The Symbols of Easter

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Prayer for the Season

The symbols of Easter are also the symbols for the entire liturgical life of the Church. In all sacraments, particularly Baptism, simple elements from life are brought forward and made sacred. Lightwaterclothingoil, and in a unique way, bread and wine are transformed from ordinary objects into the gift of God’s grace and presence with us, and we too are transformed into images of Christ. Let us pray with these symbols of God’s life with us.


Understanding the Church’s Easter Tradition

The three days from Holy Thursday evening until Easter Sunday evening are known as the Triduum (a Latin word meaning ‘three days’). During these three holy days the Church remembers Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. The Easter Vigil and the celebrations of Easter Sunday bring the Triduum to a joyful conclusion. It is such an important feast that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated over fifty days, from Easter to Pentecost.

The Easter Vigil and the Symbols of Easter

In the early Church the Easter Vigil lasted from sunset on Saturday until dawn on Easter Sunday. The ceremonies are now shortened but, basically, they follow this structure:

  1. A Service of Light
    The community gathers in darkness around the Easter fire which is blessed and made holy. From it the Paschal candle is lit. This is our symbol of the risen Christ. From this great candle our own small candles are lit. Holding high ‘the light of Christ’, we process into the darkened church where the Exsultet is sung with great joy.
  2. The Liturgy of the Word
    Here the stories of the key events of the Old and New Testaments are read. This culminates in the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection.
  3. The Liturgy of Baptism
    The Easter water is blessed and the Liturgy of Baptism takes place. In the early Church, new members were baptised only at Easter—the season of new life in Christ. Baptism, particularly by immersion, symbolises a ‘dying’ with Christ, or a kind of ‘drowning’ to one’s old life and rising to a new one. The newly baptised are anointed with oil and clothed in white as a symbol of ‘putting on Christ’. They are given a lighted candle as a reminder to keep the flame of faith alive in their hearts.
  4. The Liturgy of the Eucharist
    After baptism, the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins. In the early Church the newly baptised were led to the table to participate in the Eucharist for the first time. The eucharistic bread is made from grains that have been ground, kneaded and baked. It is made to be broken and shared. The wine is made from grapes that have been crushed. It is made to be poured out and shared. These are symbols of life, nourishment and celebration. In the Eucharist we take the bread – Jesus’ broken body – in our hands. We drink the wine of Easter, his blood poured out. We remember Jesus. We are nourished to become the Body of Christ in our world today.

Consider

The Easter Vigil

  • Explore the Triduum and Easter on this site. You may wish to test your knowledge by completing some of the activity sheets offered.
  • In his homily on the Symbols of Easter Night Bishop McMahon explores light and darkness, living water and the Alleluia song of Easter night. What does he say about the Alleluia in his last paragraph?
  • Explore this brief description of the Easter Vigil in which the symbols of light, word, water and table are explained.
  • The components of the Vigil of Easter are briefly explored on this site, which seems to be still under construction.
  • Preparing for the Easter Vigil liturgy.

The Exsultet

Light/fire

  • The Easter candle is the dominant symbol for the Easter season. Right from the beginning of the Easter Vigil our voices proclaim the light of the risen Christ. This symbol is also central at baptisms and funerals throughout the year.
  • The Easter candle is likened to the pillar of fire that led the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Find here a description of the symbolism of the candle.

Water

  • water in the Bible was associated both with death and with cleansing. Explore the symbolism of water in both the Old and New Testaments.
  • View pictures of water that may be used in your reflections on the symbolism of water.
  • Explore the meaning of water in various religious traditions.

Oil

  • What are the three holy oils? Explore the meaning of oil and anointing with oil.

Bread and Wine

For what you see is simply bread and a cup—this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight—the bread is Christ‘s body, the cup is Christ‘s blood. St Augustine

  • Discuss these reflections on the meaning of the Eucharist. What do they say to us about being the Body of Christ?

Preparing to Pray during Easter

Praying with Symbols

The symbols of Easter provide us with a wealth of images for reflection. All the symbols are also found in our own homes: oil, bread, light, water, wine, white clothing. They are simple, basic and very accessible to us. In this unit you are invited to reflect on the mystery of our faith using these simple elements of everyday life.

We need symbols that speak to us of the sacred. In our present age we are confronted with so many flashing images and shrill sounds competing for our attention we can end up feeling fragmented, because we have no time to reflect or to be still. We long for peace and a sense of calm.

One way to promote inner peace is to contemplate the meaning of a symbol, such as a flame or a simple bowl of clear water. A symbol is a little like a ‘window’ to God. It gives a glimpse into the mystery of the divine at the heart of life.

Set up the prayer space

It is important to prepare a prayerful and peaceful environment. If you are praying in a group, prepare the room by arranging chairs or cushions in a circle. Set your symbol in a central place, perhaps on a low table decorated with a coloured cloth. Place the open book of the Scriptures nearby. Light a candle and place it centrally. You may wish to have quiet, reflective music playing while people gather. Consider the following suggestions, depending on the symbol chosen for your reflection:

  • Dim the lights in the room and have a single large candle burning in the centre of the space. Arrange tapers for the group.
  • Fill a large, clear bowl with water. Place some green branches around it. These can also be used for sprinkling the water over the group.
  • Arrange one or two glass jugs or bowls of oil. Add fragrant oil to a burner.
  • Drape a white baptismal garment across the table. Place a cross and lighted candle nearby.
  • Arrange different types of bread (leavened and unleavened) with a jug of wine.

Consider

  • Set up a prayer space for children using the ideas and symbols suggested on this site. You will find here simple prayers for Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
  • Explore the Easter story through classical art. You could devise a brief reflection for each image and perhaps a question to think about.

Reflect

  • What can we learn from the fact that the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection differ from one another? Explore Father Raymond Brown’s brief commentary on the four Resurrection narratives.

Create

Illustrations
  • Here is a site with a difference: meditate on the passion of Christ using stamps from around the world.

Easter Prayer

Having established your prayer space it is time to pray together. Ensure that a copy of the prayer service is available for all those who need it. The following prayer services have been designed for use with a class group, school assembly or staff group, but you may also wish to pray them individually.

Prayers and liturgies for children

Celebrate the Easter Season – An Easter meditation and activity for children.
We Celebrate Easter – Prayer and activity for Primary school children.
Good Shepherd Drama – Suitable as a lead-up to the Fourth Sunday of Easter.
Children’s meditations for Holy Week and Easter – Simple, guided meditations for young children.
Spirituality Resources Archives – A very good list of resources for prayer throughout the year. Scroll to the month of ‘April’ to find the Easter resources.
Collective Worship Resource – Search this site for class liturgies at primary or secondary level.
An Easter Prayer Service – This prayer service is designed for family prayer around an Easter candle, but it may be used in the classroom setting.
Pentecost: Welcoming the Spirit – A liturgy to prepare for the celebration of the feast of Pentecost.

Prayers and liturgies for staff, parent gatherings or senior Secondary students

Bread for the World – A simple prayer reflection that may be used on Holy Thursday, or at any time throughout the Year of the Eucharist.
Reflections on the Eucharist – This is two pages of short reflections. They may be useful for staff or parent groups, particularly during this Year of the Eucharist.
Celebrating Easter – Prayers/ liturgies suitable for staff gatherings or senior school assemblies. Although they are labeled ‘Prayers for Easter Week’, they may be used throughout the entire Easter season.
Raised with Christ – This prayer for the Easter season may be suitable for staff reflections. On this site you will find many other prayers.

Prayers for individual reflection

Easter to Pentecost – This site contains articles and reflections on Easter as well as the Sacraments of Initiation.
Deep Peace – A Celtic blessing and prayer for peace.

Taking Action

St Augustine wrote that we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song. The Easter season calls us as Easter people to serve others. Accounts of the early church record that Christians were marked by their love for one another. That love was reflected in service to all, especially those most in need.

Since the Acts of the Apostles sets the agenda for the 50 days we, as modern-day apostles, must act! If we truly become Easter people, we will look like those first Christians in our efforts to live the good news of the Gospel, and our acts of justice and generosity will have an influence in the lives of many.

Consider

Bishop Belo Bishop Belo has suffered in his struggle for justice for the people of East Timor. Can you find any connections between his life and the life and mission of Jesus? Read his story and discuss the reasons why you think he might be an ‘Easter’ person.

Maximilian Kolbe Read the story of Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who gave up his own life in Auschwitz to save the father of a family. Consider whether you can find a message of death and new life in his story.

Nelson Mandela Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for many years for his political beliefs. Upon release he was elected to lead the people of South Africa. In what ways do you think he might be an Easter person?