There’s so much to say about entering the Church at Easter Vigil. Any post covering every aspect of it would be unreadably long, and even then I’m sure I’d miss something. So, to give you the feel of the evening in less than a zillion words, I’ll offer a few highlights that stand out in my mind when I look back on the beautiful Easter Vigil Mass of 2007:
No post about any Mass at our parish would be complete without a mention of the beauty of the church itself. Only completed in late 2006, this is the first Easter celebrated in this building. When we originally decided to start going to this church it was in a dated, unattractive building an we were unaware that there were plans to build a new one. I actually commented to my husband that it was a shame that it was in such an ugly building. Imagine my delight when I saw the first plans to build this new one.
Every time I step inside I feel inspired. Not just because of the obvious beauty, but because I know what is behind it. Our pastor and the church staff are incredibly devout, orthodox Catholics who love their faith and wanted to build something beautiful for God. Our parish is not particularly wealthy, so it was no easy thing to get this church completed.
Friends and family
Because of the chaos of moving — and some general social awkwardness on my part — I hadn’t invited anyone to Easter Vigil. In typical me fashion, I got too caught up in over-analyzing who I should invite (“Only Catholics? What about Protestants? Would my agnostic/atheist friends be offended if I did or didn’t invite them? What about lapsed Catholics who aren’t practicing?”), and I never got around to inviting anyone. In fact, I hardly mentioned it.
So I was really touched when so many people showed up to support us. My aunt and uncle flew in from Atlanta; my dad came back from his job overseas; my mother-in-law (a Southern Baptist) came in from Houston; two couples whom we’re good friends with (the Darwins being one of them) came with their children and a friend from out of town; a good friend I met through RCIA was there, of course; and my mom, a lapsed Catholic, re-evaluated her faith and went to confession in order to be my husband’s sponsor.
After the Mass there were calls for celebration, so all of us gathered at my mother’s house for an impromptu cocktails and pizza get-together that lasted well past midnight (no small feat since most of us are the parents of young children).
Being surrounded by such kindness and support from our friends and family made the night feel all the more like it was a homecoming, that we were finally where we’d belonged all along.
The Lent leading up to Easter Vigil was the most spiritually fruitful time of my life. I felt like I’d finally reached a calm understanding of God and could just relax, and trust. Through the grace of God I received some key insights (like this one) and some answered prayers (like this and these) that opened the floodgates for the peace of Christ.
When I walked into the warmth of the church on that bitterly cold, rainy Saturday evening, it was one of the first times I entered a religious building and felt really comfortable. Years and years of bad experiences at Christian churches left me with a deep feeling of discomfort, of always needing to be on my guard whenever I walked into a church. Even up until a few weeks ago I would look around the pews each Sunday and feel like for some reason I just wasn’t one of “those people, ” the Christians. But that evening as I greeted my friends and family in the narthex, I welcomed them to my church, and it didn’t sound odd. It felt like my place.
And as I sat in the pew and watched it all unfold, from the beauty of the candlelight-only beginning to the final blessing, I felt like I was, well, in communion with God and his Saints. It was beautiful on all levels.
As I mentioned, I chose St. Monica as my confirmation saint. As soon as I made the decision I was certain that this was the perfect saint for me, and I felt like she was watching over me. Over and over again when I asked for her intercession I received guidance and comfort. Also, I had been reading a lot about her character and her life and trying to use her as an example to live up to.
So when the priest walked up to me as I stood in front of the congregation and anointed my forehead with that exotically fragrant oil, I was caught off guard when he addressed me as “Monica”. It’s one thing to think about wanting to be like a saint and using their life as an example, but when someone looks you in the eye and addresses you by that person’s name, it changes for a moment the way you think about them. I suddenly internalized her in a way I had not previously. For a fleeting moment I realized on a gut level that I really could be like her, that she was a mere mortal like myself, and that there is nothing that makes it impossible for me to be as holy as a living St. Monica. Of course I quickly reverted to my very un-saintly ways, but for a split second I knew with all my heart that we all have the potential to be Saints.
I will skip to the moment you all want to know about: receiving the Eucharist for the first time. Unfortunately my worry of having a “Jen moment” (as my husband calls them), committing some embarrassing and possibly sacrilegious faux pas, overshadowed the moment. We hadn’t covered the technicalities of receiving Holy Communion in RCIA and it had only been discussed in passing at the Monday rehearsal, so I was very nervous about doing it wrong. Seriously: it is not out of the realm of possibilities that when the priest said “body of Christ” I would have responded with “thanks” or “cool” as I grabbed the consecrated host from his hand. So, yeah, I was on edge.
Also, the physical sensations of the Body and Blood were distracting. Not that it was good or bad either way, just interesting, and not what I expected.
The biggest moment of the evening actually came right before I was about to receive the Eucharist. I was standing there, waiting for my husband to go up before me, and was hit like a ton of bricks with the profundity of the moment. “I cannot believe I’m standing here, ” I thought. How did I, a person who never even considered the possibility of God until my late 20’s, who was a content atheist surrounded by worldly pleasures, who shrugged off most religions as irrelevant silliness and disdained Christianity, get here? I had a sort of “life flashing before my eyes” moment and began sobbing when I realized how close I came to not being here; how very easily I could be spending this night in a very different place, in a world without God.
And though I was mostly focused on myself when I actually received the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time, I did feel a noticeable difference afterwards. A few situations came up later that evening and the next day that would have normally resulted in snide comments and anger on my part, and I found it far easier than normal to be kind and charitable in situations where I’d normally fly off the handle.
Since then, every time I’ve received the Eucharist, I feel a subtle change. It’s just a little easier to be kind, to be patient, to be selfless. Perhaps the change I feel is all in my head. It’s possible. And that’s OK, because I don’t receive Holy Communion because it’s some sort of drug that will give me instantaneous results. I do it because I believe that God exists, that this is his Church, that this is what he wants me to do, and that I will receive his sanctifying grace — whether I feel it immediately or not.
Pope Benedict recently said that the great convert St. Augustine (son of St. Monica) recongnized “that the bountiful mercy of God was continually necessary for himself and the entire pilgrim Church.” If I’ve learned one thing over this past two years, it is this. Without God’s grace, I’m lost.
This quote reminds me of why it’s been so difficult for me to write this post. I felt like readers were probably expecting some sort of thunder-and-lightning experience; and while it was one of the best days of my life, it was wonderfully uneventful. It just felt like I was finally coming in out of the cold, back to where I should have been all along.
And, per St. Augustine’s thought above, after all my struggling and despair and searching, when I finally got to the place where I had access to God’s grace through the Eucharist, it was very clear to me that it was not the end of my spiritual journey. It was only the beginning.
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