Each year, the celebration of Easter reminds us of the triumph of light over darkness, of good over evil. On Holy Saturday, the Church keeps watch, marking the passage of Christ’s death to life and celebrating the resurrection.
The common metaphor of light representing goodness (or enlightenment) and darkness representing evil (or ignorance) is powerful imagery that taps into a shared sensory experience. Our brains still contain vestiges of our ancient fear of the darkness and its danger. In my daily life, with the pervasiveness of electricity and lighting (both indoor and outdoor), I tend to forget how frightening true darkness can be since I hardly ever experience it.
A simple and inevitable truth about Lent is that if I stay awake for the despair and horror of Christ’s Passion, the celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday is even more joyful. If we haven’t spent time in the dark, then it’s hard to fully appreciate the blessing of the light.
The Easter Vigil liturgy allows us to experience this in an embodied manner that engages our senses, not just intellectually. My favorite part of Easter is “The Service of Light” at the start of the Easter Vigil liturgy. We begin sitting in a dark church, holding an unlit candle. Waiting. It’s so unusual to be in a church, after dark, with no lights, that I find this very stirring. It’s such a contrast to my usual comfortable waiting-for-Sunday-Mass experience. I feel the primal uneasiness of the dark – there are people all around me, but the church is a large open space, and I can’t help but feel a tendril of disquiet uncurling at the edges of my mind.
Then a “blazing fire” is started at an appropriate spot outside the church. After blessing and prayer, the Paschal Candle is ritually marked and lit from the fire. The priest reminds us that this candle symbolizes the “light of Christ, rising in glory,” scattering the “darkness of our hearts and minds.”
The celebrants process into the church with the candle and incense (lit from the burning coals of the fire). The combination of incense and fire trigger a sensory experience of “holy” to me. This part of the liturgy engages my senses and focuses my attention in a way that the usual Sunday Mass doesn’t. Maybe it taps into long-ago childhood memories of the liturgies in the 1960s, where incense was a more regular occurrence. The Catholic Church is masterful at evoking the power of solemn, intentional ritual.
Person by person, we pass the light from the Paschal Candle by igniting the flame of each person’s candle. Gradually the entire church becomes light, flickering with the warm glow of fire rather than electricity.
This reminds me, visually and emphatically, of several fundamental truths.
First, similar to how we physically pass along the light from our candle, most of us can only directly influence a small number of people. Very few people have the reach of the prophets and saints who inspire and change the world through their words or actions. But there is such power in just influencing one other person, who then passes it on, leading to exponential change. The light quickly spreading through the church is an undeniable and graphic illustration of the power of this type of interaction.
Second is the importance of being in community. If I were standing in the church alone, my candle would not do much to dispel the darkness. But with all of us present, working communally to spread the light, the darkness is effectively vanquished.
I wish we could do the entire liturgy with just candles, but alas, it’s a long liturgy, and we’re not accustomed to holding fire safely for long periods of time. But even so (maybe even more so since it’s a short time and my mind doesn’t have time to get accustomed to the experience), the “Service of Light” jolts my brain out of its usual pathways and brings me fully awake and attentive. It feels like this is the perfect culmination of my Lenten season of metanoia and learning to stay awake.
Suggestions for Further Reflection
Most people do something to celebrate Easter, even if it doesn’t involve going to church. It can be helpful to reflect on how you make this special, and whether it ties into any of the “staying awake” practices we’ve been practicing.
- If you go to church on Easter, are there particular parts of the liturgy that make it feel holy to you or evoke an emotion? What are these, and why do you think they are especially meaningful to you? Do they have a particular sensory component that contributes to your feeling?
- Whether or not you celebrate Easter by going to church, do you have special Easter traditions? What makes these meaningful to you? Do they incorporate or encourage attentiveness in some way (for example, hunting for Easter eggs requires focused attention, and wearing special spring clothing feels different after wearing our winter sweaters for months)?
God of everlasting light, let us be fully awake and use all our senses in our celebration of Easter this year. Help us be more aware of how Your light scatters the darkness of our hearts and minds. Nudge us to be more conscious about making the choices that allow Your light into our hearts and minds.
Enable us to pass along to others the light that you’ve brought to our lives. The same way we pass light from candle to candle, help us pass comfort, inspiration, love, and attention to those who are in need (knowing that we’ll all have our own times of being in need).
Let our lives be a light in the world, doing our part to be Your hands in the world. Give us confidence that whatever we can do is enough, and touching one person is enough. We don’t have to save the world, we just have to be good stewards of the gifts and talents You have bestowed upon us.
Where was this Service of Light? I wish I had read your blog before our call yesterday bc I could’ve asked more questions. The experience sounds inspiring and spiritually satisfying.
May I remind you that your blog, your words, your thoughts “pass along to others the light that you’ve brought to our lives.” You pay forward your gift of light which helps those of us who are too blind to see in the darkness.
This is the first part of every Easter Vigil (the Saturday night Easter service). I confess that we did not go this year since our church is still closed. So I wrote this from the memory of pre-Covid years. But if you’re interested, I’m sure you can find an Easter Vigil at your church next year. It’s a LONG Mass (the readings cover the entire salvation history), but is very moving.