The Pasch of the Lord: Heart of the Liturgy
The heart of the liturgy is the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death, Resurrection and Ascension, accomplished once and for all in Christ the Head and extended by means of the liturgy to all His members throughout history. All Christian worship is but a continuous celebration of the Pasch of the Lord: the sun, dawning each day, draws in its course an uninterrupted train of Eucharists; every celebration of Holy Mass makes present the Paschal Sacrifice of the Lamb. Each day of the liturgical year, and within each day, every instant of the Church’s sleepless vigil, continues and renews the Pasch of Christ.
The Heart of Theology and of Piety
In repeating the enactment of the liturgy, the Church has access to the “unique, unrepeatable mystery of Christ”; day after day, week after week and year after year, the Church is caught up in the transforming glory of the Paschal Mystery. Through the sacred liturgy, the Paschal Mystery irrigates and transforms all of human life, healing those who partake of the sacraments and drawing the Church, already here and now, into the communion of the risen and ascended Christ with the Father in the Holy Ghost. Because it is the heart of the liturgy, the Pasch of the Lord is the heart of theology, and the heart of Christian piety as well.
The Sacred Triduum
The annual celebration of “the most sacred Triduum of the crucified, buried and risen Lord” is the liturgical, theological and spiritual center of the Church’s life and “the culmination of the entire liturgical year.” The Paschal Triduum begins with the Vesperal Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, continues through the Friday of the Lord’s Passion, reaches its summit in the Solemn Paschal Vigil, and comes to a close with Sunday Vespers of the Lord’s Resurrection.
As an integral element of the Sacred Triduum, Gregorian Chant takes its place in the complexus of sacred signs by which the Paschal Mystery is rendered present to the Church, and the Church drawn into the Paschal Mystery. The chant of the Church is thus essentially related to the Paschal Mystery and to the new life which it imparts. The transcendent value of liturgical chant, especially during the annual celebration of the Paschal Triduum, is properly theological and spiritual. The chants of the Paschal Triduum constitute therefore a point of reconciliation and unity “between theology and liturgy, liturgy and spirituality.” What Father Alexander Schmemann wrote concerning the Paschal Triduum of the Byzantine liturgy and its hymnography is also true, mutatis mutandis, of the liturgy of the Roman Rite and of its proper chants:
The liturgy of the Paschal Triduum — Holy Friday, Great and Holy Saturday and Sunday — reveals more about the “doctrines” of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Death and Resurrection than all the other “loci theologici” together; and, let me stress it, not merely in the texts, in the magnificent Byzantine hymnography, but precisely by the very “experience” — ineffable yet illuminating — given during these days in their inner interdependence, in their nature; indeed as epiphany and revelation. Truly if the word mystery can still have any meaning today, be experienced and not merely “explained,” it is here, in this unique celebration which reveals and communicates before it “explains”; which makes us witnesses and participants of one all-embracing Event from which stems everything else: understanding and power, knowledge and joy, contemplation and communion.
The Whole Person in the Whole Church
Participation in the sacred liturgy makes “witnesses and participants” of those who thus experience the Paschal Mystery as something revealed and communicated, men and women capable of saying, “We have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:24). Paradoxically, while each worshiper must enter personally into the Paschal Mystery, making a personal profession of faith at Baptism, and uttering a personal Amen to the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the effect of such a personal engagement is participation in the Body of Christ and the unity of the Holy Ghost. The saving mystery of Christ’s death and Resurrection embraces and sanctifies the integral human person within the communion of the Church. The symbolic language of the liturgy therefore engages the human person bodily, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually.
The Power of the Paschal Liturgy
A Holy Week entry from the 1910 diary of Pieter van der Meer de Walcheren, written while the author was yet an unbeliever, attests to the experiential impact of the Paschal liturgy as epiphany and revelation, and to one person’s passage out of isolation into the communion of faith in the Church.
The liturgy is a holy magnificence. I am well aware that it is absurd to speak words of admiration. All too evident is the beauty of this worship that expresses the inexpressible and causes the pure splendor of a flame to burn upright and bright in life’s blackness. Art is so superficial and poor; it appears so empty next to these sublime chants, next to these biblical words chanted, next to these holy texts, next to these prayers of mourning, these poems of extreme joy! I still hear the chant of the end of Lauds: Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis”; to which is added on the third night; “propter quod et Deus exaltavit illum et dedit illi nomen quod est super omne nomen. The music of it, the slow plaintive, desperate music laden with every sorrow and with every mystery! How shall I ever forget the Lamentations of Jeremiah at the first Nocturn of Tenebrae? And the Ecce lignum crucis of Friday . . . ? And the Reproaches, divine reproaches of a crucified God to his people?
On Holy Saturday the new fire is kindled. The priest, advancing slowly towards the altar, sings the thrice-repeated words at equal intervals: Lumen Christi, each time on a higher tone; and the light increases until it becomes an immense interior fire. One senses in one’s soul a tangible deliverance. Where can one find a thing more lovely, more sublime than the chant of the Exultet jam angelica turba caelorum, in which, by the words and by the music, the desire of an incommensurable joy lifts itself up and erects a kind of rainbow stretching from earth to heaven? And the Preface that follows, with its sublime cries: O certe necessarium Adae peccatum! . . . O felix culpa! . . . Oh, to be able to believe, to be unshakably certain that this is not an empty spectacle, not a beautiful dream, but signs and symbols which are but the reflection of an inexpressible divine reality. I am shaken in the very depths of my soul. Illusion and appearance could never make me weep like this. I sense that behind all that I see and hear are luminous roads leading towards God.
Such is the power of the liturgy of the Paschal Triduum over the human heart. The chants of the Paschal Triduum do not disclose their theological significance as isolated fragments, separately analyzed and removed from their context. The Mystery is one, and its radiance suffuses the Paschal liturgy in all its parts.
Beginning on the evening of Maundy Thursday, the liturgy sings of the glorious Cross of Christ and of the effects of Christ’s priestly sacrifice, mediated by the sacraments of the Church, and translated into lives of sacrificial love and humble service. The chants sing of ancient types and shadows, fulfilled in the Pasch of Christ, preparing the mystery of the Eucharist, and pointing already to the eschatological “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Apoc 19:9).
In the chants of Good Friday, Christ, the immolated Lamb and the Bridegroom of the Church, prays and offers himself to the Father, drawing the Church into his prayer, into his sacrifice and into his glorious exaltation. The chants of the adoratio Crucis reveal the Cross as the throne of Christ’s glorification and the seat of mercy towards which the Church addresses bold supplication for her own needs and for those of all people. The Cross is the Tree of Life planted in the midst of the Church, the abiding sign of the Father’s mercy, of the Son’s crucified love, and of the lifegiving action of the Holy Ghost.
The Paschal Vigil
In the celebration of the Paschal Vigil, the cantica, or intervenient chants of the Liturgy of the Word, interact with the readings and orations, evoking a vast array of figures and types that in the Pasch of Christ and the sacraments of the Church find their ultimate theological meaning and fulfillment. Readings, chants and orations function together as a final preparation for the sacramenta paschalia. With the Alleluia and the intonation of Psalm 117 emerges a current of joy that overflows into the Mass of Easter Day.
On Easter Day, the Church’s liturgy is quiet and contemplative. The risen Christ introduces into his ineffable conversation with the Father all those who, by means of the sacraments, share in his death and Resurrection. The shadowy images of Exodus 12, introduced at the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, are brought into the morning light of Christ’s Paschal sacrifice in the Alleluia Pascha nostrum and in the Communion antiphon. The circle is thus completed, demonstrating that the Paschal Mystery is indeed “a single celebration in which the individual parts . . . make the whole visible both in its parts and as a whole.”