An Opportunity for an Exceptional Experience
Throughout the year, several celebrations in the liturgical calendar are marked by special ceremonies that are open to all.
These celebrations are always accompanied by the organ and often by hymns and activities. The choir sometimes sings. Every celebration is an opportunity for an exceptional experience.
The celebration of Christmas is undoubtedly the dearest to the hearts of Christians. It is a time of poetry, wonder, and certainly beautiful memories for many. But the main reason for this wonder is the realization of the infinite love God has shown for humanity. The Father sent his Son to guide men and women in their often fruitless search for God. God took human life so seriously that he came to share it. And he was serious about it. He wanted to be born as a human baby and experience all the stages of life. Finding a little baby in the manger tells us two things. First of all, that he chose to be small. He didn’t want to crush us with his greatness. He wanted to teach us, in a way. He wanted us to dare to get close to him. We are easily moved by a child. Imagine: God wants us to experience the same thing when we approach him. The other aspect that catches our attention is the manger. God, creator of heaven and earth, wanted to be laid in a manger for animals. What father or mother would want that for their child? God was showing us that he wanted to share all the difficulties of our lives. Once we get a little further into Lent and the Easter season, we will encounter the cross. But the manger itself is a powerful message.
Christmas at the Basilica
The celebration takes place on December 25, as we all know. This event is so important that it requires great preparation. That’s why we use the four preceding Sundays to help us enter into this celebration. This period is called Advent. (This word comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.”) During this time, we share the hope of the people of the Old Covenant who were waiting for the coming of the Messiah. We draw our attention to the Advent wreath, where we light a candle each Sunday. The candles burn until the coming of the Messiah.
On the day of the celebration, there are two main times: night and day. You’ve likely been to or heard of midnight Mass, which is now held throughout the evening. The Gospel tells us that the shepherds heard the good news of the birth of the Messiah in the middle of the night. At Notre-Dame Basilica, we have three evening celebrations. The first, in recognition of Jesus arriving as a child, is geared toward families, with a special focus on children. There is a live Nativity scene, where young people are invited to illustrate the proclamation of the Gospel. The other two Masses have a more solemn tone, with a more elaborate musical selection.
Two other celebrations should be mentioned here. On January 1, we celebrate St. Mary Mother of God. The collaboration of the Virgin Mary was indispensable for the Son of God’s coming to earth. We thank the Lord for implementing his plan of salvation.
The following Sunday, we celebrate Epiphany. Following the humble shepherds who came on Christmas night were wise men from a distant land. God wanted salvation for all of humanity. We are gladdened by this very good news.
The Season of Lent
Lent is one of the most important times for a parish community. Its 40 days represent the 40 years before the people of Israel entered the promised land, or the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his mission. In our minds, it is perhaps an image of austerity that stands out. We’ll call it preparation. For Israel, it was a matter of becoming fit to enter the promised land. For Jesus, it was a matter of becoming ready for his mission.
Christians chose this 40-day period to prepare for Easter and to prepare candidates for baptism. In fact, the most suitable date for adults to celebrate baptism is Easter. You may have attended one of these stages of preparation on a Sunday during Lent.
We mentioned the austerity that can mark this period. In fact, this is necessary in order to make room—room for a new life, since baptism brings someone into a life different from the one he or she had known before. It is also an invitation for us older baptized folks to make room, because we have not necessarily always been open to this new life that Christ offers us.
Everyone is invited to experience Ash Wednesday. This involves a gesture of humility, as we recognize the need to welcome newness and possibly shake up some of our old habits. Older parishioners will remember being encouraged to fast every day of Lent, except Sundays. Now there are only two days of compulsory fasting, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
There are many ways to fast. We can fast from television and from all sorts of other activities that make it harder for us to hear the Word of God. This is because one of the characteristics of Lent is listening to the Word of God, which allows us to welcome the renewal that God wants to bring about in our hearts. The prophets of the Old Testament already drew attention to the fasting that pleases the Lord most: sharing with our brothers and sisters who are hungry or have all kinds of needs that we could help them with.
The Easter Triduum at the Basilica
Next, we begin our journey through the final days of this period. This is the Easter Triduum. The Church Fathers spoke of the three days of Christ’s death, burial and rise. In fact, the Triduum begins on Thursday evening because, for Jewish people as well as Eastern Christians, the day begins the previous evening.
Holy Thursday evokes the Last Supper, the meal Jesus had with his disciples before going to his Passion. It was then that he gave us the gift of the Eucharist. It was also then that he explained the meaning of what was to come the next day. This is why we celebrate Mass, where we hear Jesus say, “This is my body, which is given up for you.” He was already showing what would happen a few hours later. There is also a washing of the feet ceremony, the humble service that Jesus rendered to his disciples to show his commitment to the path of supreme service. The gift of the Eucharist also allows us to experience a moment of adoration in his presence after the ceremony.
Good Friday is about remembering the Passion of Jesus. A long Gospel narrative tells us of all the stages of this tragedy. Careful though! This isn’t a day of mourning. The experience from the night before shows us that love wins out. Jesus wins this final victory on the cross. That’s why there’s also a very long prayer to the Lord for everyone in the world, because Jesus, victorious, presents all our requests to the Father with the confidence that has always characterized him. Homage is also paid to the cross, since it becomes a symbol of love that is stronger than anything else.
Holy Saturday is a time of waiting. Then, in the evening, the joyful news of the Resurrection ushers in Easter.
Lent lasts 40 days, while Eastertide lasts 50. This is the time we give ourselves to reflect on Jesus Christ’s victory over evil and death. This period has three events: Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. Easter itself has two parts: the vigil and the day itself.
Easter Vigil begins in the evening on Holy Saturday. The word says it all; we keep a vigil. This celebration lasts longer than the ones we’re used to. The church is first plunged into half-light then complete darkness. A new fire is then lit. This makes us think about how Jesus Christ’s victory shines a light on our darkness. The Paschal candle is lit from this fire followed by the candle of each person in attendance. It’s a bit like the good news of the Resurrection being spread across the world. When standing vigil around the fire, sometimes there’s singing. Then Easter hymns will rise to acclaim the victory of God’s love.
Next, we’ll take a look back at history. We hear about the events in the history of the people of Israel that set the stage for what we’re celebrating. If you’re willing to stay awake, you could hear up to seven readings from the Old Testament. We usually listen to three or four at the Basilica. The central fact that is brought up is the crossing of the Red Sea, which marked the liberation of the Hebrew people in Egypt. Each of the readings is accompanied by a Psalm and a prayer that highlights the links between these ancient events and the new events Jesus Christ had a part in. The hymn for the crossing of the Red Sea is impressive.
After this series of readings, the organ, which has been very quiet since Holy Thursday, plays once again to invite us to sing Glory to God. Next we will hear a reading from a letter of Saint Paul that talks about baptism, since Easter Vigil is organized, among other things, to welcome newly baptized people. Then we’ll hear the Gospel of Resurrection.
The focus will then shift to water, since as we’ve mentioned baptisms will be performed. We will take the time to solemnly bless this water. The priest will go over the historical events we mentioned above and ask the Lord to act now on behalf of the newly baptized. For adult baptisms, it will be accompanied by confirmation.
Attendees, having acted as witnesses, will be invited to renew their baptismal promises. Then the priest will walk among them and sprinkle them with baptismal water.
The Eucharist that will follow will therefore be the first communion for newly baptized people.
On Easter Day, we look at the same wonder from a different perspective. The Gospel leads us to the empty tomb. Jesus Christ’s resurrection is not a spectacular event but a reality that our faith provides. Saint John, who told us about his visit to the empty tomb, was able to recognize the signs: “he saw and believed,” says the Bible. This Mass has a unique solemnity to it due to its music and singing.
Forty days later, we’re invited to celebrate the Ascent of Jesus Christ. (In fact, the 40th day would put us on Thursday. In many countries including ours, this celebration is postponed to the following Sunday to allow for more people to take part.) It’s Jesus Christ’s last appearance. With him our humanity enters into the glory of heaven. The apostles were a little bewildered by this departure. Jesus Christ had promised that he would be with us until the end of time…but in other ways. One of these ways is that he will be with us through the actions of the Church. This last remark leads us to the next event.
We’re now on the 50th day (that’s what Pentecost means). There is a holiday with this name on the Jewish calendar. On that day, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles in quite a spectacular way through tongues of fire, and everyone present could understand the apostles despite all speaking different languages. Friends of Jesus Christ, who had been quiet up until then, boldly set out to spread the Good News. It’s a celebration that marks the beginning of the Church’s mission, which continues to this day.
The candle that was central to the Easter Vigil will disappear at that moment. The last day of this period will also be marked at the end of this celebration. Hallelujah, which had not been heard during Lent, has resounded in a special way since Easter. To mark the end of this period, it will be present even in the way worshippers are greeted.
It’s a very festive 50 days, inviting us to take in the Good News. God, our Father, loved us to the point of sending his Son to achieve our salvation, and he himself sends us his spirit so that we can live by it.