Reclaiming the Sacred: The Mystery and Dignity of Existence

The liturgy of the Easter Triduum is filled with many moments of great beauty, from the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, to the prostration before the cross on Good Friday.

Yet few moments are so moving as when we find ourselves in a darkened church, lit only by hundreds of candles held by the clergy and faithful, on Holy Saturday, listening to the exquisite verses of the Easter “Exultet” being declaimed from the pulpit.

“This is the night,” the deacon (or priest) repeatedly intones. “This is the night / that with a pillar of fire / banished the darkness of sin … This is the night / when Christ broke the prison-bars of death / and rose victorious from the underworld.”

It is difficult to think of any moment in the entirety of the Church’s liturgy that so completely captivates the imagination, in which it is so easy to lose oneself utterly in an overwhelming sense of beauty and power, or to give one’s heart over so effortlessly to a spirit of praise and thanksgiving.

For we modern people, who are so accustomed to living in the perpetual glare of artificial light, there is something especially moving about a church lit only by the glow of candlelight. Once upon a time, such candlelit or lantern-lit liturgies would have been the norm. But for us, the drama of such a candlelit service is heightened by the fact that it is so rare that we experience such a thing.

And then there is the unparalleled beauty of the poetry of the Exultet, a prayer some 1,500 years old. The English translation typically used manages to preserve the transcendence of the Latin original. When it is sung well, one is hard-pressed to repress tears. But, why would we? If ever there were an occasion for tears of joy, the Easter Vigil is it.

Indeed, the drama of this moment is heightened above all by the occasion: the first flood of joy after the lengthy Lenten days of penance and fasting. After liturgically following in the footsteps of the Lord’s Passion and contemplating in detail the immense bodily and spiritual pains which our Lord underwent, including His abandonment by all His Apostles, we are prepared to taste something of the ecstasy that the Apostle’s must have felt when the news of His resurrection first reached their ears.

Their dear friend, their Lord, their companion of years, whom they loved so dearly and had thought destroyed by the powers of hatred and death…He lives!


The Loss of the Sense of the Sacred

On this Easter Monday, I would urge you to take a moment to contemplate, with gratitude, the fact that you have been given the gift of a faith that enables you to experience such things. The Church, in her wisdom, has found ways to re-present liturgically the great truths of our faith in ways that draw us outside of the tedium of the day-to-day, and to bring us face-to-face with the great mystery and dignity of our existence.

This is not the norm in our world! For more reasons than can be recounted here, the number of those who believe in the Easter story has plummeted. Too few now participate in the liturgical life of the Church. For many people, Holy Week, Easter, Christmas, and many other occasions of immense significance to Christians, are just like any other day of the year.

Good Friday or Easter Monday may mean a day off work. But there is nothing of weight in them, neither the sorrow and foreboding of the recollection of Christ’s crucifixion, nor the joy and gladness of the remembrance of the Apostle’s reunion with their living Master. Such days might be on occasion for a family get-together. But this will not be preceded by communal worship at church, or scripture reading before the meal, or singing of hymns.

The sense of the sacred, in other words, is entirely missing from the lives of many people. The result is a flattening of human existence. As the crisis of mental health in our world suggests, this tends to produce a widespread sense of disgust, anxiety, fear, and despair. In many cases, people aren’t even aware that life can be lived in any other way.

In a moving passage in The Day is Now Far Spent, Cardinal Robert Sarah writes about this loss of the sense of the sacred. He, too, cites the Easter Vigil as one of those moments of supreme sacredness and beauty in the liturgical life of the Church:

In a world where everything is on the same level, everything becomes sadly equal. A profane, I would even say a profaned, world is a joyless world. Basically, the loss of the sense of the sacred is reason for sadness. How enchanting it is for a young altar server to approach the altar for the first time! His joy is that much greater because he is approaching God. To do so, he has put on the sacred garment of his ministers. The sacred is a precious good; it is the door by which joy enters into the world. It offers us a share in profound joys. Who has not trembled profoundly during the Easter Vigil while following the flame of the Paschal candle in the night? Who has never tasted the spiritual joy produced by singing the Gregorian chant Salve Regina in a monastery? The shiver of fear that it inspires is a thrill of joy. The voices of the monks join to proclaim the love of our Lady in a slow, grave, solemn chant that luminously expresses the true sense of the sacred: a joyous, confident fear. We literally experience in our flesh Goethe’s words: “The sacred is what unites souls.” I would add that it unites them in a profound joy.


Removing the Hallowed Nature of Marriage

However, this loss of the sense of the sacred is not only something that produces negative psychological outcomes. It is not only something that prevents modern man from tasting many of the most elevated states that are available to him: those states that speak most directly to those parts of man that are most fully and distinctly human, and therefore quasi-divine.

It is also the case that this loss of the sense of the sacred debases human existence, and leaves humans prey to the ravages of the culture of death.

Take, for instance, the case of marriage.

Over the millennia, the human race has surrounded marriage with a host of elaborate rituals that are meant to be outward visible signs of the dignity of what is taking place: the union of two human beings in a partnership that is the means by which new human life is brought into the world.

The founding of a family by the marriage of a man and a woman is no trivial thing. It is, rather, a union that will have consequences that will resonate across generations, transforming not just the lives of the husband and wife, but that of their children, extended family, and the whole community.

This truth was recognized even in many pagan societies, which devised extensive and meaningful rituals to celebrate marriage. However, marriage was elevated to the level of a supernatural sacrament by Christ. And in St. Paul, we encounter the comparison of marriage to the relationship between Christ and His Church (Eph 5:31-32).

As such, Christians have always treated marriage with appropriate dignity. Within a well-performed Catholic marriage ceremony, it is impossible to fail to understand that something unusual, and unusually important is taking place. From the music, the incense, the procession, the celebration of the Eucharist, and the exchange of solemn vows, everything points to the importance of what the couple is doing. This is no celebration of two people’s “feelings.” This is not even “a celebration of love” (though it is, in part, that). It is a public event, with public repercussions. And it is a supernatural event, with supernatural repercussions.

Nowadays, however, so much of the transcendence has been taken out of the marriage ceremony. On the one hand, it is true that couples will spend enormous amounts of money on throwing lavish celebrations. And yet, even in the midst of the most lavish weddings, there is often a sense not of transcendent meaning, but rather of a passing mood, of something that is all-too-human. Rather than exchanging solemn vows in the presence of God in a church, couples often trade trite “promises” on a beach, or in a garden. Few who are present think of the marriage as being anything other than a celebration of the fact that two people have “fallen in love.” Certainly, few would be willing to bet any significant amount of money on whether the marriage will last a lifetime. If the mood of “being in love” passes, then they assume the marriage will fail, or at least become yet another loveless union.

In other words, marriage is not thought of as being “sacred.” And the marriage ceremonies reflect that. For many couples, the ceremony changes nothing in their lives, as they have already been living together for years. On their marriage day, they do not sense that they are doing something of momentous, eternal import. They do not feel the sense of awe that I alluded to in the beginning of this column: the sense of awe that overcomes us at the Easter Vigil, as we encounter something so much larger and more important than ourselves.

No wonder, then, that so many marriages fail. No wonder that marriage is belittled and derided by our culture as a “trap.” No wonder that men and women treat one another merely as a convenient means to their own happiness and react with anger and disappointment when their spouse fails to deliver.

It is easy, too, to see how the same is true of how we treat human life itself: When so many couples expend most of their energies on ways to prevent bringing new life into the world, treating the marital act purely as a recreational activity, no wonder that the news of new human life is so rarely greeted as a manifestation of the sacred, and an occasion for joy. For couples who are open to life, news of the conception of a child can be an occasion of fear and anxiety, yes: but it is also always an occasion of wonder in the face of a reality that exceeds our comprehension.

But in a desacralized world, even human life becomes merely a raw material to be controlled and manipulated for our own, limited, short-sighted aims. No wonder, then, at the spread of contraception, abortion, in vitro fertilization (IVF), euthanasia, and so many other assaults on the dignity of human life.


Easter and the Sacred

The Easter Vigil is one of those occasions when we can feel in our bones the fact that Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection wasn’t merely some passing event. Our Faith isn’t merely one little aspect of our lives. Rather, Christ’s coming, and our being given the gift of faith, is transformative in ways that are hard to express in words.

A life in which we are given the opportunity to praise God in the words of the Exultet, and to believe the truth of those words, is a life imbued with a sense of meaning. We are not merely animals travelling between life and death, seeking purely earthly goods and pleasures. We are beings made in the image and likeness of God, for whose sake God deemed it worthwhile to live, suffer, and die, so that we might live with Him forever.

Every human life, every human love, is a participation in the Divine. This is the gift of Easter. This is the gift that we celebrate by candlelight at the Easter Vigil. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).

This is the Good News: ever since Christ came into the world, nothing has ever been the same, or can be the same. Let us rejoice today and be filled with gratitude for the gift of Christ’s sacrifice, and God’s gift of Faith. And let us resolve to spread this Good News throughout the world, pushing back the shadows of the culture of death, as a single candle in a darkened church symbolizes the destruction of death on Easter morning.

As president of Human Life International, Fr. Boquet is a leading expert on the international pro-life and family movement, having journeyed to nearly 90 countries on pro-life missions over the last decade. Father Boquet works with pro-life and family leaders in 116 counties that partner with HLI to proclaim and advance the Gospel of Life. Read his full bio here.

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  1. Kathleen Maxson on April 2, 2024 at 9:29 AM

    I experienced the Divine at the Easter Vigil this past Saturday evening. Your words are so true, beautiful, and unfortunately profound. It saddens me to see what the world has become. I’m 75 years old, and my Catholic Faith has grown in the past few years and is still growing. Thank you so much for your inspiring words.

  2. Jill Mjnro on April 2, 2024 at 3:28 AM

    This was just such a wonderful article to read at this easter time. I haven’t been to a vigil but it sounds quite profound. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. The older I get, the more I appreciate our wonderful heritage and am saddened also by the shallow and hollow life that so many are now condemned to live due to not knowing both God’s word or our Wonderful Saviour

  3. Jan Eggers on April 1, 2024 at 1:50 PM

    Thank you so much for this very inspirational article to ponder during our continuing celebration of Easter
    May God continue to bless you, and HLI

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