What a flash of glory is Holy Thursday! After the austerity of our Quadragesimal pilgrimage, we see a return, all too brief, of the joy which we have temporarily locked beneath the chains and sackcloth of penitence. Clerical vestments dazzle us in their spectacular white and gold as a hint of the triumph to come. The Song of the Angels is granted a reprieve from Lenten exile, and her fleeting parole is signaled by the welcome ringing of bells. For a moment, an image of Christmas-like cheer, a light shining in a land of gloom, descends once more as if to give us the final encouragement before the trials which lie ahead.
For on that night, gathered only with the Twelve, our Lord Jesus Christ, knowing that the Father was about to glorify himself in the Son, instituted the two sacraments which would remain on earth for the salvation of all generations to come. First, the priesthood: Christ’s girding and ungirding at the washing of feet imitates the vesting and unvesting of Moses, who made Aaron the first High Priest; while the lavipedium itself mirrors the ritual washing of the Levites consecrated to service of the Most High God. Finally, by his command to repeat the offering of bread and wine, which are now his Body and Blood, Christ established the everlasting Sacrament of his Presence, the source and summit of our Christian life. These two sacraments presuppose and vivify one another; each is the raison d’etre of its counterpart. A priesthood without the Eucharist is an empty ministry; the Eucharist without the priesthood is an empty meal. It is altogether fitting and proper that Sacraments are celebrated together on this day.
Yet, how quickly does this glory fade! The priest sheds his chasuble as Christ shed his seamless garment; altars are made bare; the August Sacrament is taken from his place of honor, paraded as he was in Jerusalem, and brought to a tomb over which a few Gentiles keep watch through the night; the rest leave him in shamed silence, just like the Apostles (except for one).
How could we not completely abstain from worldly pleasures and necessities on the day in which the Son of God, who as Son of Mary was also True Man, himself abstained from all the prerogatives of divinity and suffered the punishment of the First Man, who, by eating, earned for all his progeny the wages of sin and death? How can we engage in any other activity on the day when the Blessed Virgin and the Beloved Apostle resolutely followed the Lord on the Via Dolorosa all the way to Calvary and even to the Sepulcher? How can we not, when the Sacrifice of Golgotha is made present in an especially real way, approach with bare feet and bended knees to kiss the lacerated feet of the Crucified One– the same feet which trod over the waters of our sin and which shall return to trample the unjust on the day of judgment? How can we not remain in utter silence at the moment in the Gospel when the Eternal Word himself breathed his last and fell silent?
We have no words of our own apt for this day, and at the approach of night, no new words come to us. At Tenebrae, we return to the ancient, sacred phrases which Christ knew well– the penitential Psalms– whose pleading verses he recited even from the Cross. Despite their sentiments of apparent hopelessness and abandonment, each psalm contains a glimmer of hope, and thus, a latent joy, that the God of Israel, whose saving arm had rescued the sons of Jacob from the hand of Pharaoh, would once again intervene to abolish the slavery which holds us captive. And as each Psalm and lamentation passes, as one by one each candle is snuffed, our churches grow darker and darker with the awareness of our own transgressions against the Lord. For it is our fault that nailed him to the Cross; our guilt that crowns him; our sin that enters his side. “It was our infirmities that he bore; our sufferings he endured… He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole; by his stripes are we healed”.
Then, at the climax of Tenebrae, when the final candle is not extinguished but merely hidden, we recall the world’s convulsion at the death of God. The strepitus truly seems like an earthquake generated by the penitential beating of so many contrite breasts, the collective spasm of sinners who, by looking upon the titulus above the sacred head, recognize with terror their own indictment. Those asleep in the limbus Patrum, still bound to their Father Adam, tremble in fear as the Just Judge descends to find them; yet he comes to them in mercy– for “the earth shook, rocks split, tombs opened, and the ghosts of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised”. And when the strepitus has faded and the lone candle returns to full view, we recall the words once recited at the end of all Masses: et lux in tenebris lucet.
This is the Sabbath, for on the seventh day, God rested. Christ rests in death, and thus the Church is silent. She offers no liturgy until sundown when, in joyful anticipation, she celebrates that night quae sola meruit scire tempus et horam in qua Christus ab inferis resurrexit.
As Tenebrae ends with a single candle in the dark, likewise does the Vigil begin. The light of Christ, the lumen Christi, represented by the Paschal Candle, lights not merely fifteen candles as in Tenebrae; it lights all the candles of the faithful until the entire church, once in darkness, glows brightly with the flicker of innumerable sparks of hope. By this candlelight we hear the Exsultet— that supreme synthesis of all Christian doctrine which, in the stately and solemn majesty of the Preface tone, masterfully and poetically interprets the Old Testament through the lens of the Paschal Mystery. We hear the creation story and the various prophecies until, with a blast of light and crash of bells, we once again awaken from penitential slumber that highest of hymns: Gloria in excelsis Deo!
For “this is the night in which our first Fathers, the sons of Israel, were led by Moses dry-shod across the Red Sea…
“This is the night of which it is said, ‘the night shall be bright as day, and the night shall be my light and my delight’…
“This is the night when Christ the Victor destroyed the shackles of death and rose from the dead…”
This is the superabundant and glorious reversal of Tenebrae: et lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebrae non comprehenderunt.
This is the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be all glory, laud, and honor, even unto the end of the age. Amen.