“So, what do you do in Madonna House for Easter?” The question was asked me at the parish mission I did in Orangeville just before Holy Week. It was hard to answer in a few words – this past week in MH is one of the richest, fullest, and most varied weeks of our year, and is exceedingly beautiful to boot. So, what exactly did we do this week in MH?
First, there’s what most of us didn’t do this year for once, due to inclement weather. It’s hard to believe, since we are now in a thoroughly spring cycle of days, but just a week ago most of the MH priests trying to go to the Chrism Mass in Pembroke were stymied by snow and ice rain which virtually shut the highway down—one last blast of winter that seriously messed up our plans that day.
But Holy Week continued on regardless. That evening, we had our communal penance service, being shriven so as to enter the Triduum together washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. The next evening, we had our customary egg dying night, coloring and painting in festive liturgical symbols the hard boiled eggs that would be our fast-breaking after the Vigil on Saturday.
In all these days, the customs I am going to describe are of course surrounded by intense work—cooking, decorating, cleaning, music practices, and so forth. It is the busiest week of the year in many corners of MH.
First came Holy Thursday. The tables of the dining room, normally set up in three rows, were turned around end-to-end to create four long single tables, covered with tablecloths to create the effect of a banquet hall. A mosaic of Christ the lamb shedding his blood for us dominated the front of the room, along with a head table and ornate candelabra. This was the setting for the Supper of the Lamb, one of our most beloved customs. It is not a seder meal, exactly, but a Christian version of that
At the beginning of the meal, the candles are lit with a prayer of blessing. Then the paschal lamb, a slain lamb, roasted whole, resting on a cross-shaped frame and supported by loaves of bread, is solemnly carried into the dining hall while we sing a psalm of praise to God. It is placed at the head of the room, and an ancient homily speaking of Christ the Lamb of is read. It is processed out, and then we have a truly wonderful, joyful meal of lamb, bread, wine—the liturgical symbols blend with life seamlessly.
At the end of the meal a long portion of the Farewell discourse from John’s Gospel is read, connecting the agape of our meal, the agape of the Eucharist, and the call to love one another beautifully. After all this, of course, we have the evening liturgy, familiar to all Catholics, with the washing of feet and the solemn procession of the Eucharist to the altar of repose. All accompanied by truly gorgeous music ably led by our schola cantorum.
Good Friday is hot cross buns for breakfast (keeping within the fasting rules, of course), the use of a clacker instead of bells, and the traditional afternoon service. For supper we fast on plain boiled potatoes, and then in the evening we have the Byzantine service of the Burial of Christ, a most beautiful and beloved gift to us from our Eastern heritage. This is, essentially, a funeral service for Jesus, in which the sorrow of his passing repeatedly gives way to anticipated joy in his coming resurrection.
It is impossible to describe the beauty of this service. The heart of it are three cycles of praises of our fallen hero, modeled on pre-Christian forms of odes. ‘How can you die, O my Life, how can you be buried?.. O life-bestowing one, it is right indeed to magnify you… The most handsome of men is today laid in the tombs, all the armies of the angels were dazzled, and they glorified your burial divine… ointment bearing women came to your tomb singing a hymn of victory…’ At this latter verse, one of the priests goes around the chapel sprinkling everyone with perfume, the burial ointment of Christ (which the women did not, after all, have to use!) becoming the sweet fragrance of joy and life for us.
There is much more to the service—the prophecy of the dry bones from Ezekiel, a haunting chant where Joseph of Arimethea pleads with Pilate for the body of Christ—‘Give me that Stranger, who being a stranger, has nowhere to lay his head… Give me that Stranger, of whom his mother cried out when she saw him dead, ‘My Son, my senses are wounded, and my heart is torn, but trusting in your resurrection, I glorify you.’ There is whole funeral procession around the chapel with the epitaphion, the shroud of Christ, with the solemn Trisagion intoned in many languages. At the end, then, we all in solemn assembly one by one pass under this shroud, holding lit candles. We extinguish the candle, say ‘Glory to your long suffering O Christ our God’, and pass under. Going into the tomb with Christ, we come out the other side, now bearing the light of Christ in our mortal flesh.
Saturday brings the Vigil, which I was privileged to celebrate this year. We all know how that goes—in MH we have opted to do all the readings and take our time with them, too. After the Vigil, so around midnight or so, we have a festive collation together, where we break our Lenten fast with the previously mentioned hard boiled eggs. One person says ‘Christ is risen’ and the other replies ‘Truly he is risen’ and they smash their eggs together and eat the contents.
What else goes on? Well, we have pascha and koolitch, the traditional Russian Easter foods, the one a sweet cottage cheese paste enriched with eggs and butter and raisins, the other a special sweet bread. We have three days off, with a relaxed schedule and some leisure time together. We have much singing at the meals, people bursting out with variations of the great Easter troparion ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling on death by death, and on those in the tombs, lavishing life’. We have Ukranian pysanky eggs everywhere—hanging from the ceiling, laid out on every flat surface… everywhere.
Beauty, beauty, beauty everywhere. And I guess that’s what Holy Week and Easter in MH is all about—making the beauty of our faith visible in manifold customs and rites. And that’s what happened this week in our corner of the world.