Christus Resurrexit! Alleluia! : The Smells and Bells of the Easter Triduum

If any of you went to any mass or service over this past weekend, you would have noticed that there were different aspects used during the liturgies, what many people have called the “smells and bells” of Catholicism.  Our minds were overloaded with sensory information throughout the days.  Starting with Holy Thursday, we see churches all over the world gradually stripped of their beauty; altars lay bare, tabernacles empty, candles and decorations gone, statues covered.  We smell the incense burning as the priest and servers process with the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose.  We hear…nothing.  Silence as the mass ends and those in the pews quietly and reflectively leave, contemplating the impending death of Christ due to the most brutal of executions known to man, the method of death where we get the word “excruciating” from.  As we wake on Good Friday to the light of day, suddenly the hunger sets into our bodies, physically as we fast and abstain from meat, and spiritually in a desire to receive Christ more fully into our hearts.  We reenter the churches, once again silent and reflective, as we meditate on the cross that holds God made Man, dying. After the Way of the Cross, the priest enters and lays prostrate in front of the altar, as if completely accepting the guilt of the crucifixion due to his and his parish’s sins, taking up their guilt and laying it before the dying God-man. Later, we show our devotion to the Cross of Christ as we reverence the Wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the World. All, from the old to those barely old enough to walk come forward and kiss, caress, and fearfully reverence the piece of wood that was at one time the sign of Roman power and authority over their subjects. We accept that it is due to our faults that this cross was the fate for our Lord, and yet we also look forward to the sign of hope that it has become to each of us today, a sign of forgiveness, of eternal mercy. Minimal music is used, mimicking the solemn, reverent gestures and mentalities used by those gathered. The Church, usually continuously celebrating the mass, does not have a mass on this day, as this is not a day for celebration but rather for mourning.  We leave with this sense of mourning in silence again, and thus begins the longest day of the year. As Christ lied in the tomb, so too does the Church lie in the silence of hopeful death, waiting on the promise that Jesus gave during his ministry, the promise of the third day.  So we sit in the dark, in the silence, in the calm after the storm.  We are in the tomb.

And then the stone is moved, and light begins to pour out onto the world.

It starts with a fire, blessed by the Priest at the Easter Vigil on Saturday Night.  After entering the darkened church before mass, we gather around the fire outside, that first crack in the tomb door.  The fire is blessed, the Easter Candle is lit, and from this candle, each individual’s candle is lit.  We, the Body of Christ, process into the darkened church with the light of Hope, the light of Joy, the light of Christ.  Originating from Christ and the joyful realization that He is risen, the light enters the wick on our candles and warms our hearts which have sat so empty, so cold, so sorrowful up until now.  We then hear the recounting of salvation history, from the very beginning of Creation all through the Old Testament and finally, with pomp and circumstance, with crashing of cymbals and the swell of the organ, the Gloria is sung again, not heard but once since Ash Wednesday.  During this time of praise, the lights are brought on completely in the church, the bells are rung, and we praise God for all that he has done for us throughout history and for all that He does for us today.  Soon after, another song is presented that has been silent throughout the world for almost two months:  ALLELUIA! We shout with joy the acclamation that shakes the foundations of the entire earth, that our moment in the tomb, our lives in sin and suffering and death have been conquered by the man whom we mourned only a few days earlier.  Incense, bells, and then one of the most beautiful scenes in the church today.  Men and women from around the world accepted into full communion with the Church through the sacraments.  Baptisms with holy water, white garments, baptismal candles; Confirmations with the perfume-oil mixture of Sacred Chrism.  With the graces that God pours forth on these men and women, the Church of Christ rejoices in her new daughters and sons, our new brothers and sisters.

And finally, as we did each day, we are able to taste the goodness of the Lord, experience his ultimate love for us, as we receive the Holy Eucharist, the body and blood, soul and divinity of God’s dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  We process up to feast on Love itself, God who makes himself present to us in such a miraculous way.

All of this is beautiful, but many people, including myself at times, have to wonder: why?  Why all the “smells and bells”?  Why can’t we have mass the same as any other Sunday?  What makes these few days so much more?

Saturday for lunch, I was able to go to eat with a brother seminarian from my parish, my associate pastor, and a transitional deacon from a neighboring town.  As the four of us waited for our food, the deacon received a call from home: some younger members of his family had put together an Easter play and wondered if the four of us would be interested in watching it that afternoon.  While the acting of the play was wonderful, it was the signs that were present in the play that struck us as most important.  As we walked up to the front entrance, the door had a hand-drawn sign stating:  ‘Easter Play Today: The True Meaning of Easter.  All are welcome’.  And at the end of the play, the young boy held up a sign with three simple words that summed up exactly the meaning of Easter, the reason that we celebrate, the reason that we pull out all of the stops at each and every mass this weekend.

He is risen.

Death has been destroyed.  Sin has been defeated.  The cries of fate have been silenced.  The darkness has been illuminated.

And so we celebrate, not only with our minds and voices, but with our entire bodies; we engage each and every one of the senses.  We rejoice at the smoky- sweet fragrance of incense burning upwards towards the heavens.  We feel the vibrations of the deep and glorious notes hit jubilantly from the pipes of an organ and we cannot help but shake with excitement.  We see the light of Christ spreading throughout the church in the form of candles as we see it spread to each of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We taste Love in the bread and wine that is no longer bread and wine but rather glorious Grace pouring out onto our tongues like the milk and honey promised to Abraham, Moses, and the Israelites.

And all of this because of three simple words that these children were so beautifully portraying, three words that we should be shouting to each and every person that we meet.

He is risen!