Today is Holy Saturday, the day of the Great Silence when Christ finally Sabbaths.
Tonight is the Easter Vigil. There are Nine Lessons from Scripture prescribed, a psalm recited after each, seven from the Old Testament and two from the New (Epistle & Gospel). The Ordinariate Form rubrics state "all of which should be read whenever this can be done so that the character of the Vigil, which demands an extended period of time" (Divine Worship the Missal; 406). In other words, prepare for a long Mass, and appreciate it. In some Byzantine Catholic Churches people bring pillows and blankets for their kids, and like our forefathers, tell their children it is a very special night to stay up for.
The Easter Vigil is "the greatest and most noble of all solemnities" (DWM; 391). This Vigil is The Night, the Holiest Time of the entire year, higher than Easter Sunday morning, higher than Christmas, higher than anything else on the Kalendar. And on this night we hear more Scripture than any other time in the year: 9 Lessons. That's a lot of reading, a lot of listening, a lot of psalm recitation. Why? Presumably, The Church thinks Scripture plays a major role in our formation into saints.
The Nine Lessons of The Easter Vigil then are to reteach the particular churches of our One Story as Catholics. I hope you get to hear all of them, but sometimes for pastoral reasons or unfortunately out of laziness we only get a few. The Lessons are Scriptures ordered to show the Story of Salvation in a nutshell. Here is an example of a complete list of the Scripture Lessons from Divine Worship the Missal for the Easter Vigil:
THE FIRST LESSON: The Creation:
THE SECOND LESSON: The Sacrifice of Abraham
THE THIRD LESSON: Israel's Deliverance at the Red Sea
THE FOURTH LESSON: The New Jerusalem
THE FIFTH LESSON: Salvation Freely Offered
THE SIXTH LESSON: The Fountain of Wisdom
Baruch 3:9-15, 31-4:4
THE SEVENTH LESSON: A New Heart and a New Spirit
THE EIGHTH LESSON: Dying and Rising with Christ
THE NINTH LESSON: The Resurrection of Jesus
Why so much Scripture?
Doesn't The Church know we are busy people with lives and bedtimes and food to eat and drinks to imbibe? I thought she wanted us to be saints, not to burden us with long tales. What's the deal? Can't we just receive the eucharist and get gone? Why are stories so important for making me a saint?
I've heard complaints in the past about any Mass over an hour. The Church believes we should show up in the middle of the night for an excessively long Mass. Why? Because Jesus's Resurrection is being re-presented to us via The Mass. Because this is the night of our salvation. Because God has died and risen from the dead and my passions, whether it be tiredness or hunger, is not as important as this. What more important thing could I have to do than commemorate God taking on flesh, dying, and rising again?
But why do people complain of long masses? What's behind this? Usually, the language has something to do with, "Doesn't Fr. So-n-so know it should only be an hour?" or "Do they know people have lives?" Such comments privilege the Order of Doing and Having over that of Being. It assumes what we do and what we have is more important than what we are. We call this "Moralism" and "Consumerism" respectively.
The Problem of Moralism
As Americans, we tend to think in Moralistic patterns. This means we think action is more important than being. For example, if I volunteer once a month then who I am the rest of the time doesn't matter. I may be up for an award even if I'm actually cowardly, intemperate, unjust, and imprudent. Because we value "doing" over "being" we may even award bad people because they 'checked the box' for good behavior. Even amongst Christians if I "serve" enough people my faithlessness, hopelessness, and uncharitable ways may go overlooked. Moralists tend to think in legalistic, checkbox ways. They are comparable to the Pharisees who came from a certain sect of Rabbinical Judaism and who had a certain reading of The Law [story]. Their story went wrong by elevating action and appearance above being and integrity. Ultimately this reading contradicted the very story [Torah/Law] they were set apart to preserve.
Before we can address whether an action is good or bad, we first have to see whether or not the action is intelligible. Like propositions, a thing can't be good or bad, true or false, if it's meaningless. The proposition "It's raining right now" can be true or false, but "I ate the round square" is neither true nor false, it's simply nonsense. So too, some actions are meaningless.
Ethics as Story Telling
The Catechism and Natural Law tell us, which is to say both Theology and Philosophy teach, that an [intelligible] action has three constitutive parts. Why do we say "constitutive?" Because if an "action" is missing one of these three parts, then it's not an action. At best such an "action" would appear to be an action, but insofar as it's unintelligible, it's really just random nonsense.
What are these three constitutive parts of an action? (1) the Intent/End (2) the Object chosen (3) the Circumstances. To discover these three I might ask you about one of your actions: (1) Why did you do that? (2) Why did you go about it that way? (3) Why did you do it then and there?
But imagine trying to explain to me why you dealt with a friend or neighbor or co-worker in a single, episodic event. To explain why you did all that then and there and the means you chose, you'd have to explain your relation to that person. It might go something like, "John came up to me and said X, and I knew I didn't want to do Y, because John usually does Z when I do Y, that's how we interact and given last week or last year this happened I decided to do P instead. Because we're family/co-workers/strangers and we were in such-n-such a situation at this public/private location, I did P."
The process of explaining your action, the players, and the history involved has a name; it's called "a story."
This teaches us that actions are only actions if intelligible. Second, the intelligibility of an action depends on whether or not your story gives a full account of the action, that is, if your action fits that story, or contradicts it.
From here things get richer and trickier. In order for the narrative to give an account of my action, the concepts, definitions or articulations, and descriptions you use have to accurately describe reality: past, present, and future. Whether my nurse tells me we're "determining the end of the pregnancy" or "aborting" is a significant speech habit. Whether my description is "a last act of triumphant self-will" or "suicide" is equally significant. Each description is not just a way of speaking of an isolated action, but of an entire narrative and community that lies behind that narrative. If one says "word choice," they are revealing to you that they don't think their life has any story. If one sees language as only one part of a larger narrative, they will say "speech habit." Notice then how speech habits not only reveal the narrative one is a part of, but also how one thinks about their own story.
Story Telling as a Community Practice
You can tell where someone is from, from their accent. You can equally tell what kind of community they come from based on the way they speak. At least, if you have ears to hear you can. Listening to people talk tells you a lot about what they believe, even if they don't know it, or even if they deny it. The funny thing about descriptions and dialogue, and language in general, is that it's taught. And language is never private, but communal, for language is the art of expressing oneself to another. Community is assumed by the very creation of language. In other words, if languages are the work, communities are the craftsman.
Communities then are responsible for the cultivation of characters and by extension actions. What is more fundamental to our identity than our "choices" then is our stories. And by extension our community, our character, and how we speak. Our choices are simply symptoms or effects of these larger causes. For that reason, choices are typically uninteresting. What's more interesting is, "What narrative does the articulation of my action fall under?" or "How do these actions reveal what community I think is most important to me?" All the possible answers to these questions are how we make sense out of phrases like "She's orthodox" or "He's gone astray," or "They're great citizens" or "They're confused about what they are." Trouble arrives when our actions are unintelligible from the narratives and communities we claim are the most important to our formation.
For example, if I say "I am Catholic" then presumably I don't believe I can "self-master" without grace. I would think my nature is fallen enough, plagued by concupiscence, that I would need grace to even get myself into check. But as a Southerner, I might say, "God helps those who help themselves." This second expression is a Pelagian one, which says I don't need grace but can self-master solely through my human nature. So while I might profess the Creed and receive the eucharist on Sundays, my speaking of this second expression is formed by something that is contradictory to my Baptism. To maintain both expressions is a kind of self-deception in which a Pelagian way of life is more informative for who I think I should be, rather than who I am. At some point, a paradigm shift in one's language action is accompanied by a great epiphany that one's actions no longer make sense in their current narrative and by extension their community. If this is detected and the person moves narratives or communities we might call it "going apostate" or "converting" or "seeking consistency" or "changing my mind" all depending on whether they're going to or from Truth.
The Church is not a Community The Holy Scriptures are not a Story
Holy Scripture is not a natural text among others, nor one narrative among others. This is the Liberal Heresy of conflating the supernatural with the natural. We claim Holy Scripture is like a story but it is something else. At best there is only an analogy between "Scripture" and "story/narrative." The same holds for The Church and "community." The difference? One begins, is sustained, and ends with God -- the other is just a human-made thing. As long as we use the terms "community" and "story" analogously we may speak of the "Catholic Community" and "Catholic Story." But we must be careful of this. E.G. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI changed the Ordinary Form for Baptisms from "The Christian Community welcomes you" for this very reason. The phrase "Christian Community" can easily become an abstraction away from the concrete, incarnational Catholic Church that is Jesus' body. Thus this text was thus struck out and replaced with "The Church of God welcomes you."
St. Aelred is a "community," a group of people with an administrator, but one recognized, ordered, and formed by The Church through Bishop Lopes. Once St. Aelred receives a priest in July it will become a "church." Why? Because then we shall have a priest in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the Head) with the Lay Faithful as the Body of Christ, which together form the one whole Christ. This transition will not be one of degree, but a change from one kind of thing to another kind, from natural to supernatural.
That's how powerful Christ's Priesthood is, and the difference between The Church or a church, and "a community." The power to participate in Christ's body and blood is what distinguishes The Church from a community. It is God who distinguishes The Church from a "faith community."
Why Talking About "Choices" Shows One is Lost in the Cosmos
From being called "a church," comes a narrative of who we are called to be that encompasses both The Holy Scriptures and all of Catholic History, the Lives of the Saints, and so forth. This is God's "Story." From this come characters, who live into that story forms parishes, where persons are formed to do righteous deeds.
Choices, or a 'conscious awareness and picking of an action,' are what we do when all is lost. When our whole lives: community, story, and being have been rendered unintelligible and thus impractical, that's the moment we start worrying about "choices." When I have to stop living and think, "What should I do?" I'm in a bad spot. And when a whole culture tells their kids "Make good choices," we know that culture has lost any sense of what "The Church" is, what Her Story is. So too we also know they've lost any sense of what their community or story is from a natural perspective. You also know that culture is in moral dire straits. If grace perfects nature, and we're not even sure what a nature is, we're in a bad place. This is what we call the Philosophy of "Secularism."
When we lose a sense of that Corporate Personality, that Christ and his Church are 'one flesh,' or that all humanity in Christ is the 'Second Adam,' we lose a sense of who we are supposed to be and therefore what we are supposed to do. In the wake of that loss pop psychology that emphasizes leadership skills, scheduling, and management takes over to get us through life. In that Secular community, action takes precedence over being. A very fuzzy being of "The Self" who makes unintelligible "choices" conformed to a narrative made up of movie and social media clips. A fragmented story makes for a fragmented life. As a result, our actions become self-determined, which is to say - arbitrary. And when someone asks, "What do you want to do?" we can only respond with a blank stare and "I don't know," or a long litany of capricious desires, like a dog listing out its favorite feces to eat. Whether its "good" or "bad" becomes irrelevant, the only question left is, "Did he choose it? Then it must be good."
This is what Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil" really means -- not an enlightened 'getting beyond the myth of ethics,' so much as realizing the Enlightenment emphasis on the will leaves us unable to see actions as intelligible anymore. We cannot see actions as reasonable because they adhere and conform to a community's narrative that has an objective claim to Truth.
The Story of The Holy Triduum in a nutshell, from one theological perspective
Maundy Thursday is Christ's betrothal to the Church, the giving of The Passover (The Mass) is his pledge to give his body and blood to her, the Cross is the act of giving himself to her - body and blood, taking on all her sins in 'one flesh' with her. His Resurrection is a Love that is stronger than death, that goes beyond "till death do us part," and a great sign of Eternal Love, that Christ and his Church shall be wed forever.
Tonight we focus on Christ in the Passover. By extension, we recall how in Baptism and Eucharist we abide in him and he in us as One Adam or One Flesh. St. Ignatius of Antioch captures this primacy of being in some of his final words to the Catholics in Rome, "I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ."
So why so much Scripture at the Easter Vigil? Because it's necessary for your character formation, it's necessary for you to become a saint. As St. Jerome says, "Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." A list of "Catholic values" or "Catholic principles" is no replacement for conforming our lives and actions to the story of Christ (and in fact the overemphasis of this usually signals a particular group no longer knows the Story of The Catholic Church and is left with arbitrary preferences). To become a saint we must chew on and digest the Holy Scriptures. To do this we must be docile to Mother Church asking us to stay up late.
The Easter Vigil is a Praxis that Helps Makes Saints
What if the kind of person who goes to the Easter Vigil is precisely the kind of thing we've been discussing this whole time?
After all, isn't that our story? The Israelites began the Passover in the Evening, but the Passover of the Holy Ghost or the Angel of Death was not until Midnight. What if our actions conformed to that narrative? What if we said Evening Prayer on Holy Saturday and went to Midnight Mass? What if instead of making excuses we lived as if our very lives, our very salvation, depended on living out this Story? What if we treated not just the Holy Triduum this way but the whole year?
It would seem then that "staying up late for the Easter Vigil" is precisely the kind of action that is intelligible because it conforms to the Scriptures of the Catholic Church. It thus is one of many acts that help shape its participants into "good Catholics," which are simply people who are struggling to become saints like the Israelites of Old, the Apostles, and Saints throughout all generations.
And God commanded them to keep seven more days as solemnities as a perpetual observance. What if we kept The Passover and the following seven days as the solemnities as The Easter Octave? What if we treated the 50 days of Eastertide as a time of Reconciliation for ourselves and to help fellow, lapsed Catholics return home? What if we treated Trinitytide (Ordinary Time p. ii) as a time for Missions, Evangelism, and Growth? And so on and so forth. What would we look like as people? Might we become - holy?
But let us leave this question off for now. Christ is more important at this juncture. He has descended into Hell, where he seeks the captives from days of old: Adam, Eve, Noah, Moses, Zipporah, Aaron, Miriam, Samuel, Judith, Esther, David, Ruth, Solomon, Elisha, Zechariah, Joel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel and so on.
Happy Holy Saturday