Being prepared or superficial?

Enrico Finotti

These observations are regarding the liturgical observances in preparation for the Holy Week. The indications of the liturgical calendar are clear regarding Good Friday: “… they are removed from the high altar and from all the minor altars … tablecloths, carpets, crosses, and candlesticks … no candle or votive light can remain lit in front of the sacred images of the church …” But how many difficulties does one experience in applying them? Above all, it is annoying to be told that these are small things and are not real problems. On this path, however, liturgical ignorance resists and nothing serious is done.

A well-trained sacristan

The first two days of the Easter Triduum, Holy Friday and Holy Saturday, are truly singular from the point of view of the liturgical signs and their balance is rather delicate. It is expected that on these austere days, the candles will be completely extinguished and the altar will be bare. In its concrete realization, this indication undergoes difficulties that many have pointed out, which, however, must be overcome in order to give the two days a liturgical configuration that is truly consistent with the mystery celebrated and suitable for expressing it effectively.

The minimal application of the rule means that we are limited to the stripping of the central altar, leaving the side altars and other devotional places in their ordinary furnishings, not only with candlesticks and tablecloths but also with lit votive candles. Someone justifies himself by observing that the faithful, these days, are making greater entreaties. In this way, the church environment does not ‘speak’ to the faithful, who do not notice anything and the bare altar becomes a marginal detail, perhaps considered to be in a state of preparation for Easter.

A step further, but still insufficient, is to achieve an extensive stripping of the church and total extinction of devotional lights only for the duration of the ‘Celebration of the passion and death of the Lord’. After that, when the church is so as to speak empty, everything returns as before, both to accommodate the devotions of the people and to prepare the Easter decoration in time. On Holy Saturday, in particular, it is not uncommon for the church to become a building site in preparation for the Easter Vigil right from the morning, in fact erasing any sign of that austerity, which should envelop the entire day to commemorate the mystery of the ‘descent into hell’ and the vigil at the tomb of the Lord, when, according to the wonderful words of the divine office, there is a great silence on earth because “the King sleeps”.

In reality, the precise and intelligent observance of the liturgical norm aims to wrap the entire span of the two days with the austere veil of the symbols of the passion and burial of the Lord – that is, the absence of any decoration and the extinction of all light for the two holy days and not only for the time necessary for the celebrations. And so the faithful, entering their church, even alone for personal prayer in silence, are induced by a non-verbal language to grasp the typicality of the mysteries and are appropriately fascinated by a church well prepared with liturgical intelligence and with love.

Laziness and unpreparedness, unfortunately, play a large part in this widespread neglect. However, it must be recognized that even the devotion of the faithful poses some difficulties in the austere language of the liturgy of these holy days. It will then be necessary to raise the people to the liturgy and to explain patiently and on several occasions the reason for these dispositions, educating them to serene and grateful obedience to the tradition of the Church.

The faithful of goodwill will understand and will in turn be the first promoters and custodians of such a cure, even when it fails. In reality, the well-done liturgy strikes and convinces, and those who have a sincere soul and humility of heart are enraptured.

However, we must point out that there is not yet a full understanding between the pious exercises and liturgical actions. In fact, there is a certain inconsistency between the language of ‘darkness’, which pervades the liturgical celebration of the Passion on Good Friday, and the luminous torchlight procession that accompanies the Way of the Cross or the evening procession of the same day; among the many lights that burn in front of the Addolorata or the Crucifix and the bare and extinct altar of Holy Saturday. One wonders what sense the inauguration of light in the Easter Vigil and its diffusion among the faithful might have if this symbol has already largely characterized the pious exercises of Good Friday and the devotional centers of Holy Saturday. However, this problem should be resolved by a further reflection, which, however, could already have its precursors in a wise reorganization of the pious exercises of the Easter Triduum, according to the indications of the Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy (nn. 138-151) . 

(From La spada e la Parola. Il liturgista risponde, 2018©Chorabooks. Translated by Aurelio Porfiri. Used with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved) (Photo from The Catholic Thing)