Holy Week A Couple Of Generations Ago
One of the traits by which our 20th century will be characterized in history will surely be that of changes. Between its first decade, in which I was born, and its last decade, which is about to start, there seems to have been more changes in our way of living than ever before in the history of mankind. Probably it is because there has never been so many~inventions, so much so that our century will surely be called also that of the great inventions.
If that be true for our everyday living, it is also true with regard to our religious practices. Changes in religious practices, especially in the Catholic Church, started before the middle of the century, when many of them, even centuries old, were dropped. Up to the 1930's, every Sunday, Vespers were sung in about every parish; but now people have to be over 50 years of age to know what is meant by Vespers. Devotions of the month of Mary (May) and of the month of the Sacred Heart (October) have since a long time fallen into oblivion. One has to be well over 50 to know what is meant by the Forty Hours Devotion. And I could keep on and on.
That was just a start. The big changes took place when the prescriptions of the Second Vatican Council (1962~65) were implemented. Since we are in the time of Holy Week, I just want to bring back to the memory of old people and let know the younger generation what Holy Week used to be.
Let me say, first of all, that what today is called Lent is just a symbol of what it used to be. In those days, people had to fast every day during Lent, except on Sundays; and not only during Lent, but also four times a year during the three Ember days and on the eve of certain feasts. It consisted in eating one full meal only; the two others were not to equal another full meal. As it was said that the food taken at breakfast should not weigh over two ounces, a dear old aunt of mine, who had a grocery store, used to go every morning to the store to weigh a couple of thin slices of bread and a handful of oatmeal porridge, being sure to subtract a little bit here and a little bit, there, if the scale would show an iota over the two ounce mark.
Two Sundays before Easter, which was called Passion Sunday, the crucifix and all the statues in church were veiled, a practice which was suggested by the words of the Gospel "Jesus hid Himself." In the early days, as real palms were not available, people on Palm Sunday made use of a fern which is very common in our woods. Real palms became available in our region only in the 1920's.
The real "action" during Holy Week started on Wednesday evening with the singing of the Tenebrae, that is of Matins and Lauds of the next day; these are two of the canonical Hours or groups of prayers of the breviary that the priest recites everyday, Vespers being one of them. It comprised then 14 psalms and nine lessons taken mainly from the Scriptures. All of it was sung unaccompanied, in Gregorian chant, by two men. Fifteen candles were lit in the sanctuary on a triangular stand, and one was put out after each psalm, except the last one on top, which represented Our Lord. Close to the end of the ceremony, all the lights in the church were put out or dimmed and this last candle was taken behind the altar, to signify the death of Our Lord and "the DARKNESS over the whole land" that took place at that time, from which the word TENEBRAE is derived. After a few minutes, the candle would emerge and the church would be lit, to represent the Resurrection. The whole ceremony could last close to two hours, and in Pubnico, especially, as I remember, the church would fill to capacity. And the same ceremony would be repeated on Thursday evening (Maundy Thursday) and on Good Friday evening.
On Thursday, when the Mass was said in the morning or forenoon, always in Latin, as it was the rule then for all Masses, the Blessed Sacrament was taken from the tabernacle of the main altar and brought to the tabernacle of a side altar. From that time on, till next day, there were supposed to be at all time worshippers before the Blessed Sacrament. During the night, from Thursday to Friday, young men were appointed to come in succession for an hour. From Maundy Thursday till Holy Saturday, the bells were kept silent, so that they would not disturb the somber mood of those days; people were summoned to the services by the sound of a clapper.
Good Friday, people came to church three times; first, in the morning for what is still called "Mass of the Presanctified," although it is not a real Mass; then in the afternoon at three o'clock for the Ways of the Cross; and finally in the evening for the Tenebrae. In those days of fervent faith, the church would fill each time.
Holy Saturday was the big day. Contrary to what takes place since 25 years or more, when now the ceremony of that day is conducted late in the evening, in those days it took place early in the morning, and could last three hours. People did not seem to mind it, as it was the last day of Lent. As a matter of fact, Lent ended at noon sharp, and that Saturday afternoon was the most joyful afternoon of the whole year, even more than Christmas Day. After having fasted 40 days, Lent was at last over; it was announced at Mass by the singing in jubilance of many Allelulas and by the full peal of the bells, which people would say had come back from Rome.
On that day, people waited until noon to take their dinner, when they could eat meat. What elderly people who have lived those happy days deplore most in the changes which the Second Vatican Council had introduced is the suppression of the exuberant afternoon of Holy Saturdays of ore. It was already Easter, when joy and mirth and happy songs filled the air, which lasted until the evening of the next day. Of course, at Mass on Easter Day, all the ladies would parade their new Easter bonnet.
Early in the morning, on Easter Day, before sunrise, young people would get Easter water. It had to be drawn from a brook that flowed from west to east where the sun was about to rise. The following prayer had to be recited while drawing the water: "0 my Lord, Jesus Christ bless this medicinal water that cures all illnesses, bountiful for all people." My mother had great faith in this Easter water that I would bring home Easter morning; more than once, I recall vividly seeing her make use of it. There is in a home in West Pubnico a bottle of Easter water drawn some 70 years ago which is still as pure as it was the day that it was drawn.
In my time, children would compete to see who could eat more eggs Easter morning. It came from the fact that long, long ago, it was forbidden to eat eggs during Lent, at least on weekdays.
All this brings back fond memories to those who have lived that kind of life. Even though people were urged much more than today to do penance, the glee that overwhelmed them at Easter makes one feel that really "those were the happy days."