January 22, 2017
Studying how things got to be the way they are quickly led scholars to a startling discovery: Holy Week had not always had a Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper! Nor had it had a Palm Sunday Procession! Nor a Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday! Nor a ceremony of new fire at the Easter Vigil! In fact, in Rome, for a number of centuries, Holy Week had been dedicated to final instruction to catechumens who were to be baptized on Sunday and the reconciliation for sinners who had been doing public penance since Ash Wednesday. The lovely commemorative ceremonies and customs of the Tritium had been brought to Rome by Popes who had been elected from the ‘eastern’ end of the Church. There, Holy Week celebrations had been influenced by the customs of Jerusalem where the actual sites of the Lord’s Passion were still identifiable. Holy Week in Jerusalem was marked by pilgrimages to these spots rather than by baptismal observances.
This was a real shocker! Things could change because they had changed! And so, if they needed to change again … well, why not?
Pius XII was a man of extraordinarily broad and deep erudition. But he was also a man of his own place and time – a scion of one of the oldest and noblest families of Rome. He was not willing to undo a millennium of liturgical changes in order to reestablish the oldest Roman practices, but he was willing to allow – and even mandate – a revision of the ceremonies of Holy Week that would make them clearer, more accessible and more obviously roman. No one who is seventy or more can recall a time when the liturgy of the Catholic Church has not been in flux!
All of this liturgical history is by way of explaining why it is that older baptisteries were decorated to remind people of the baptism of Jesus while newer ones (what a strange word that is – a plural singular!) have a distinctly Holy Week décor: the Paschal Candle, images of water and a lot of rays of light.
The recovery of the Baptismal significance of Easter produced a change in the shape of Catholic Funerals. Unbleached candles were replaced by the Easter Candle, a black pall was replaced by a white one recalling the baptismal robe, the Alleluia was restored to the Funeral
Mass and everything took a decided turn toward hope and away from mourning.
The re-cognition of the Baptismal focus of Easter also led to a new appreciation of the dignity of baptized people. If the greatest day of the Church’s year was the day of Baptism, then the baptized must be the most celebrate-able of all Christians – not the clergy! (That is a little secret between you and me!)
It is unfortunate that these new insights and changes were entrusted to the clergy to be imparted to and imposed upon the laity! Those who were most ‘demoted’ by all this change were charged with ‘promoting’ the cause. And those who had learned that salvation was a ‘top-down’ reality see it and themselves in a whole new light: the light of Easter!
Really and truly and benightedly yours,