Editor’s Note: Jeanette De Melo, editor in chief of the Register, spoke with Chris Carstens on Register Radio in an in-depth interview regarding ways to live out our Catholic faith during this coronavirus quarantine. Please find the interview here, as well as a bonus episode.
As attempts to hamper the spread of COVID-19 continue to restrict public celebrations of the liturgy, Catholics around the world look for alternative ways to join their prayers with the universal Church during this holiest time of the Church’s liturgical year. The editor of Adoremus Bulletin and director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, Christopher Carstens, recently published A Devotional Journey Into the Easter Mystery, which guides readers through an intimate and detailed examination of the liturgy celebrating this mystery — beginning with Ash Wednesday, including the Mass for Palm Sunday, the Triduum (celebrated on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday), and concluding with the Church’s greatest liturgical celebration, the Easter vigil.
Carstens spoke with the Register about his new book, what he learned in writing it, and how it helps the faithful understand the liturgical depths of the Easter mystery — especially during this time of extended fasting from the Eucharist.
Your book comes along at just the right time, given the COVID-19 restrictions on public celebrations of the liturgy. How can readers benefit from the book during this time, when nearly the entire Church will likely be sitting home for these liturgies this year?
Even though our physical and sacramental participation in the Triduum liturgies won’t happen this year for most — which is, of course, a significant change from what most of us can remember — other elements of the Triduum liturgies remain unchanged. First, Jesus Christ is still present and active, communicating his saving Paschal mystery to the world through the sacramental liturgy celebrated behind the closed doors of our parish churches, as well as in other places around the world. Second, we, his fallen people, still need the outpouring of his saving grace. So, neither his work nor our need have changed — only our sacramental meeting has.
Our participation in the Triduum liturgies is thus much like the “spiritual communions” we have heard so much about lately. In a spiritual communion, rather than coming to an intimate union with Christ through the visible and taste-able sacramental signs of bread and wine, we are now forced to achieve this same communion spiritually, without the usual aid of sensible sacraments. Similarly with the Triduum: Under normal circumstances, we participate in Christ’s saving Paschal mystery through a myriad sacramental signs and symbols, texts, rituals, music, ministers and processions, but this year we must participate in a spiritual — but nevertheless real — way without these rich liturgical elements.
In speaking about our journey into the Easter mystery, your book presents a basic narrative which all Catholics should understand as the framework for the Easter mystery. You point out that, like all good stories, the narrative of the journey into the Easter mystery has a beginning, middle and an end. Can you briefly sketch out this narrative?
The story of salvation, which is retold in the liturgies of Lent, the Triduum and the Easter season, tells an ironic sort of tale. In short: a man apparently sins and falls by wanting to become like God (that happens in the beginning), so God decides to become man (the center and middle of the story), in order that (in the end) man might become God and live happily ever after! But the irony of the story is resolved in love: God became one of us not out of any sense of necessity but because he loves us and wants us to love him.
And how is this narrative told through the liturgies of the Triduum?
We hear the first part of the salvation story near Lent’s start. “In the beginning,” the Book of Genesis recounts and the Church proclaims on Lent’s First Sunday, “the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Ash Wednesday sounded the same theme: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
But as Lent progresses and the Triduum arrives, we understand that God’s plan is to re-make us dusty, fallen, ashen men into his own divine likeness. Christ does this by his Paschal mystery, which is his suffering, death, resurrection and ascension, by which he passed from dusty earth to glorious heaven. But what’s more, he calls us to follow him over this saving bridge which spans the jaws of hell. And it is remarkable how this Paschal work happens. St. Augustine spoke of it as a “remarkable exchange,” Jesus for us and us for him: “We gave him the power to die; he gives us the power to live.”
But divine life really comes to maturity during the Easter season, and even beyond Pentecost. Having the fullness of divine life, at least to the degree that our ever-finite natures allow, actually makes us like God, which was God’s plan from the start. But where Adam grasped at divination and sought to attain it his own way, we now know — after some hard and deadly lessons — that divinization is attained only from Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the Trinity works this great sanctity principally through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. St. Thomas Aquinas put it like this: “Since it was the will of God’s only-begotten Son that men should share in his divinity, he assumed our nature in order that by becoming man he might make men gods.” And the inability to encounter divine truth in the sacraments — unless anyone needs reminding — is the cause of so much spiritual suffering during these days when the sacraments cannot be received to the same degree as before.
What did you learn personally on this journey about your faith in writing the book, and now in the challenging moment we face because of the coronavirus, about the liturgy, about the Easter mystery?
I’ve learned that it’s one thing to read, write and teach about the beauty of our faith, but quite another to believe it and live it to the full. That is, writing about “returning to dust” on Ash Wednesday or joining my sufferings to Christ on Good Friday or dying to my old, sinful self at the renewal of baptismal promises at the vigil is all well and good — and true. But under the present circumstances, these same truths take on new meaning, new reality. They are no longer abstract truths (easy to contemplate through the visible signs and symbols of the liturgy when there was general health and happiness all-around), but much harder truths to contemplate, less visible but still present before my very eyes now in this pandemic environment.
You write, “This Holy Saturday is unique in that it is nearly devoid of unique elements: minimal rituals, limited liturgies, few, if any, sacramental celebrations.” In a way our current experience of the Triduum — a time when most Catholics won’t be able to physically participate in the sacraments and these beautiful liturgies — seems like an extended Holy Saturday. How might this experience better help us understand the Easter mystery as a whole?
Truly, the daytime hours of Holy Saturday are strangely silent. There’s little to do on a “normal” Holy Saturday except to be quiet, pray and wait for the vigil to begin. How much more the case this year, it seems! But, like any other Holy Saturday, beneath the Earth’s silent surface and ostensible lack of activity, a great deal of work is still being done: Christ harrows hell.
Even while Jesus’ natural body lies in the tomb, his soul and divine Person is making “hell tremble with fear” (as the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday puts it). Jesus goes to that place where Adam and righteous souls have been waiting their release and entrance into paradise. In one of her few liturgies during the day of Holy Saturday, the Church puts before our reflective minds an ancient and anonymous homily about the harrowing of hell. The author hears these remarkable words from the mouth of our Redeemer to Adam and his descendants: “I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. … Rise; let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. … I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God!” This insightful homily for Holy Saturday might fruitfully be read any of these days.
The finale in your book — as in the liturgy itself — is the Easter vigil. You spend two chapters on this important celebration. The first of these two chapters addresses the dark and brilliant symbolism of the Easter vigil. The second looks at the sacraments celebrated at the Easter vigil — the Eucharist, of course, but also baptism and confirmation. For the Easter vigil, the Church seems to have pulled out all the stops. How are we to understand this “finale” of symbolism and sacraments, at least liturgically speaking, as we enter into the Easter mystery?
St. Leo the Great (d. 461) offers an insightful maxim on this point: “What was visible in our Savior has passed over into his sacraments.” What this doctor of the Church means is that the same Jesus who healed, cured, fed, forgave, suffered, died and rose again is the same Jesus who is present and active for his people today. He has not stopped working for his fallen people since arriving at the Father’s right hand!
In what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the “Age of the Church,” that is, today, Christ encounters us, and we share in and benefit from his Easter mystery through sacraments and sacramental signs. Again, salvation’s story is about Jesus bridging earth to heaven so that we can pass over from dust to divination. It is told at the Easter vigil’s start, as a Column of Cloud and Pillar of Fire lead Moses and the Chosen People from darkness and death into a Promised Land (or, perhaps in more familiar terms, a thurible and Paschal candle lead the priest and his people from the dark night into the church building). This same story is similarly sung in the poetry of the Exsultet. This same “greatest story ever told” is then recounted by the Easter vigil’s Liturgy of the Word (nine readings!), where we are invited to meditate upon our place — our role — in the divine narrative. And then, most efficaciously, we die to our old selves and rise with Christ in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist. But the underlying thread is the same in each case: from life to death to new divine life with Christ.
In your conclusion, you offer one further image for the Easter mystery — the Holy Mountain — and explain that our next task must be to descend from this mountain. How does this image of the Holy Mountain fit into the post-Easter celebration?
The Church uses many names to describe our journey into the Easter mystery, one of which is “climbing the Holy Mountain of Easter” (Paschalis Sollemnitatis, 6) — and for good reason. Moses, for instance, climbed the holy mountain of Sinai, encountered God face-to-face, and then descended back to earth with his face now “radiant” from the encounter with God (see Exodus 34:29-30). Later, Jesus took Peter, James and John atop Mount Tabor and (while speaking to Moses) was transfigured, “his face [shining] like the sun and his clothes … white as light” (Matthew 17:2). And after returning to the base of the mountain, the crowd was “utterly amazed” upon seeing him (Mark 9:15). And now it’s our turn: We climb Easter’s Holy Mountain, we encounter our glorious Redeemer, and return to earth and into the world to reflect that same glory. This, at least, is what sanctity, divinization and “life to the full” (John 10:10) is all about: to be filled with the divine life of God — grace — and become reflections, “conduits” of that same life to a world in need of it.
A Devotional Journey Into the Easter Mystery is available from Sophia Institute Press at SophiaInstitute.com or by calling (800) 888-9344. Use promotional code DJM50 to receive a 50% discount to both the e-book and the physical copy. Customers may use the code during their online or phone purchases. Sophia is closed Good Friday and Easter Monday, but customers may still order online. The sale ends April 20.