The Environment For Easter Worship
During the Christian Passover—the three days from Holy Thursday sundown to Easter Sunday sundown—we carry into our worship halls certain elemental things. They remain among us through the year as the property of all the baptized. And they deserve prominence throughout Eastertime—the fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost.
Oil and chrism. On Holy Thursday night we bring the oil of the sick, the oil of catechumens, and the sacred chrism to the assembly. These oils are the Easter gifts of the bishop to the people. The parish’s containers should each be different, with the chrism in the finest vessel. The ministers to the sick and to the catechumens, and the deacons and priests carry the oils from the bishop to the parish.
The oils can be placed in the ambry, which may be decorated throughout Eastertime with a victory wreath of olive branches or with vigil lights—or with perhaps an oil lamp to consume the previous year’s stock. If the ambry is homely, use a side altar or shrine to display the oils.
Wood. On Good Friday afternoon we carry into our midst the wood of the cross. The argument of whether to use a cross or a crucifix is settled by the words of the liturgy: “This is the wood of the cross ….” We are invited to regard this wood as the very cross of Christ “ … on which hung the Savior of the world.” In mystery this wood is Isaac’s pyre and the ark of the covenant. It is the burning bush and the staff Moses held over the Red Sea. It is the great boat chock-full of creation’s second chance, and it is the tree of paradise.
This holy wood deserves a place of honor in the assembly throughout Eastertime. Other symbols on the cross, such as a shroud or crown, can detract from the wood. Ideally, the Good Friday cross is used as the processional cross, the only cross in the worship hall. If the parish has a permanent cross/crucifix in the worship space, it doesn’t make sense to add another cross; perhaps the Good Friday cross can be kept throughout Eastertime in the gathering place or in a shrine.
Fire and wax. During the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, a bonfire is kindled and flame from this fire is used to light the paschal candle. A fire can be built right on a lawn with a foot of sand laid over a large tarp. Keep the fire burning all night and into the morning. It should give evidence of Easter.
Throughout Eastertime, lighting and extinguishing the paschal candle should be done privately, giving the appearance that it is ever-burning. Lighting the other candles from the paschal candle is a gracious gesture that speaks of the candle’s significance. It should be lit for all gatherings during the season, even weddings, and looks good rising from spring flowers, especially cut branches arranged in enormous pots of moist sand. Thanks to demand, there are fine, affordable, commercial candles over five feet tall. Such tremendous candles do not ship easily; buy yours in advance so you can exchange it if it comes cracked.
A paschal candle is ordinarily placed near the ambo. Easter casts a new light upon the Scripture. Especially where the font is in the midst of the assembly, so too the candle may be there. While an unadorned wax pillar is impressive, the candle deserves its customary decoration—a cross formed of five grains of incense, the Alpha and Omega, and the numerals of the current year—to make what Abbot Patrick Regan calls the “center pole of the new creation.”
Water. Parishes with handsome fonts will keep them babbling through the season. During Eastertime, parishes with fonts that are hidden away may be tempted to display water near the altar, ambo, and chair. Wouldn’t it be better to focus attention on the font no matter where it is located, rather than clutter up an area with something that often resembles a punch bowl or a rock garden? An Eastertime sprinkling rite can begin by walking to the font and drawing a bucketful of water, then carrying this bucket to the assembly for the prayer of thanksgiving.
To permit baptism by immersion in parishes without such fonts, temporary pools are sometimes constructed. (A serviceable font can be made from a horse water trough.) The redundancy of two fonts can be lessened by placing the temporary font next to or around the old one.
Eastertime enthusiasm. If the parish has paid attention to the Eastertime worship environment—the cross, candle, and font—the overwhelming joy of this season can be expressed in many ways. Garlands and flowers and wreaths and lights are all lively signs of rejoicing at any season. Yew and boxwood, peacock feathers and pussywillows, birch twigs, and hazel catkins are customary. Banks of flowers are commonly seen, but if you can’t sustain such a display during all of Eastertime, spend your money some other way.
One of the most splendid Easter ornaments I’ve seen was a five-foot-wide ribboned grapevine wreath with a cluster of fresh flowers added weekly (in water-pics). This was hung over the assembly space. The rest of the worship hall was made bright with sheer pastel fabrics that flew from ceiling to wall. Another parish wired handmade silk blossoms to thirty-foot horizontal branches and hung them with eggs. A ribboned maypole with bells was used as a processional banner. The success of all this merriment was dependent on placement; at worship you couldn’t see any of it unless your eyes wandered straight up. Even such commonplace details as washing the windows to let in the springtime sun had been attended to. And in the end, what the parish communicated was great enthusiasm through all fifty days of Easter. Their worship environment said that they were a people keeping their Great Sunday, a foretaste of heaven on earth.