SEAN O'CONNOR a Solicitor from Surrey, reflects on recent Easters spent on retreat at Downside Abbey, Somerset and offers a novel idea for Easter 2000
THIS WILL BE THE FIRST Easter in seven years that I have not spent at Downside. I have a good excuse. My same year contemporary at Downside, Bobby Henrey the little boy in that Graham Greene film The Third Man, my old chum with whom I went on walks around Chilcompton some forty year ago when we were sixteen has invited me to his house up-country from New York. Now a married Deacon, he will be singing the Exultet. I am looking forward to it. But absence makes the heart grow fonder. How very much I shall miss Downside. First comes that glorious Pontifical Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday when the Blessed Sacrament is very respectfully carried round the Abbey Church under its canopy, with the thurifer constantly censing with incense as we kneel while the Monstrance passes. No doubt an oriental Monarch like Herod needed a canopy to protect him from the sun, so of course the real presence of Christ, an even greater King, likewise deserves a canopy.
Good Friday starts with the Lamentations from the Old Testament, hauntingly and piercingly sorrowful, yet paradoxically b
At noon come the Stations of the Cross, the most austere moment of the retreat, and then of course there is the reading of the Passion and the kissing of the cross in the afternoon. At Downside it is all real. Christ really has died. A collective sense of sadness, or rather of anxiety and tension broods over all of us.
During my seven Easter retreats at Downside I have moved forward one day in my faith. I used to be a Good Friday Catholic. The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross continued in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the ongoing offering of the Son to the Father as an ever-present reality, the Son sitting at the right hand of the Father and pleading to the Father for forgiveness and mercy on me: That was the centre of my faith, the thing that was Sometimes it still is. Doubtless on Good Friday it will be.
But on Holy Saturday comes the Easter Vigil. So movingly and prayerfully is it done at Downside that I will never in this life be nearer to heaven than that. St John's Gospel 1:5 describes Christ as a light shining in the darkness. It is important
to understand why, on Holy Saturday night, the whole Catholic Church is initially in the dark. There we are, the people of God, enveloped in darkness.
On Holy Saturday night, I am not merely in the dark. I am the dark. My mind is the dark: all those parts of my mind that I do not use, all those parts of my mind which I am only dimly aware of, all my worldly distractions, all my lack of faith. Then gradually, little by little,
each year, the light of Christ glimmers and radiates within me.
Soon everybody's candle is lit and all the candles make a glow that shines on up to the Abbey's roof. Yes, the faith of the whole Catholic Church is shining the light of Christ out to the whole world.
Suddenly all the electric
lights are thrown on and the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is sung. And again at Downside it is all so real. Christ really has risen. He has been exalted. And in being raised up he has lifted me up, he has carried me up to optimism about my whole human situation, to the victory within myself of good over evil, and to the thrilling prospect that those great words at the end of the creed: "the life of the world to come" may, through God's mercy, one day come true for me. And so it is that, rather than Good Friday, Holy Saturday night has, most of the time, become the• centre of my faith. I am now a Holy Saturday Catholic.
After the Easter Vigil, the teenagers at Downside have their Resurrection Party. I don't want to crack this up to be more than it is. It is just a bunch of young people having a few beers and cokes. But it is symbolic, and here! am thinking ahead. It is Easter of the year 2000 rather than New year's Eve, that we should celebrate. And so, on Holy Saturday of that year, let the nation follow Downside's lead: let there be a Resurrection Party. Let all duties on drinks be lifted for just one hour, from 10:00pm till midnight, and at midnight let every church in Britain ring out its bells. Christ has risen as he said: Alleluia.
On Easter Sunday Morning the great bell of the Abbey calls us to the High Mass. At the end of it there is that wonderful hymn "0 Praise Him" during which the young children enter through the West Door and come up to the centre of the Nave, with their daffodils. Then they go to the cloisters daffodil as we walk through the cloisters to the school buildings.
And so on Easter Sunday Morning of the year 2000 let the nation again follow the Downside's lead: let every child, aged not more than ten, hand daffodils to passers-by.
And wish each of them a happy thousand years.
MODERN times it
does not enjoy the popular appeal of Christmas, Easter is the most impor tant festival in the calendar of the Christian Church. It is the time when all Christians share in the miracle of Christ's Resurrection.
Following the severity of the long Lenten fast and the deep mourning of Good Friday, it is not surprising that Easter has a wealth of customs relating to eggs symbols of new life, and so of the Resurrection.
The early Christians were encouraged to believe that the Second coming was imminent, and would occur during an Easter Vigil. This belief was so strong that each year entire families, including the children, gathered to spend the whole night together in their respective churches.
Modern children tend to look forward to Easter for the chocolate eggs they will receive as gifts. Some 200 million hens' eggs are likely to be sold in Britain during the run-up to Easter. Many of the latter will be hard-boiled, coloured, and rolled down grassy slopes, just as they were for centuries before the advent of chocolate Easter eggs about 100 years ago.
Pagans regarded eggs as a symbol of the rebirth of natural growth after the barren winter months.
Some of their established spring practices were adopted by the early Christians as being appropriate also for Resurrec don symbolism. This was good psychology on the part of early churchmen, it meant that rather than introducing radical changes that might be
resistedj familiar customscould continue though with a change in their meaning.
Many Christian legends exist concerning the origin
of colouring eggs at Eastertime. One of the most pleasing relates to St Simeon, an egg pedlar.
According to the popular version, he saw Jesus struggling to carry the