On the eve of Easter, Christians throughout the world attend an Easter Vigil that starts after nightfall and continues to midnight. The Easter Vigil liturgy is rich in symbols that transport worshipers back through the centuries to the sources of humanity’s first encounters with the sacred. The service typically begins outdoors with the congregation gathered around a cauldron or fire pit. The priest or minister blesses the fire and lights a paschal candle inscribed with a cross, the year, and alpha and omega, the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet. An assistant then uses one of the coals from the fire with which to burn incense.
During the service, lectors read stories from the book of Genesis about the creation. They read about Abraham and Isaac, and the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. As the lectors conclude their readings from the Hebrew Bible, church bells and hand bells ring as the congregation sings Glory to God in the highest to mark Christ’s coming with the transition from Old Testament to New. A cantor then sings the tender Litany of Saints, naming Teresa, Francis and many others on a roster that starts with John the Baptist. The service continues with a baptism ceremony in which a cleric welcomes initiates to the faith by sprinkling (or dousing) them with water and anointing them with oil. The sense of solidarity with those who came before and continuity from past to present is powerful.
Today, we’ll focus on the Easter Vigil theme of “Creation” (photos #1 & 2, above) as the first expression of God’s love for humanity. I had hoped to write also about the story of Abraham and Isaac and how it “typifies” Christ in Christian thought about God’s plan for salvation (see “Types” post), but in the interest of joining my family to color Easter eggs I think it’s best to limit our scope today. We’ll take a close look at photos of stained glass and sculpture at Cologne Cathedral in Germany and St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City.
The Medieval understanding of the created world drew heavily on Greek thinking. Plato and Aristotle wrote of four elements—fire, water, earth, and air—that comprised the world as they know it. These “classical elements,” along with the seven-day creation story in Genesis, have provided inspiration for artists throughout the centuries. But it is probably less obvious that the Easter Vigil liturgy serves as a reminder that the four classical elements carry meaning for Christians today.
Fire, source of warmth and light, is a symbol for many concepts including Christ as the “light of salvation.” Photo #5 depicts an allegorical figure of Fire (Ignus in Latin) holding two flaming torches in modern stained glass at Cologne Cathedral. One of four sculpted corbels in the corners of the narthex at St. Thomas Church (photo #6, click to enlarge) shows flames surrounding a stylized scorpion (or dragon?) who evidently can withstand the heat! The sculpture at St. Thomas dates to the 1920’s.
Water symbolically provides the renewing and cleansing power of Baptism (photos # 7, below). The stained glass at Cologne shows an allegorical figure for Water (Aqua, on the right) holding Neptune’s trident and pouring water from a large jug. The Water corbel at St. Thomas shows porpoises frolicking in the water (photo #8).
The earth produces oil, symbolizing the planet’s abundance and God’s sustaining love. Cologne Cathedral’s “Mother Earth” (Terra, photo #7 above, left) holds large sheaves of wheat in her hands. St. Thomas’ Earth corbel portrays a rabbit peering out of a wheat field (photo #9, below), a visual nod to the Norse fertility goddess Eostre whose name is the old English root of “Easter.”
The air lifts the aromatic smoke of incense heavenward, symbolizing both sacrifice and prayer offered in response to God’s love. Air (Aer) at Cologne Cathedral holds an eagle in each hand (photo #10, below). The Air sculpture at St. Thomas shows birds in flight (photo #11). In combination, the symbols of the four classical elements woven into the Easter Vigil liturgy subtly imply that our ancestors had a sincere sense of the sacred–as they contemplated the significance of fire, water, earth, and air–long before the first Holy Week.
Mike Klug, email@example.com, (4/19/14)