Cathedrals are made for Easter. That's when they can be seen in all their glory. That's when the mysteries to which they bear witness are made more visible. That's when the stones and beams and glass all seem to shout "Christ is risen! Alleluia!" And when the floors and walls and ceilings come to life.
It's been a joy to watch the restoration of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, albeit from a distance and in photographs. Seeing it in person will certainly be near the top of my list whenever I'm in Boston next. Our family has years of memories stored there. And while I might fall to a bit of nostalgia about how it looked back then, I will not miss the kneelers that made you feel the full weight of your penance -- Boston's own santa scala. Kneeling on them even briefly was to experience the temporal punishment for sin, even when they didn't slide under the pew in front of you.
History takes its toll. It wears down plaster and wood and even stone in time. It makes bright things dingy, firm things sag and buckle, smooth things crack. New Orleans' Cathedral of St. Louis IX King of France is showing its age, too. A lot happens in 200 years: baptisms, weddings, ordinations, and funerals, Christmases and Holy Weeks to be sure. But because the cathedral here is right in the middle of the city, she has witnessed -- and continues to witness -- a lot of what happens outside her walls as well. The Cabildo, built as the center of Spanish colonial rule is next door; that's where the Louisiana Purchase was signed. On the other side of the church is the old Ursuline Convent, erected in 1745. But it is Jackson Square, the large open area right in front of the cathedral's main doors and the fact that this cathedral is a must-see tourist destination that made the experience of this year's Easter Vigil particularly interesting for us.
The Vigil here began at 8 p.m. Taking our cue from the long lines at the midnight Mass for Christmas, and hoping to find on-street parking in the nearby French Quarter on a Saturday night, we decided to arrive an hour early. As it turned out, we were among the first few people staking out a spot at the gate as cathedral staff brought out all that is necessary to light the new fire. It was a warm and breezy sub-tropical April evening. Tourists walked by, asking if the church was open for tours. Street performers had gathered a crowd nearby. Artists were still exhibiting and selling their work. A few homeless and elderly people lingered on the benches. And yes, the fortune tellers and henna tattooers that are always between the cathedral doors and the park were busy. It's a modern-day Court of the Gentiles. Everybody is there. And that is why such unexpectedly rich encounters can occur.
It wasn't long before a New Jersey Catholic couple with a teenage son asked us what was going on. They had never been to an Easter Vigil Mass before and had no idea that it was any different from a regular Sunday liturgy. They were surprised to learn about the fire, and the paschal candle, the church in darkness, and all those things that make the Easter Vigil the crowning celebration of the year. Deciding they would need to change out of shorts and t-shirts to come, they moved on. As more people began to arrive, more people in the area came by to find out what was going on. Three young women stopped just long enough for me to hear one say, "This is some religious event. Let's get out of here." I turned quickly to tell them just how beautiful it all was, and saw her two friends take candles from the person handing them out. They stayed long enough to hear Archbishop Aymond explain the significance of the fire and the paschal candle. A Hindu couple from India stood in the growing crowd as well. In the course of ordinary conversation, I was able to tell them what Christians believe about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how we are called to bear the light of his life in the world.
Better yet, similar conversations were going on all around me. Catholics were answering questions, witnessing to their faith, welcoming the world to join the celebration. A hundred Easter homilies were preached before the liturgy even began. That is what happens when we practice our faith openly and in public.
Yes, cathedrals and churches and chapels of every size are made for Easter. But even more so, every person -- every human heart, and soul, and body -- is made for all that Easter means. We are God's cathedrals, his dwelling place. Yes, our sins dim the beauty of our original design, and our histories make us worn and in need of restoration and repair. But that is precisely why God gives us Easter and the vigil of our entire lives to prepare us to share fully in the Resurrection of Christ.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and serves as a senior editor at Ave Maria Press. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.
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