give the venerable prayer of the Blessing of the Paschal Lamb, that it may take us back in thought to other ages and prompt us to ask of God that He will grant us a return to the simple, practical and divine faith, which gave such soul and grandeur to the everyday life of our Catholic forefathers:
O God, Who, on the deliverance of Thy people from Egypt, didst command, by Thy servant Moses, that a lamb should be slain as a type of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and didst ordain that both side-posts of the houses should be sprinkled with its blood: vouchsafe also to bless + and sanctify this creature of flesh, which we Thy servants desire to eat for Thy glory, and in honor of the Resurrection of the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee forever and ever. Amen.
The law of Lent formerly forbade not only flesh-meat, but also eggs. It was only by a dispensation that they were allowed to be eaten during that Holy Season of penance. The Churches of the East maintained this discipline much longer than the West. Here again, the faithful used to show their joy, by asking the Church to bless the eggs that appear at their Easter repast. The following is the prayer used for this blessing:
We beseech Thee, O Lord, to give the grace of Thy blessing + to these eggs; that so they may be a wholesome food to Thy faithful, who gratefully take them in honor of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee, forever and ever. Amen.
Yes, let our Easter repast, blessed as it is by our Mother the Church, be one of joy, and add to the gladness of this great day! The feasts of religion should always be kept by Christian families; but there is not one, throughout the year, that can be compared to this of Easter, which the faithful had waited for so long and in such penitence, and which at length has come, bringing with it the riches of God's pardon, and the hope of immortality.
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