The Sacred Triduum: The Blessing of the Font, the Litanies, and the Vesperal Mass

Continuing from the previous post:


The Blessing of the Font

Towards the end of the final, Twelfth Prophecy, the acolytes light their candles. One of them, perhaps the thurifer, takes the Paschal Candle from the column, and another takes the processional cross. After the final Prophecy is concluded, the sacred ministers remove their maniples, with the priest taking off his chasuble and being fitted with a purple cope. The lectern in the middle of the choir now removed, the altar party and choir form a procession to the Baptistery. On the way to the Baptistery the choir sings the tract Sicut cervus, a quotation from Psalm 41 (42).

When the procession reaches the Baptistery, no one enters. An acolyte holds the Missal open before the priest, who then sings the collect as appointed. This collect expands upon the themes of the tract and connects it to the sacrament of baptism. If there is to be a baptism, the priest then proceeds to the Baptismal Rite right up to the end of the anointing with the Oil of the Catechumens.

The priest then enters the Baptistery with the Paschal Candle bearer, the cross bearer, ministers, and acolytes. Facing the Baptismal Font, then celebrant joins his hands and sings “Dominus vobiscum” (“The Lord be with you”), the faithful responding as usual, and sings a collect that ties the meaning and reality of baptism with the Death and Resurrection of Christ:

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, adesto magnae pietatis tuae mysteriis, adesto sacramentis: et ad recreandos novos populos, quos tibi fons baptismatis parturit, spiritum adoptionis emitee; ut quod nostrae humilitatis gerendum est ministerio, virtutis tuae impleatur effectu. Per Dominum nostrum Jesus Christum Filium tuum…” (“O almighty and everlasting God,  be present at these mysteries, be present at these sacraments of thy goodness: send forth the spirit of adoption, to regenerate the new people, whom the font of baptism brings forth; that what is to be done by the ministry of our weakness may be accomplished by the effect of thy power. Through Jesus Christ our Lord thy Son…”)

The priest continues with the appointed prayers, now connecting the waters of baptism with the Flood of Noah that washed the sins of the world. The prayer further confesses the sacrament of baptism as a sacrament of regeneration, and the openness of the Font to the whole world. When the priest says the line “Unigeniti tui gratiam de Spiritu sancto” (“[that] she may receive the grace of thy only Son from the Holy Ghost”), he pauses and divides the water in the Baptismal Font by making the sign of the cross in the water. The deacon hands him a towel to dry his hand, after which the priest continues to sing the prayers. After he sings the words “non inficiendo corrumpat” (“may [the enemy] not corrupt with his infection”) he once again pauses and lays his hand upon the surface of the water. He then dries his hand again and continues the prayers.

Shortly after, he makes the sign of the cross three times over the water as instructed in the Missal:

Unde benedico te creatura aquae, per Deumvivum, per Deumverum, per Deumsanctum: per Deum, qui te in principio, verbo separavit ab arida: cujus spiritus super te ferebatur.” (“Wherefore, I bless thee, O creature of water, by the living✠God, by the true✠God, by the holy✠God: by the God who in the beginning separated thee by his word from the dry land: whose spirit moved over thee.”)

The priest then divides the water again with his hand and casts a little water towards the four cardinal points as he sings “Qui te de paradisi fonte manare fecit, et in quatuor fluminibus totam terram rigare praecepit” (“He made thee flow from the fountain of Paradise, and commanded thee to water the whole all of the earth with thy four rivers”). After drying his hand again, he continues singing the prayers and makes the sign of the cross over the water again as he says “Benedico te et per Jesum Christum…” (“I bless thee also by Jesus Christ…”), and after “tu benignus aspira” (“do thou graciously breathe upon us”) he breathes three times over the water in the form of a cross.

The priest follows this three-fold breathing with a short prayer, during which the deacon receives the Paschal Candle from the acolyte, who then hands it to the priest after he finishes the prayer. The priest then gently plunges the bottom of the Paschal Candle a little into the water, singing on a low note “Descendat in hanc plenitudinem fontis virtus Spiritus sancti” (“May the power of the Holy Spirit descend into the plenitude of this font”). He then then takes out the Candle and repeats this twice more, each time plunging the Candle a little deeper and singing on a higher pitch. After the third plunge the priest holds the Candle in the water and again breathes three times on the water, this time in the form of the Greek letter Ψ (“psi”: for psyche–“Spirit”), and continues “Totamque hujus aquae substantiam regenerandi foecundet effectu” (“And make the whole substance of this water fruitful, effective for regeneration”). The priest then hands the Candle to the deacon, who then hands it to the acolyte who dries it with a towel.

After the priest says another short prayer, an acolyte first fills an aspersorium with water from the Font and accompanies the priest with it, who will go around the church sprinkling the faithful with the blessed water. While the faithful are being sprinkled, another acolyte takes some water from the Font in a vessel, and from this refills the empty holy water stoups in the church.

When the priest returns to the Font, an acolyte presents the stocks of the Oil of the Catechumens and the Holy Chrism to the deacon. The priest stands before the Font again and receives the Oil of the Catechumens and pours a little of it into the water in the form of a cross, saying aloud “Sanctificetur, et foecundetur fons iste oleo salutis renascentibus ex eo, in vitam aeternam” (“May this font be santified and made fruitful by the oil of salvation, for such as are regenerated in it, unto life everlasting.”). He hands the stock back to the deacon and is given the Chrism, which he then pours in the same manner as before saying “Infusio Chrismatis Domini nostri Jesu Christi, et Spiritus sancti Paracliti, fiat in nomine sanctae Trinitatis” (“May this infusion of the Chrism of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost the Comforter, be made holy in the name of the Holy Trinity”). He then takes both stocks together and pours them in at once saying “Commixtio Chrismatis sanctificationis, et olei unctionis, et aquae baptismatis, pariter fiat, in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus sancti” (“May this mixture of the Chrism of sanctification, and of the oil of unction, and of the water of baptism, be made in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”), making three crosses in the water. He then hands the stocks to the deacon, and mixes the oils and water together by stirring it with his right hand. He then carefully wipes his hand on cotton wool, and then on a towel.

Sometime in the midst of the Blessing of the Font, a server or sacristan lays three purple cushions before the High Altar.

The priest is aided in taking off his purple stole and cope and is fitted with a white stole and cope and continues with the latter part of the Baptismal Rite in the usual way. The candle given after the baptism is lighted from the Paschal Candle. After the baptism is concluded, the priest is changed into the purple stole and cope again. Finally, the priest washes his hands. With the Blessing of the Font and the baptisms concluded, a procession is formed back to the altar.


The Litanies

As the procession begins, the Litany of the Saints begins to be sung. The Litany is sung in an abbreviated form, but each petition is sung twice. This doubling is apparently a vestige of an ancient custom, where the Litany was first sung on behalf of the baptismal candidates on the procession to the Baptistery, and again on the procession back. On the procession back two cantors walk immediately behind the cross and sing each petition, which is then repeated in full by the choir.

On returning to the altar, the Paschal Candle is returned to the column. When the sacred ministers arrive before the altar, the deacon and subdeacon genuflect and the priest bows. The priest takes off the cope and the ministers their folded chasubles. These vestments are carried to the sacristy by the acolytes. The sacred ministers then kneel in front of the altar and then lie prostrate with their arms and face on the cushions. Meanwhile, the Litany has continued without interruption, with the two cantors kneeling in the middle of the choir with prie-dieus (placed after the choir has processed past in smaller churches).

holy saturday litany

The Litany of the Saints is, at heart, a penitential prayer. It ranks among the most significant penitential prayers of the Western tradition, and it was often recited along with the Seven Penitential Psalms. Most old breviaries contain an order for the praying of the Penitential Psalms with the Litany, and I have also seen smaller devotional books that contain the exact same order. Even the Prayer Book Litany, for all its great changes from the Litany of the Saints, continued to play a similar penitential role in classical Anglican liturgy.

The penitential nature of the Litany of the Saints, however, does not mean that there is no joyous element to it. It is always a comfort to be reminded that one is in the company of the great Cloud of Witnesses, and the place of the Litany after the baptisms functions as a grand anthem sung on behalf of the newly baptized, inaugurating them into the company of saints of the universal Church. The prostration of the sacred ministers in front of the altar is not only an act of penance on behalf of the unworthiness of all of us, but it is also the representational act of thanksgiving for the newly baptized, the corporate act of supplication that our new brothers and sisters be kept, protected, and encouraged in their life-long journey of sanctification by the mercy of God and the witness of the saints. The English Litany has its own grandeur, but this element of the Litany of the Saints is unfortunately lost.

When the cantors sing the petition “Peccatores, te rogamus audi nos” (“We sinners beseech thee to hear us”) the sacred ministers rise, reverence the altar, and go to the sacristy along with the master of ceremonies and some acolytes. In the sacristy the purple vestments are removed from the ministers, and they are vested in white. Meanwhile the remaining acolytes take off the violet altar frontal to reveal the white that was laid underneath, and the cushions and all purple coverings in the sanctuary are removed. The altar is decorated as for festal feasts and prepared for the celebration of the Mass (candles are lighted, etc.). The altar all prepared, the remaining acolytes join the rest of the altar party in the sacristy.

When the cantors sing the “Agnus Dei” (“Lamb of God”) petition the altar party processes out of the sacristy, with the ministers arriving before the altar.


The Vesperal Mass

When the Litany concludes with the final petition, “Christe exaudi nos” (“Christ, graciously hear us”), the cantors rise and sing the “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord have mercy”). The Mass proper has begun. The cantors return to their usual seats, and the prie-dieus are removed from the middle of the choir. The sacred ministers make the usual reverence to the altar as at High Mass.

After the Kyrie there is no introit, and the priest comes to the middle of the altar and intones the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (“Glory be to God on high”). All the bells of the church are rung and the organ is played while the Gloria is sung. All the images in the church are uncovered from their purple veils. The organ is hereon played throughout the Mass.

The Mass then proceeds as usual and after the Epistle, standing on the Epistle side of the altar, the priest sings Alleluia three times according to the special tone particular to this Vesperal Mass as noted in the Missal, raising the pitch each time. The choir answers with their own Alleluia each time at the same pitch. Then follows the gradual, and the final Lenten tract:

Laudate Dominum omnes gentes: et collaudate eum omnes populi.  . Quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia ejus, et veritas Domini manet in aeternum” (“Praise the Lord, all ye heathens, and praise him, all ye nations.  ℣ For his merciful kindness is ever more and more toward us, and the truth of the Lord endureth for ever.”)

The return of the Alleluia, which had been suppressed since Septuagesima, followed by the tract, which are sung when the Alleluia is suppressed, reveals to us that even the Vesperal Mass of the Easter Vigil marks both the end of Lent and the beginning of Eastertide. We can see this character of the Easter Vigil further in the Gospel of the Mass.

At the Gospel the acolytes accompany the ministers as usual, but they do not hold candles. The thurifer, however, brings the thurible, and the deacon censes the Gospel Book. The Gospel reading is Matthew 28:1-7, where the Marys come to the tomb of Christ at the end of the sabbath and discover the stone rolled away. There they encounter the angel of the Lord, who announces to the women the Resurrection of Christ. Just like how the festal Alleluia was followed by the Lenten tract, the Gospel also declares the Resurrection but we, with the Marys, have not yet seen the risen Christ. The tomb is empty, but the Church still awaits the appearance of Christ. In the Prayer Book, the appointed Gospel Lesson was changed to Matthew 27:57-end, which recounts the burial of Christ’s body by Joseph of Arimathaea. While this Gospel reading retains the fact that the full revelation of the Resurrection is unveiled to the Church on Easter Day, the older Gospel is distinctively appropriate for the uniquely mixed character of the Easter Vigil as it is presented in the ancient Sacred Triduum.

After the Gospel the Creed is not said, nor is there an offertory antiphon even though the priest says the usual “Dominus vobiscum” (“The Lord be with you”) and “Oremus” (“Let us pray”). The preface, Communicantes, and Hanc igitur are said for the first time in the Paschal form, both with special clauses that declare that this is the very night of the Resurrection. The Agnus Dei is not said, nor is the kiss of peace given. The Mass then continues as usual, and the faithful are communed.

There is no communion antiphon sung. Instead, after all are communed the choir sings Vespers, beginning with the cantors intoning the antiphon, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. This Vespers is very truncated, consisting of only one psalm, Psalm 116 (117). The minor doxology (“Glory be to the Father…”) returns at the end of the psalm. The sacred ministers are meanwhile standing at the Epistle side of the altar, as at the introit. When the antiphon is repeated after the psalm, the priest intones the antiphon of the Magnificat, Vespere autem sabbati…” (“At the end of the sabbath“), as noted in the Missal, which the choir continues. The Magnificat is then sung by the choir, and the ministers cense the altar as usual at Vespers. The ministers, choir, altar party, and people are all censed. The minor doxology is also said at the end of the Magnificat.

After the antiphon of the Magnificat is repeated the priest then says a prayer, “Spiritum nobis Domine tuae caritatis infunde…” (“Pour on us, O Lord, the Spirit of thy charity…”), which serves as both the collect of Vespers and the post-communion prayer. The Mass then ends as usual with the dismissal, except that the faithful add Alleluia, alleluia at the end of their response.

Apparently, the lack of the offertory, the kiss of peace, and the communion antiphon reflects the fact that in ancient times the faithful were not communed at the Vesperal Mass, and waited until Easter Day to receive the Eucharist.


Thus concludes the rites of the Sacred Triduum.


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