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Catholic Activity: Holy Saturday and Easter in the Home

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The vigil of Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday should be the focal point of the whole year. This is the "Feast of Feasts"! Florence Berger describes preparing the Easter breads and other victuals, decorating and hiding Easter eggs (including the tradition of the "Alleluia Egg"), and incorporating blessing of foods at the Easter meal. These blessings come from the older form of the Roman Ritual.

DIRECTIONS

Christ our passover has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep festival, not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (Lesson from Vespers of Easter)
Holy Saturday services were always confusing to me as a child. I couldn't understand why we should be sharing in the blessing of new fire, and a new Paschal candle, and new water when Christ still lay in death. Why, in the early hours of Saturday morning, should we pray, "This is the night in which . . . Christ arose victorious from the grave"? And again, "on this sacred night receive the evening sacrifice of this incense. . . . O truly blessed night." Sometimes I wish they would put these ceremonies back where they belong — as a vigil service of Easter. The ears of children are sharp and quick. Once they hear the "Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia" at the Holy Saturday Mass, it is Easter for them. [Editor's Note: This was written in 1949. The Church did restore the Holy Saturday vigil Mass in 1955, and it is still celebrated on the eve of Easter, instead of Saturday morning. --JGM]

As soon as the "Ite, missa est" sends them forth, they are racing home to prepare the feast. There are eggs to color and cakes to bake and bread to knead. There are shoes to shine and backs to scrub and curls to roll. There are flowers to gather and fruits to polish and baskets to hide. All things must be renewed at home as the fire and light and water were renewed at church.

In years past it was customary to re-light the family hearth fire with the Easter fire of the Church. There is a beautiful prayer which was recited as the home fire was kindled by the light from the Paschal candle. All food was cooked at this fire. How old the prayer is, we do not know, but in it pagan and Christian virtues rub elbows. This was used as a morning prayer as the hearth was lit to sanctify the day's work in Christ.

I will kindle my fire this morning In the presence of the holy angels of Heaven, In presence of Ariel of the loveliest form, In presence of Uriel of the myriad charms Without malice, without jealousy, without envy Without fear, without terror of anyone under the sun But the Holy Son of God to shield me. God, kindle Thou in my heart within A flame of love to my neighbor To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all, To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall, O Son of the loveliest Mary From the lowliest thing that liveth To the Name that is highest of all.
When the day's work was ended, when the family was safe bed and the tiniest one had been lulled, the mother would again turn to God as she banked the hearth fire for the night. As she piled up the ashes to hold the coals, her prayer glowed with simple trust. We can feel her weariness as she prayed.
The sacred Three To save To shield To surround The hearth The house The household. This eve This night And every night Each single night.
Her fire was Christ's fire struck from new flint on Holy Saturday and hers to maintain for another year. In the same way we bring home new holy water on Easter's vigil.

But if all things were to be renewed in Christ's resurrection, former Christians were doggedly logical. One of the things which they enjoyed most was food and that too found revivification. A friend and neighbor of ours described the ceremony of the blessing of Easter bread and meat as it was held in his country before the war. He was Hungarian and we almost starved with him as he described the horrible concoctions which made up the meal on Good Friday. Nothing having life was allowed on the table. Sauerkraut was served with oil, and he shuddered to think of it. Eggs were deviled and dished up in sour gravy, and he shivered to remember it. And noodles — his mother's beautiful noodles which were sometimes smothered in honey and almonds — were blackened with plain ground poppy seeds, and his mouth puckered with the dryness. On Easter, though, each family filled great trays with good things to eat. There was lamb and sweet breads and cakes for Easter breakfast. The trays were covered and brought to church for the blessing. We laughed when he remarked that the blessing was absolutely necessary in order to save them all from gluttony. Why, their stomachs had been so badly shrunken after forty days of Lent that even half that food would have killed them — without the blessing. They begged God to bless their breakfasts that they "may be healthful food for Thy people who eat them in thanksgiving for the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ." Did you ever think of a more pleasant way of giving thanks? That is, after all, why we feast. "Festivals and solemn times" are set aside in order that they should give thanks, and "should praise the holy name of the Lord and magnify the holiness of God in the morning," Some of the food was given to the poor, some was eaten in common with the priest and some was brought back home as blessed Easter bread. Food, you see, is always an important actor in the drama of the Church year.

The idea of making cakes and bread and cookies in the form of a circle at Easter occurs again and again. The Swiss make a braid of dough in a circle just big enough to hold a colored Easter egg. And a very famous Easter cookie is cut with a doughnut cutter and called Easter wreath cookie. Another is rolled like a sausage and turned into a ring. As the Resurrection was our passport from death to new life so on each succeeding Easter we begin our immortality with the renewal of our baptism. Our Christian life is our heaven here on earth. It is the beginning of our eternity — our never-ending circle.

There have been many explanations of the custom of giving colored eggs at Easter. Each seems to have a germ of truth. A very practical soul has written that, since eggs were forbidden during Lent, they were colored red to symbolize Easter joy, and brought to the table. Others say that the egg is a symbol of new life connected with the baptismal feast of the Church. As new life is given the Christian in baptism, a new egg is given as a gift memorial. Some think the Easter egg is quite pagan in its origin, and heralds the return of spring.

The best description I have found was written by George Mardikian in Dinner at Omar Khayyam's. As he argues, the egg has always been a symbol of the universe in the lore of pagan peoples. Eggs were offered to their gods as a sign of fealty. The shell of the egg represented the sky. The membrane was the air. The white of the egg stood for the waters, and the yolk was the earth. Early Easter eggs were painted red to show that the salvation of the whole world was bought with the blood of Christ. The whole universe has been redeemed under the blood of Christ. As time went on, liturgical symbols were added to the decoration, and then secularism painted them with Barney Google and Superman.

Christine and Kathy can pop the eggs in the dye pots even though it is a little hard on the eggs and the table. Freddie can do the larger blends of color; Mary and Ann do the finer decorations. Among all the bright colors, one egg is left white and scrolled in gold. On its side "Alleluia" is shining. As father hides the eggs, each little painter hopes to find the "Alleluia" because it means a prize of cake or sweets. One year the "Alleluia" was not found until eight months later. I was cultivating the saxifrage in the garden and there was the golden egg. Needless to say, I cashed in even though the egg was slightly "agey."

One evening, Monsignor Hellriegel was describing the finding of the "Alleluia" egg in his family. The story was becoming more and more dramatic as his ten brothers and sisters were closing in on the hunt. Finally, by sheer good luck, he spied the gleam of gilt and he knew the prize was his. A little boy in the audience had been jumping to his feet as the story progressed. Now his hand was waving. He would have the floor. "Please, Father," he interrupted, "and what was the prize?" That was the important point — for a little boy — and Monsignor had failed to describe the prize. All of his eloquence now went into the description. The prize was a luscious German sweet cake, large enough to last any little boy a week or so. It was covered with cinnamon and sugar and nuts and the center sometimes had a Stollen filling. Your egg hunt will be full of enthusiasm if you bake an Easter sweet bread for the prize.

You may not be a hungry little boy, but a grownup who prefers fewer sweets. Then you will enjoy the traditional Russian Easter bread called Koulitchy. It is baked in thin metal molds eight inches across and just about twice as deep. We used lard tins of that size. But the bread can also be baked in deep casseroles much like American spoon bread.

The meat for the Easter dinner has been traditional and tradition points to lamb. If your purse permits, serve leg of lamb. Young spring lamb has slightly pinkish bones streaked with red and the flesh and fat have a pink tinge.

If, on the other hand, you feel that a cheaper cut of lamb is called for, buy lamb from the shoulder and serve Shish Kebabs cut in one inch cubes.

During the Middle Ages, each thing in the household was renewed at Easter. It was not only a matter of new dresses and bonnets and jerkins. Even the ordinary foods were rejuvenated. It has been a very old custom for eastern peoples to eat a sort of clabbered milk called Yogurt or Madzoon. The longevity of many Balkans is said to stem from this habit of eating about a pint of Yogurt every day. The milk is congealed by an inoculation of certain bacteria, and its sweetness is somewhat retained. Any Armenian or Persian or Bulgarian can give you a culture of Yogurt. It is highly recommended for a daily "pick-me-up." My brother heard of it just after a serious operation and he is now an enthusiastic user.

As the Yogurt is made throughout the year, the culture is passed from the old supply to the new. On Good Friday, though, the entire batch is thrown away. Why? Because from Easter comes the renewal of life, from the Lord's Resurrection comes our rebirth in faith, and from the pepsin of the stomach of the Easter lamb comes the renewal of Yogurt, the "strength drink" of men. How little we are of ourselves. How dependent we are on the One who made us. And how good it is to admit it.

As the preparation of the Easter feast continues don't forget to go out into the herb garden and get your tansy. Use it in sauce or in pudding. The new herbs are searching for the sun. Some are plain, tipped like little arrows to shoot their way through the brown clods. Some are rounded like little spatulas to slice their way through rock itself. Some have stood as gray ghosts throughout the winter storms, and now their crabbed arms are growing green tipped fingers. But all have heard the news of the "Exultet" and are springing forth from the grave of winter to sing "Alleluia."

Kneel on the cold earth as Mary Magdalen did in the garden near Calvary, and you will hear your name spoken by the Lord. "The Prince of Life who died" now stands at your side. He is dressed as a fellow gardener, but under the coarse cloth is "His glory as He rose again." His message is the same. If His death is to be a victory, we must be born to a new life — a new life whose mark and end is love. If His blood is to redeem, we must "drive away all wickedness, cleanse all faults." If his love is to cover the earth with peace, we must all "be of one mind." Our answer is the same as Magdalen's. There we kneel on the cold earth and murmur, "Rabboni (which is to say, Master)."

When at last the excited murmurs of the children die in the silence of the night, we know that our real vigil with Christ is come. Young hearts were not made for long waitings. For mature Christians, who realize that Christ's coming in glory is their crown or chastisement, this night before the rising is very solemn. Saint Augustine says, "This is the mother of all holy vigils." "This is the day which the Lord has made," feast of all feasts. This is the climax of the entire year with Christ. All other holy days are but "little Easters." For if Christ be not risen from the dead, all other festivals are fallacy or foolishness. With the faith of Christ's followers and the intuition of lovers, we women are ready for the Resurrection. Our lamps are brimming with oil. Their wicks are newly trimmed. Our homes are swept and garnished. "Behold I have prepared my dinner . . . and all things are ready."

This Easter feast is the perfect time to introduce our friends and family to some of the beautiful liturgical blessings of the Church. While we have them together under our roof tree, within our upper room as it were, we can season our foods with the salt of prayer. "You are the salt of the earth; if salt loses its taste, what is there left to give taste to it?"

It is on Easter that such common things as bread, meat, eggs and fruit are blessed. These foods were formerly blessed at Church, as we remarked before, during the divine services. These are the cornerstones of our diet and yet how few have even heard, here in America, of the blessings which Christianize these material building blocks of life. As disciples of Christ we dare not lose our savor.

If the risen Christ is to be our Guest of honor at the Easter feast, it would be but proper to speak to Him at dinner in language designed for the Deity. That is what liturgical prayer is, isn't it? As the Paschal lamb is about to be carved by the father of the house, he could speak to God, the Father, who has shared His beloved Son with us, and ask His blessing in these words, "O God, Who by Thy servant Moses didst command Thy people in their deliverance from Egypt to kill a lamb in symbol of Jesus Christ, our Lord, and didst prescribe that its blood be used to anoint their door-posts, do Thou bless and sanctify this flesh which we Thy servants desire to eat in praise of Thee. Through the Resurrection of the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in eternity." How good and holy to celebrate Easter, the greatest feast of the Church year, in the spirit of praise, the true spirit of ancient Jewish and modern Christian feasting. Festivals and solemn times "should praise the holy name of the Lord and magnify the holiness of God in the morning." That is why we eat and drink to the Lord.

As we sit at the table together with our Christ, how natural it would be for the mother of the house to rise and address Him,

"O Lord, Jesus Christ, Bread of Angels, True Bread of everlasting life, bless this bread as Thou didst the five loaves in the wilderness; that all who eat of it may have health of body and soul. Who livest and reignest forever."
This is the second reason for feasting. We feast as a memorial to the past and for present strength.

To the children who sit at the table belongs the blessing of the Easter eggs. They have learned the symbolism of the eggs as they dyed and decorated them; now at the climax of the feast it would be both polite and meaningful for them to say to Christ,

"Let Thy blessing, Lord, come upon these eggs that they be good food for the faithful who eat them in thanksgiving, for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee forever and ever."
Here then is the third reason for our celebration. We dine to give thanks as well as praise.

Then at last to the other guests we give the Easter blessings of other "produce and victuals" which may prove a "saving help to humanity" and bring "health of body and protection of soul" to those who use them. If we no longer bring our food to the Church for the blessings, we can at least bring the blessings to our food in our homes. These meal prayers would be a grace fit for our risen King.

Activity Source: Cooking for Christ by Florence Berger, National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 4625 Beaver Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50310, 1949, 1999

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