Monday, April 21, 2014

Dear family and friends,

I send you the most special of Easter greetings!  I hope that the joy and freedom of Christ fills your lives in a special way this Easter Season.

My Easter weekend in La Victoria was a beautiful and exhausting experience. But for your benefit, I will content myself with the Easter Vigil experience, although Holy Thursday and Good Friday were both wonderful as well.

After some discussion with my housemates Annelie and Kristina (Eliud being with her family this week) we decided to go to the Easter Vigil Mass Saturday night, and then have a special breakfast Sunday morning.  I attended an Easter Vigil Mass two years ago, but this was a different experience entirely, as you might guess.

Good Friday afternoon when the service was finished, the priest reminded us all that the Vigil Mass would begin precisely at 10pm Saturday night on the property of the Schoenstatt Sisters.  The German girls and I exchanged incredulous glances, as the service itself that day had begun 45 minutes late, as customary for events.  After a time, we know that any event or meeting will start from 15 to 40 minutes late, but we can´t help ourselves from arriving on time, just in case.

That night, accordingly, the three of us stood outside our house, armed with candles and cameras.  For some reason, this time people took the priest seriously.  For about an hour ahead of time until 10pm, the congregation came to the area to wait. Luckily for us, the gathering was in the driveway right after Casa Maria, our house and we found a spot in which we thought we could see.

Two minutes after 10, we began the Mass with the blessing of fire.  All of a sudden, the space between the small bonfire and the people was nonexistent.  I could barely see anything, but thanks to the priest´s handy-dandy little truck, I could hear it very clearly!  Due to the walks and different church activities, his beat up pick-up is equipped with a microphone and speakers.  Anyway, very shortly, the Easter candle was lit and the people from the front shared their light with others, and in a few minutes the whole crowd had lit candles.  Some were big, some were small, others decorated, kind of like the people who held them.

Slowly, we processed from the Schoenstatt Grounds to the parish church, a walk of about two blocks.  For the entire time, we were singing the refrain of a song about Christ the light of the world, as the cantor belted out verses on the microphone.  I have to admit, I was afraid for my hair.  There were so many people, children, teens, adults, and elderly, each with their own candle, and we were all walking pretty close to one and other.  But, I made it through without incident and arrived at the church unsinged.

The Sisters had warned us that we should bring chairs from the house, as they also did, because the chance of getting a seat in one of the pews was small.  So, Annelie, Kristina and I all brought chairs.  Long story short, I ended up standing in the back of the church, along with many who had not brought chairs.  The aisles, empty spaces and yard also had extra people who did not fit in the pews. After the priest processed into the sanctuary with the Easter candle, the people quickly followed in, filling the space with bodies, the air with smoke from their candles, and the room with their light.

Note: It is rare to have complete silence here at any event at all.  Really.  I went to a funeral, wedding, baptism, prayer events, Mass, and for each one there are always people talking.  Ideally, according to the man speaking on the microphone that night, we would have had silence coming into the church, but that was an impossibility, as we all knew well.

The Mass commenced with an upbeat song led by the Schoenstatt Sisters and was then followed by the readings.  I did not remember this from my other Vigil experience, but I will never, ever forget this one.  We had eight readings from the Old and New Testament, interspersed with prefaces, prayers, and psalms.  My feet ached!  I had made the dreadful mistake of wearing new blue sandals for Easter, whereas I should have known better by now.  Hah. Silly me. After each time the priest and people stood up, I expected the Gospel reading, but it was only for a prayer and then the rest of the people sat down again.

When it was finally time for the Gospel, I had abandoned caution and removed my sandals, putting them under a chair along with my candle, which had finally blown out in the wind from the open door behind me. There were so many people that I could not take a step backwards or to the side for fear of trampling a neighbor, and two ladies were seated in chairs in front of me.  Sadly, although I understood the Gospel and homily at the time, now I can´t remember what they were.  I think that it was somewhere around midnight at that point, and I had been awake for the last 18 hours, so my standing position actually providential in that I was not in danger of dropping off to sleep.  Although, that would have been near impossible.

Then, after the Gospel, we dove right into the sequence of prayers for the Church, fellow Christians, Jews, all people, those in need, governments, and everyone else.  Then, we renewed our Baptismal promises, which was fun in Spanish, and in memorial of our Baptism, we were sprinkled with holy water.  I say sprinkled, but perhaps should say drenched.  The priest is of a charismatic personality and does nothing by halves.  He had a bunch of branches that he used to throw water over the congregation.  As the choir sang out Agua Viva, he traversed the church thoroughly, water at hand.  When he came to the  very back, where many of us were packed standing, he passed right in front of me.  As the space was small, he was maybe a foot away from me.  He looked directly at me and SPLASH.  Shower time!  And so it continued.

Randomly, throughout the Mass, either the choir or the priest would call for an applause for Christ, and the church would ring with the clapping hands as the people sprang to their feet to celebrate their King´s resurrection.  And at the sign of peace, when we wish each other Christ´s peace as he himself did, complete strangers embrace each other as friends as goodwill overflowed.

The offertory, where the gifts of bread and wine are generally offered to be changed to the Body and Blood of Christ, was special.  There were more items presented, each one with a significance that was announced as it was presented.  We had flowers to symbolize the beauty of creation and the blossoming of life within us, food for the sustenance God provides, a Bible, water, and many more things.  I love symbolism, and this way of thanking God while giving back His gifts was an interesting way to think of ordinary things in a different light.

After communion and the final blessing, we sang the final song with much gusto.  

The music for this Mass was amazing Dominican hymns complete with guitars, keyboard, tambourines and drums.  The choir´s enthusiastic harmonies added to the general beauty.  I don´t know if I had mentioned this earlier, but we don´t have missalettes or songbooks.  For the songs, the choir leads and for the most part the people know the songs.  If not, by the third refrain, we have the gist of it and can at least join in.

If I had to describe the music in a word, I am not sure what I would say.  Enthusiastic?  Inspired?  Catchy?  Strong?  Loud?  In reality, it was all that and much more. Especially for the Mass responses the crowd sang with such enthusiasm that you would have thought they had waited all of Lent for those moments.  Clapping, swaying, waving, are all normal expressions of participation in the music.  Even if the words escape you, you can still keep time by clapping.

And the last song was no exception! The choir outdid itself for the last song; there was clapping, swaying, waving, the full participation of everyone.  It was so filled with Easter joy and triumph that people were literally dancing down the aisle on the way out.  No kidding!  And loud! 1AM and whole families, elderly and all of us were going strong.  If the Apostles had enthusiasm like them, I can see how they conquered the world for Christ. A friend next to me screamed a Happy Easter but I could barely tell.

So by the time we finished at the church, it was 1:15 AM Easter morning!  Whew!  What a vigil!  Kristina, Annelie and I walked back, carrying our chairs, the songs still ringing in our ears.  The guard at the Nutrition Center, which is on the Schoenstatt Sisters´grounds, told us that he could clearly hear the Mass from two blocks away.  Not a surprise.

Sr. Lucia invited us to the Shrine, where the Sisters would sing the Regina Coeli.  It was beautiful!  The priest had followed to hear it as well, and then wished the Sisters and us a blessed Easter and goodnight!

A few more minutes passed as we exchanged Easter greetings with the Sisters.  By this time, our 6pm dinner was only a memory, and Kristina told me that I had to understand that although we would still eat together later that morning, it was time to eat then.  so, we had bread in the kitchen before we attempted to go to bed at 2:30 or so.  I still had cards to write, so I was up until 4 Easter morning. Did I eat a jellybean or two?  You can bet that I did!

So yes, in conclusion it was a long, but probably one of the most beautiful Masses that I have ever attended.  The music, people, and liturgy made for a heavenly experience :)

Later, Annelie woke me to an Easter feast.  There were only three of us, but we had each prepared something for each other, and then the Sisters had given us more things, so we had sweet bread, lamb cakes, German cookies and muffins, my banana muffins, bread, maizena (a breakfast pudding) and fruit.  It would have been enough for days!  As we ate, we discussed our different family traditions, both as individuals and by country.  It is so interesting to hear about how we celebrate. Dominican, German, American; but all children of God and therefore a family.

In the long Vigil Mass, I offered it specially for my family and for all those who have touched my life  in any way or will in the future.  Chances are, if you are reading this, it was offered for you. Thank you!  Blessed Easter to all!  I keep all of your intentions in prayer here.  I hope that each of you had a restful day with family and friends.  God bless you all!

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