With incense wafting through the church, candles flickering, holy water sprinkling the faithful and sacred song echoing as Catholics came forward for Holy Communion, all five senses were engaged during the celebration of the Easter Vigil at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral in Anchorage.
The solemn Mass in was rich in both elemental symbolism and the recollection of creation’s salvation history, presented in word and sacrament. Archbishop Etienne used the occasion to challenge the faithful to seek God more deeply, and let him shock them with surprises and adventures they could never predict.
His homily noted that the women who went to Jesus’ tomb did not find what they were expecting, and they were frightened and shocked to find it empty.
“When we truly search for the risen Jesus in our lives, we too will be shocked at what we find,” he said. “Because God will set us on the path and a journey and will ask of us things we would never have dreamed or imagined we would even be capable of accomplishing.”
Traditionally, the Catholic Church’s commemoration of the time of Christ’s entombment and his resurrection begins in darkness, with sunset being the customary start around the world. This was problematic in the far north latitudes of Alaska where the sun was still hanging on the horizon when the 8 p.m. liturgy began.
The faithful, along with Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne, the cathedral’s priests, a deacon and altar servers, gathered outside around a large fire. After proclaiming a prayer acknowledging the vigil, which the whole world keeps in remembrance of Jesus Christ’s passing over from death to life — and his promise that the faithful will do the same — the archbishop blessed the fire.
He then prepared the large paschal candle by tracing the shape of a cross, the letters “Alpha” and “Omega” and inserting five grains of incense into the wax. The candle was then lit. Coals from the fire and incense were placed into the incensor, and then all processed with small, unlit candles into the darkened cathedral.
The procession stopped three times to the proclamation, “The Light of Christ,” to which all responded, “Thanks be to God.” The small candles held by those in attendance were then lit as the light spread to all in the darkened church. The archbishop blessed and placed the pascal candle in its holder.
A priest approached the ambo to give the Easter Proclamation. This sung prayer rejoices in the resurrection of Christ, recalls the salvation history that ultimately led to Jesus’ incarnation and humanity’s redemption, and extols the offering of the paschal candle, which symbolizes the light of Christ.
The liturgy then moved to readings from Scripture, proclaimed alternately in Spanish and English to the multi-cultural parishioners. A Psalm and a prayer followed each. Beginning with the Genesis story of creation, each reading came from the Old Testament.
The Exodus reading recalled the Israeli slaves’ salvation from the Egyptians who pursued them. After God’s action divided the sea, opening a path to their freedom, the water flowed back, covering both the dry land and the pursuing charioteers. The saving waters were again extolled in the third reading from Isaiah, as God’s people were invited to “come to the water,” to seek the Lord and to know that his ways are not ours.
An exuberant “Gloria” filled the church, as a multitude of bells accompanied a song unheard since Lent began. The Epistle, from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, promised that whoever is baptized in Christ would rise with him to new life.
The voices in the assembly erupted into a joyous “Alleluia,” for the first time since the beginning of Lent. Then came a reading from the Gospel of Matthew. “Do not be afraid” were the words spoken by the angel to the women who arrived at Jesus’ tomb, not knowing what to expect. When sent by the angel, they encounter the risen Christ on their way to Galilee.
Archbishop Etienne, for his first Easter homily in his new archdiocese, reiterated what the women must have felt.
“The Resurrection is certainly an almost unexplainable event, and yet it is reality, and it holds great consequence for you and for me and for all of the world,” he said. “Other than the birth of Jesus, his resurrection is the most important singular event in all of history.”
“God created everything … and then sin entered into God’s creation, and everything was in need of redemption, most of all, the human race,” Archbishop Etienne continued. “And we cannot save ourselves. And we need God and we need his son, and the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
“Do we search for God daily?” he asked, like the women at Jesus’ tomb, deep in their grief, yet still seeking him.
“Have you met the risen Jesus in your life?” he asked the faithful. When we, like the women, search, we sometimes find God’s ways are not our ways, and we don’t find Jesus where we expect to find him. Often when we are most caught up in ourselves in this search, there he is, he explained.
The archbishop challenged the assembled to embrace the church’s mission and their baptismal mandate to proclaim the good news beyond their families and spiritual associates, in the public sphere. He challenged those present to share God’s truth where they are reluctant to discuss religion and politics.
“We do this mostly by the way we live,” he said.
“We have work to do,” he added. “We have a mission, not to beat people up with the truth, but to live by the truth, so that we ourselves will be set free. And please, God, by our witness of faith in the world, to help set the world free.”
Following the homily, Archbishop Etienne blessed the water in the baptismal font, and the faithful then renewed their baptismal promises as they were sprinkled with the Holy Water. Four candidates being received into full communion with the Catholic Church, and previously baptized in another faith, came forward to make their own profession of faith. One confirmation candidate joined them, and all received the sacrament of confirmation.
At the conclusion of Mass, all were invited to a small reception, celebrating those who were welcomed into the community on the church’s most holy night.