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A Sunday Vigil at the Holy Sepulchre

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by Fr.Enrique Bermejo Cabrera ofm

Jerusalem is the city of the Light and Resurrection. The Risen Christ became for all the Light of life. A Joyous Light, an Infinite Light. This is a true reality and not only an ideal. It is a reality because the Lord is alive and extends his resurrection particularly to those who celebrate the memory at the same place and at the same hour when the historic event took place: when the night is won by the light, the death by the Resurrection. And this precisely happens in Jerusalem.

The empty tomb is a sign of the fulfillment of the Easter Mystery. The first Christians came in pilgrimage to this holy site, moved by the "grace of oration" as is stated by Egeria, the IV century pilgrim. The memorial celebration which she saw, is today renewed by the Franciscans, Custodians of the Holy Places, because they are conscious that they have the duty to keep alive the evangelical memory in the Sites entrusted to them.

During the Sunday vigils of Lent, they used to celebrate Matins. With the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, a change was needed. This was done keeping in mind and studying the liturgical sources of the Church of Jerusalem by being faithful to the Roman Catholic Liturgy and at the same time adapting it to these most Holy Sites of Salvation. The norms of Vatican II blended with the narration of Egeria's diary which states:

"But what is above all things very pleasant and admirable here, is that the hymns, the antiphons, and the lessons, as well as the prayers which the bishop says, always have suitable and fitting references, both to the day that is being celebrated and also to the place where the celebration is taking place." (47,5).

The Franciscans in procession around the Aedicula

The Franciscans in procession around the Aedicula

In another text, speaking of the Liturgy in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre she writes:

"Now as soon as the first cock has crowed, the bishop arrives and enters the cave at the Anastasis; all the doors are opened and the whole multitude enters the Anastasis, where countless lights are already burning. And when the people have entered, one of the priests says a psalm to which all respond, and afterwards prayer is made; then one of the deacons says a psalm and prayer is again made, a third psalm is said by one of the clergy, prayer is made for the third time and there is a commemoration of all.

After these three psalms and three prayers are ended, lo! censers are brought into the cave of the Anastasis so that the whole basilica of the Anastasis is filled with odours. And then the bishop, standing within the rails, takes the book of the Gospel, and proceeding to the door, himself reads the (narrative of the) Resurrection of the Lord. And when the reading is begun, there is so great a moaning and groaning among all, with so many tears, that the hardest of heart might be moved to tears for that the Lord had borne such things for us.

After the reading of the Gospel the bishop goes out, and is accompanied to the Cross (Calvary) by all the people with hymns, there again a psalm is said and prayer is made, after which he blesses the faithful and the dismissal takes place, and as he comes out all approach to his hand."
(24,9-11).

This celebration comprises various moments: singing of three psalms with their respective prayers, incensation of the Holy Tomb, proclamation of the Resurrection Gospel by the Bishop, Procession to Calvary, a station with a psalm and prayer and finally a blessing and dismissal.

All these elements, where possible, have been recuperated in the Sunday vigils celebrations of Lent. Here every Saturday of Lent the Franciscans of the Holy Land in simplicity and joyous awareness that which Egeria wrote about the Christians of Jerusalem sixteen centuries before.

The resurrection in silver

The resurrection in silver

Every Saturday night, at 23.30 the Franciscan Community of St. Saviour, led by the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, comes down to the basilica of the Resurrection where other religious and faithful come to join in prayer. The Vigil is held in the Chapel of the Apparition of the Risen Christ to his Mother and it start with the procession of the celebrating ministers carrying the Holy Gospel, accompanied by incense and light. The book of the Gospel is then enthroned on the altar, a symbol of the presence of Jesus Christ-Word in the celebration.

After the invitatory Psalm, which invites the assembly to conversion, for the listening to the Word of God and to Praise the Lord, the Hymn is sung which recalls the Lenten period and three psalms are sung. After each psalm and antiphon moments of silence are kept to give space for private contemplation. A prayer after each moment of silence is then read. These prayers are taken are taken from venerable prayer books: Liber orationum psalmographus and Visita nos which reflect the spirit of the ancient liturgy of the Mother Church of Jerusalem. There follows the proclamation of the readings and three canticles from the Old Testament.

A wooden model of the Holy Sepulchre

A wooden model of the Holy Sepulchre

At this point of the Sunday vigil the typical part of the Liturgy of Jerusalem is inserted. It is the "Memoria Resurrectionis" (the Memory of the Resurrection) in order that, in Egeria's own words, everything be "adapted to the day and place". The Assembly leaves the chapel of the Apparition and holding lit candles, symbol of the light of Christ, they go out in procession around the Holy Tomb. The Custos carries the Evangeliarium (Gospel book) and the deacon offer incense filling with sweet smell all the basilica as Egeria recalls: "After these three psalms and three prayers are ended, lo! censers are brought into the cave of the Anastasis so that the whole basilica of the Anastasis is filled with odours."

During the procession the assembly sings the New Testament canticle "Benedictus" alternating each verse with the antiphon "An angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. Alleluia. Alleluia". Then the empty tomb is incensed together with the Gospel book placed on it. At the end of this celebration the assembly returns to the chapel of the Apparition to proclaim the Resurrection Gospel, as it is not possible to proclaim it in front to the tomb. The Gospel is not proclaimed by the deacons as is customary but by the Custos of the Holy Land. This to relive a significant gesture, proper the ancient Mother Church of Jerusalem, in which, as Egeria states, it was the bishop who proclaimed the Resurrection Gospel: "And then the bishop, standing within the rails, takes the book of the Gospel, and proceeding to the door, himself reads the (narrative of the) Resurrection of the Lord. And when the reading is begun, there is so great a moaning and groaning among all, with so many tears, that the hardest of heart might be moved to tears for that the Lord had borne such things for us."

After the reading the prayers for the whole church are proclaimed and the assembly answers by acclaiming the risen Christ with the "Kyrie eleison" . Here again is Egeria's diary: "And when all these have been recited according to custom, the bishop rises and stands before the rails, that is, before the cave, and one of the deacons makes the customary commemoration of individuals one by one. And as the deacon pronounces each name the many little boys who are always standing by, answer with countless voices: Kyrie eleison, or as we say Miserere Domine."

A procession by the Franciscans presided by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem

A procession by the Franciscans
presided by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem

The vigil ends with the last homage to the Gospel which is incensed and is lifted up. With it the Assembly is blessed and dismissed. Here ends the Sunday Vigil of Easter. In Jerusalem, in the basilica of the Resurrection it is always the Easter of the Lord. The empty tomb is a witness, the Gospel proclaim it: the Lord is truly risen!

And as the Franciscan community leaves the church at about 1.00 am our Greek orthodox brothers begin their Eucharistic liturgy accompanied by a marvelous choir of Russian nuns who spontaneously bring to mind the "Mirofore" of the morning of Easter. They too proclaim the Resurrection Gospel and later on in the night it will be the turn of our Armenian Orthodox brothers. In this unity of faith, which overcome and redeem all divisions, the Franciscans of the Holy Land feel that hey are not guardians of places and monuments, but humble servants and announcers of Jesus Christ risen from the dead and Alive for ever.

The Franciscan procession on Good Friday

The Franciscan procession on Good Friday

  

 

© Text prepared by John Abela ofm based on articles and research by Virgilio Corbo ofm, Michele Piccirillo ofm and Eugenio Alliata ofm
Hi-Res pictures prepared by Michael Olteanu - Other pictures prepared by John Abela ofm and Michael Olteanu
B&W pictures courtesy of SBF-Jerusalem Archives - A joint project betweeen the Franciscans and Christusrex

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Created / Updated Wednesday, December 26, 2001 at 20:31:33 by John Abela ofm
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