by Irma Zaleski.
Of all the wonderful moments that the Church provides for us in its great annual cycle of feasts and celebrations, there is one that that moves me perhaps the most deeply. That is the moment during the Liturgy of Holy Saturday, when the deacon stands by the burning flame of the Paschal candle and proclaims the great hymn of wonder and praise: the Exsultet.
"Rejoice, O Mother Church, Exult in glory!" he sings, "This is the night, when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin, are restored to grace and grow united in holiness. This is the night when Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave! This is the night…."
This is the moment I have loved and looked forward to for many years, but I don’t think I really began to understand its true significance till, a few years ago, I attended the Byzantine Liturgies of the Holy Week for the first time. I went with some misgivings: it was a very small and poor parish, and the choir was not very good. Would I be able to stand all those hours in church? Would it be too tiring, too boring, too long?
But I did go. I stood hour after hour, every day, every night, and all night of Holy Saturday. I bowed and crossed myself countless times, I sang as best I could, I was there. I was at the Last Supper; I followed Christ to the Garden. I stood with the other women by the Cross, and I wept and wailed with them when we were burying him. I ran with them to the tomb and saw it empty!
I realized with every fiber of my being that the Paschal Mystery was not the commemoration of some past event but a celebration of present reality: of what was happening now.
"This truly is the night," I thought. "It is on this night, at this moment, in this place that Christ is crucified, buried, and rises from the grave. It is happening right now before our very eyes! We are present at it!"
Because Christ is the infinite Word of God, time and space, or any other finite dimension, have no power over him. In the Incarnation, the infinite has entered the finite, heaven has joined itself to earth, eternity has made itself present in time.
And this means that every "event" of the Incarnation—every moment of Christ’s life on earth—is both a historical event that happened in the past, in the concrete everyday human reality of the time, but also a mystery—a "happening"—in the infinite and unknowable now of God. It is not either or, it is both. It is, as Mother Maria Gysi expressed it, a "mystery event."
"The life of Christ, lived on earth, is real and divine. Its historic reality, its uniqueness, the "once for all" of His life is not bound to the past. His life is open, in its total reality: for us to step into it. The event( that we celebrate)… is no repeated, remembered, reenacted, or symbolic event. It is the event." (Mother Maria Gysi, Eastern Spirituality, p. 11, Peregrina Press, 1973).
What a rich, life-giving insight that is! The life of Christ is not history to us; it is our present. It takes place right here with us and in us and among us: it is present to us.
The liturgy and the sacraments are the door to it—a wide and open one. We are invited to walk through this door, to live this life, every time we participate in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church.
These are, or can be, for us moments out of time, when we "fold the wings of our intellect" as Catherine Doherty used to say, and enter the mystery of Christ’s presence that our minds, by themselves, cannot comprehend but our hearts can embrace and live.
I was reminded very vividly of this great truth on Good Friday three or four years ago. My little grandson, John, was sitting on the floor putting on his shoes to go outside. As he struggled with his shoelaces, he looked up at the icon of the Cross that my daughter had placed, with the vigil light burning before it, on a little desk by the door.
John nodded towards the icon and said, "That is Jesus. He is dead, you know!" And then, perhaps concerned that his announcement might have distressed me, he added, "But it is OK, because he is God and will ‘arose’ on Sunday!"
Having said all that needed to be said, he ran outside banging the door.
My grandson clearly had no difficulty in accepting the "double dimensional" nature of the mystery-event that we were celebrating. Yet, our adult thinking minds, fixed in their limited, time-bound perception of reality, find it much more difficult to grasp. Some may never be able to grasp it or believe it at all.
Because our reason cannot hold onto the mystery—cannot possess it or "prove" it—it seems compelled to question our experience of it, to doubt it, to put it aside and to ignore it. Or we might try to intellectualize it: we try to make it sound so "rational" we "explain" it in such belabored ways, that it may begin to appear not more rational but less so, not only to others but even to ourselves.
This is why, I think, Christians need to participate regularly in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church: to celebrate its feasts and celebrations, to keep up its ancient traditions and postures of prayer and its gestures of reverence. In other words, to leave our rational, questioning minds behind for a time and approach the mystery we are celebrating simply, as my grandson approached it, by embracing it and participating in it.
Yet it is important to remember that not all of us can experience the liturgy in such a deep and moving way. I myself did not experience it as deeply ever again. But I have never forgotten it or doubted that my Easter experience had been real; that Christ was there and I was there, that I had accompanied him at the hour of his greatest need.
On the other hand, it is also important to realize that Christ is not bound by any "event" however sacred it may be. Christ can make himself present to us and in us and among us wherever and however he wants. We can experience his presence in simple, individual prayer, in meditation, and in books.
He can come to us in our studies, in the flow of ideas in our minds. We can encounter him in happiness and sorrow, in beauty, in a moment of joy or of human love.
He is the same Christ, the one Mystery at the heart of all reality, for there is no other.
—Some of the text is adapted by the author from Finding Christ Within, © 2007 Novalis. Used with permission.
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