Celebrating the Paschal Mystery: From Ash to Flame

The following is an excerpt from a liturgical commentary resource prepared by the Australian Catholic Bishops Commission for Liturgy.


Every moment of human life is subject to the play of multiple rhythms of time, some daily, others weekly, monthly, yearly or seasonal. Annual rhythms include the calendar year, the financial year, the school year, the sporting year and the cycle of nature’s seasons. There are the seasons of life too—childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age and older years—punctuated by particular personal anniversaries such as birthdays, weddings, deaths.


The liturgical year

For Christian believers, there’s another, more fundamental rhythm. It’s the calendar of faith, the annual cycle of feasts and seasons by which the church celebrates the mystery of Jesus Christ. The proper name for this is the ‘liturgical year’, though this expression only became current in the twentieth century. Revised fifty years ago by authority of the Second Vatican Council, the liturgical year has become a familiar experience for regular churchgoers.

The first Sunday of Advent heralds four weeks of preparation for Christmas Day and the Christmas season. The Advent–Christmas combination is followed by a relatively short season of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday ushers in the forty days of Lent. The observance of Lent culminates in the solemn celebrations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, which lie at the heart of the year. The ensuing fifty days of the festive Easter season come to a glorious close on Pentecost Sunday. Finally, the church embarks on the second and longer part of Ordinary Time, until the ‘end times’ come into view and a new season of Advent begins.


From diversity to uniformity

How did this yearly cycle come to pass? The original feast for the followers of Jesus was certainly the Sunday Eucharist. They came together on the Lord’s Day to break bread in his memory. In time, local churches began to celebrate different facets of the saving mystery of Christ in the course of the year, but evidence from the first three or four centuries as to how this took place is tantalisingly sparse, fragmentary and difficult to interpret.

Diverse customs arose in different centres such as Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Rome, and across different lands such as Syria, Spain and Gaul. As the centuries passed, there was cross-fertilisation between their liturgical practices, though Rome stood out by being generally resistant to innovation. All in all, this was an era of flux and diversity. The general shape of the liturgical year was established by the sixth century but only became definitive for the Western church a thousand years later through the Council of Trent and the Missal of Pope Pius V in 1570.


The celebration of Easter

By the second century, the weekly assembly came to be complemented by an annual celebration of the paschal mystery. At first, this Christian Pasch was celebrated in accordance with the Jewish calendar for Passover, on the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan, which could be any day of the week. After much controversy, it was decreed by the Council of Nicaea in 325 that the commemoration of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection should be held on Sunday rather than a weekday.

The annual feast of Easter quickly carried over into a week of celebration, which further developed into a season of fifty days. Throughout this time, the church rejoiced in the one great mystery of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. It revelled in the new life of the Spirit. But the integrity of this unified season was lost when the Ascension of the Lord began to be celebrated on the fortieth day, leaving ten days to be spent waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit.


The development of the Triduum

The Easter celebration itself took the form of a night-time vigil, preceded by days of strict fasting. Once it was transferred to Sunday, the service began to focus more exclusively on the resurrection of the Lord. Accordingly, the preceding days of fast developed an identity of their own. Good Friday came to centre on Jesus’ death, Holy Saturday on his burial. The once unified remembrance of the paschal mystery broke up into a series of separate observances. Later developments led to the Vigil being celebrated on Holy Saturday morning, with the addition of Holy Thursday creating a new Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

The evolution of these rites was aided and abetted by widespread imitation of the liturgies of fourth-century Jerusalem. The Holy City had become a popular pilgrimage site. Devout Christians who visited during Holy Week experienced a series of liturgical events at sites associated with Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. On return home, they introduced some of these rituals to their local churches. A number of them, such as the veneration of the cross, survive to this day.


The emergence of Lent

The origins of the season of Lent are much less clear, though practices of fasting, preparation for baptism and the system of public penance certainly all played their part. There seems to have been great diversity as to when baptism was celebrated. In some places, it was after the feast of the Epiphany, in others at Eastertime, in others again on the feast of Pentecost or at another time of the year. With the rise of infant baptism, the adult catechumenate fell into disuse, as did the practice of public penance. The eventual outcome of this process was that Lent emerged as a season of repentance and renewal for the whole community prior to Easter, though traces of its earlier role remained. Surprisingly, the first official reference to the distribution of ashes to the faithful does not occur until 1091, and the name ‘Ash Wednesday’ only dates from the sixteenth century, though the Lenten fast began on this day from the seventh century.


Decline and renewal

By the time the Missal of Pius V was published in 1570, the liturgies of the Triduum had lost much of their significance. The Mass on Holy Thursday at which the bishop consecrated the holy oils was poorly attended, and the washing of feet took place after the Mass. The Good Friday liturgy focused on Jesus’ passion and death to the exclusion of resurrection, and worst of all, the Easter Vigil took place in the full light of day on the Saturday morning. The trend to an earlier time can be traced back to the seventh century, until the morning time was mandated in the Missal of 1570. The impetus of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century liturgical movement, however, led to the reform of the Vigil and Holy Week in the 1950s, foreshadowing the comprehensive renewal authorised by the Second Vatican Council.

The paschal Triduum, extending from Holy Thursday evening to the evening of Easter Sunday, has been restored to its pride of place at the heart of the liturgical year. It is the centrepiece between six weeks of preparation (Lent) and seven weeks of celebration (Easter). There is a new integrity about these ‘great ninety days’, even as the rites appropriate a great diversity of liturgical practices from different places and eras.

All this enables the whole Christian community to be immersed in the whole saving mystery of Jesus Christ: his ministry, suffering, death and resurrection, glorification and sending of the Holy Spirit. In this mystery, the church becomes ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’, called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light in order to proclaim God’s mighty works (1 Peter 2:9).

For more information visit the Australian Catholic Bishops Commission for Liturgy

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