The Ghosts of Easters Past

As Easter fast recedes, one cannot help but think — after one has attained a certain age — of Holy Weeks and Easters past. Of course, Christmas famously attracts such thoughts; but I suppose that every major holy day does as well. For all that, Christmas — not least because the secular society around us deigns to observe it in some fashion or other — looms largest on the nostalgia front; Easter is the higher, indeed the highest feast of all, and so should invite such reminiscences. After the past few years of COVID, every major celebration seems like a resurrection of one sort or another.

This year, after a Palm Sunday spent in Belfast, I went on to Cambridge and Walsingham, spending the Triduum in London. Thanks to growing up during the Troubles — watching murders and maimings in Belfast every night, seemingly, on TV — a lifetime’s phobia against the northern capital had to be overcome. The Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest run the parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and offered a pre-1955 Palm Sunday service, with all the blessings of the Palms and the folded chasubles. My phobia against Ulster was dissolved afterwards over whiskey consumed at a pub with the welcoming name of “The Crown and Shamrock,” so dubbed back in the 1890s specifically in a successful bid to attract railroad workers of both religions. Having sailed through the difficult times between, it seems a very happy place, indeed.

Maundy Thursday found me in London, where I attended another pre-1955 service at a parish church. There was no foot-washing, of course: for centuries that had been the preserve of Bishops, Abbots, and Monarchs. Although the new King was off north at York Minster distributing alms and food to selected elderly as part of his own Royal Maundy Service, His Majesty did no foot-washing either. Once a universal custom amongst European Royalty, its last practitioners at Catholic courts were Austria-Hungary’s Bl. Karl I and Spain’s Alfonso XIII; it has been dropped from the Anglican British Court centuries ago. Revived in 1955 for parishes, it remains a part of my own memories. The Stripping of the Altar and the placing of the Blessed Sacrament in the Altar of Repose always brings a tear in the light of the Gospel just read.

Good Friday featured of all things a Passion Play in Trafalgar Square, which I blundered into. Put on by a Catholic-owned company called Wintershall Estate, it was an extremely affecting way to get into the spirit of the day. But the significance of such a sublime action in the ceremonial heart of the capital not only of Britain but of the Commonwealth — and in a sense, of the entire Anglosphere — was not lost on me, as I gazed on the reenactment of the most supreme moment in history. Canada House and South Africa House — those countries’ High Commission to Great Britain looked on, as did the statue of King Charles I, that “fair and fatal King,” whose own murder has so often been seen as reminiscent of Christ’s. But I also thought of other Passion Plays I had seen, such as that at Senecu, Mexico, across from El Paso, the Stations of the Cross at Lourdes in Litchfield, Connecticut — and helping to carry a statue of the dead Christ in a procession through the streets of Pasadena, California.

In keeping with the pre-1955 nature of the services I was attending on Good Friday, the full set of collects was chanted at the church. This included the prayer for the Emperor, whose object in this case was the heir to that office, the Archduke Karl von Habsburg. The “Creeping to the Cross” was accomplished accompanied by the reproaches and followed by the Vexilla Regis. Communion was received only by the priest, and then the church was once more desolate. So many Good Fridays in the past have ended on that note of desolation.

In days gone by, I have been to the Byzantine Holy Saturday, which is redolent of the time that Our Lord was in the tomb — and explains why Saturday is particularly reserved to the Holy Souls in that rite. This year, the Holy Saturday Vigil was in the afternoon — the lighting of the new fire included the use of the three-pronged reed, and all twelve prophecies ensured a service followed by Mass that together took up three hours, though it went by quickly; I was seated extremely close to the font, and so saw the blessing of the font very clearly, and the thrusting of the candle into it. This has always struck me as one of the most sacred moments of the year, representing as it does the coming of the Holy Ghost and Divine Grace into the waters of baptism, and the opening of the hitherto closed gates of Heaven to Fallen Man — should he choose Redemption. Because it was earlier than I am used to, I went to dinner with friends, and “de-Lented” with a delicious ribeye steak. I remember doing so back in 2014; but it was a 1955 Vigil — albeit in Latin — at Holy Innocents in Manhattan. They followed it with a glorious dinner in the parish hall. But Either way, the joy of Easter arrived with the festive ringing of bells during the Gloria.

Easter itself this year was lovely indeed; there were few changes in 1955 to the Easter Mass itself, and the polyphony of the choir was magnificent. At the end, the somewhat extended “Jacobite” version of the prayer for the Monarch after High Mass — the Salvum fac — was chanted; particularly poignant, because for the first Easter since 1951 it was for a King. After that, with friends I set off for a delicious Easter lunch. But my thoughts drifted back once more to 2014. Then, I went to a High Mass at St. Agnes — now alas, no more. Dressed in morning coat I then did something I had wanted to do since childhood — I marched in the Easter Parade on 5th Avenue; that pleasant saunter among the peculiar costumes finished, I found my way to the King Cole Bar in St. Regis, for an Easter brunch of deviled eggs and lamb — and then departed for Greenwich for a ham dinner with my aunt and cousins. It was truly the finest Easter I had enjoyed since the Easter bunny stopped coming.

Easter Monday is a holiday in Britain, as it is in most of Europe (alongside St. Stephen’s Day and Whitmonday). So, when invited for a tour of the Parliament at Westminster, I was happy to accept and at last was able to see the chapel of St. Mary Undercroft — beautifully decorated by the Catholic architect Pugin, and host to a weekly Mass. While walking through one of the passages used by the Lords, I saw on the wall a framed copy of the prayer used at the daily opening pf the Upper Chamber: “Almighty God, by whom alone Kings reign, and Princes decree justice; and from whom alone cometh all counsel, wisdom, and understanding; we thine unworthy servants, here gathered together in thy Name, do most humbly beseech thee to send down thy Heavenly Wisdom from above, to direct and guide us in all our consultations; and grant that, we having thy fear always before our eyes, and laying aside all private interests, prejudices, and partial affections, the result of all our counsels may be to the glory of thy blessed Name, the maintenance of true Religion and Justice, the safety, honour, and happiness of the King, the publick wealth, peace and tranquillity of the Realm, and the uniting and knitting together of the hearts of all persons and estates within the same, in true Christian Love and Charity one towards another, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. Amen.” The irony was not lost on me, that the deliberations of a decidedly non-Catholic body (although it does have Catholic members) should open its deliberations with what must regarded not only as a fine prayer but as a statement of Catholic Social teaching. Still, if it is lost on most of their Lordships, it is perhaps not as bad as our own Supreme Court annually ignoring the graces offered them at Washington, D.C.’s Red Mass at the capital’s Cathedral of St. Matthew.

The tour finished, we moved on to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, first made famous by Samuel Johnson and his circle (his house is nearby) and as a result a hangout for literary types of one sort or another ever since. Considering all of those who had been there before me, I could not help but think of the deep tragedy that underlies the Anglosphere: its centuries’ long dedication to heresy that underlies and vitiates most of even what is best about her.

But it is not given to us to know what the future holds. Past Holy Weeks and Easters, like Christmases past, are joyous but poignant reminders of that Heaven which the Incarnation, Nativity, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ makes available to us if we persevere. They may differ wildly in place or circumstances for us or else, be seemingly unchangeable exercises in tradition — or both. But they each — both in the varying circumstances in which we celebrate them and in the mysteries they represent — keep our attention on our true Homeland. Moreover, when we celebrate them in places like London or New York, where a glorious past constantly jars upon a hateful present, we may hope that they too may one day resurrect as did Our Lord — a resurrection, please God, we shall all share, regardless of what happens to our many and beloved earthly cities.