Sunday, April 12, 2009

Vigilia Pascual

I’ve been in awe of the Easter Vigil service ever since I first attended one four years ago in Bloomington, Indiana.

On the night of Holy Saturday the congregation gathers around an outdoor firepit and watches as the Christ Candle is relit. From that relit candle all of our little candles are lit, and then we process inside to hear the story of salvation, from Genesis to the Gospels, in the candlelit darkness. At midnight (ideally) the bells ring out, resurrection hymns are sung, alleluias are said once again. Then there is a rite of renewal of baptism, and the sprinkling of baptismal waters, and we all, finally, gather around the table for Holy Communion.

I love this service so much that last year, when my Ministry-in-Context parish didn’t offer one, Chris and I took the Red Line all the way to the other side of the city to attend an Easter Vigil at another Lutheran church. It was hard to justify on rational grounds, as it added yet another worship service to an already full weekend and subtracted several precious hours of sleep before Sunday’s early-and-often Easter services. But it was worth it.

This year, as we gathered at dusk around a charcoal firepit in the courtyard of a little Catholic church in central Mexico, I reveled in the elemental nature of the flickering flames. They reminded me of an old Aztec tradition I learned about earlier this year.

When we lived in Mexico City we lived very near the University Olympic Stadium, and we would often walk by the mosaic mural that adorns one side of it. It was designed by Diego Rivera for the 1968 Olympics to depict the “New Fire” ceremony of the Aztecs, in which a sacred fire is lit once every full cycle of the Aztec caelndar in order to, as Wikipedia describes it, "stave off the end of the world."

As a rule I don’t approve of oversimplifying cultural traditions to make them all neatly blend together, but as we stood around that firepit I couldn’t help thinking of the New Fire and the ancients who gathered, again and again, from generation to generation, to see it relit.

A high-school age youth group from another Mercedario church in Toluca (near Mexico City) has been helping lead Semana Santa services all weekend, and as we waited for the rite to begin the youth tended the flames. Some of the jovenes from the group used giant wooden boards to make very loud clacking sounds. These clackings served as the call to worship, for the bells of the church could not be rung during this time between Good Friday and Easter. We bought our candles for the service, little replica candles of the Christ Candle, with the Alpha and Omega symbols painted on, and we took our place around the circle.

Finally the priest came out, dressed in white with fantastic red images sewn into his vestments. He welcomes us, calmly explains where we can still get our candles for the service, and then he begins.

Oremos. Let us pray.

“Dios nuestro, que por medio de tu Hijo nos has comunicado el fuego de tu vida divina, bendice este fuego nuevo y haz que estas fiestas pascuales encienden en nosotros el deseo del cielo, para que podamos llegar con un espíritu renovado a la fiesta gloriosa de tu Reino. Por Jesucristo, nuestro Señor. Amén.

Our God, who
through the means of your Son has communicated to us the fire of your divine life, bless this new fire and make it so that these Easter festivals (or parties) spark in us the desire of heaven, so that we can arrive with a renewed spirit to the glorious festival (or party!) of your Reign. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”

The priest lights the Christ Candle from the new fire of the firepit, and then he begins to trace his fingers through the symbols carved into it.

“Cristo ayer y hoy,
Principio y fin, Alfa y Omega.

Suyo es el tiempo y la eternidad.
A él la gloria y el poder,

Por los siglos de los siglos. Amén.

Por sus santas llagas gloriosas,

Nos proteja y nos guarde

Jesucristo, nuestro Señor.

Que la luz de Cristo, resucitado y glorioso,
Disipe las tinieblas de nuestro corazón

Y de nuestro espíritu.

Christ yesterday and today,

Beginning and ending, Alpha
and Omega,
His is time and eternity,

To him is the glory and the power,

century to century (or through the centuries). Amen.

Through his holy glorious wounds,

He protects us and keeps us

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

That the light of Christ, resurrected and glorious,
Dissipates the darkness from our heart

And from our spirit.”

Now the great Christ Candle is lifted up high. The priest carries it into the church as we follow after him and crowd into the building, which was already full of people. The priest sings in a chant “Cristo, luz del mundo – Christ, light of the world” and the congregation responds “Demos gracias a Dios – Thanks be to God.”

At first the entire church is dark except for one flame in the center, the flame of the Christ Candle. Cristo, luz del mundo.

Then another candle is lit from this flame. Demos gracias a Dios.

Another candle is lit from that one – Cristo, luz del mundo – then another, and another – Demos gracias a Dios.

The church is so dark that the only thing we can see are the little dancing flames that are quickly multiplying in every direction.

Before long they have illuminated the entire church, the light flickering off the pillars and archways. We lift our candles high, and the priest chants a final time: Cristo, luz del mundo, and the entire congregation responds: Demos gracias a Dios.

Then all of the candles except for the Christ Candle are extinguished, and we settle in for the Old Testament readings. The sound system in the church is loud and clear, and I can make out most of the stories being read in Spanish. We are standing in the back with a crowd of people; all the pews are full. We listen to the readings in the darkness for what seems like hours.

Suddenly and much earlier than we anticipated the priest announces that it is time: The bells begin to ring, alleluias begin to be sung, the lights are turned on and up, and then - an unexpected addition - a giant purple curtain in the front of the church splits and is pulled open to reveal a gigantic painted image of the resurrected Jesus, dressed in white and surrounded by golden rays of light, with his arms open to receive us.

The curtain-opening-to-reveal-stageprop-style-cardboard-cutout-Jesus thing is a pretty corny, especially after all the elemental power of the symbolic flames, but it does bring a goofy grin to my face, and maybe that’s a good enough thing in itself. The priest reads the New Testament readings, and we sing some more alleluias. Everyone lifts up their right hand to renew baptismal vows, and then, instead of a sprinkling of baptismal water, a handful of people hurry forward to have their plastic bottles of holy water blessed by the priest. I don’t quite understand the bottles of holy water, but they do seem to be everywhere this weekend, and they are certainly always in full supply in San Juan de Los Lagos. It is another Catholic tradition I’ll have to learn more about, I guess.

We stay to watch the rite of communion, and then, sent off by the priest, we leave with everyone else and head down to the town square. For the rest of the night and on into the next morning Chris and I talk about our week. Chris says our experiences here have brought home to her the “otherness” of Easter and the strangeness of our faith, which sometimes becomes so familiar in familiar settings, so tame that we forget how wild it really is.

For me, though, tonight was a time when I felt connected not only to the Laguenses but to their church, a Roman church I have so often struggled with and against in my time here. Tonight it seemed less like a different denomination and more like just one more congregation, part of the great small “c” catholic church of our faith, one more community lighting the Christ Candle and ringing the bells, as so many other communities of Christians would do in their own way and in their own time over these next twenty-four hours.

As we walked into the town square that night, we found it full of life. The ice cream stands and coffee shops are open and full of people; balloon and toy vendors are selling their wares on the corners. Teenagers drive by with music playing loud, then drive by again, and again…they are cruising the tiny town square of Lagos de Moreno. It was a Saturday night like any other Saturday night.

Except – there go the bells in the towering central parish church. We look up and see a silhouetted figure in one of the bell towers flailing away at a massive bell that is much larger than he is. For the rest of the night and on into the next morning, bells will suddenly ring out from the various churches in Lagos. Even though the ringing of church bells is a common sound here, on this day, somehow, the sound seems the most joyful noise in all the world: A bell ringing out, year after year, from Indiana to Chicago to Mexico – and beyond.

¡El es resucitado! El es resucitado, de veras. ¡Aleluya!