Easter Vigil Memoir
What follows was written in March 2001, as members of Worship Commission at my church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, were working on arrangements for the Easter Vigil, the Easter service held the evening of the Saturday before Easter. Attendance at this service has varied more than 150% over the past few years, and a major item on our agenda was how we could get more people to attend the service.
This essay was written to interest parishioners in the Easter Vigil and to communicate how moving the service can be. I wrote it without any fixed idea of how to use it. Parts of it were excerpted for use in the monthly newsletter, but the entire essay appears here for the first time. Despite the many references to St. Paul’s, I hope that non-parishioner visitors to this site may nonetheless find it interesting. Perhaps other churches can adapt the ideas expressed here to their own needs.
— LED, 4/7/2001
When I was a child growing up in the Presbyterian Church, Easter service on Sunday morning was a memorable event. Palm Sunday and Easter were just about the only Sundays Presbyterians singled out as special. Easter was, of course, a big theological day—the reason for our being Christian, in fact—and I remember the long sermons about the empty tomb and the surprised women. But I also remember the sunny spring mornings in New Orleans and the church filled with semi-strangers unlikely to be seen for another 12 months.
In reality, though, Easter seemed more a fashion event than a religious one. We planned our outfits weeks in advance, and our clothes were more likely to be brand new than resurrected from the dark recesses of our closets. Easter was, preëminently, a time to display one’s new spring wardrobe. We prayed for good weather.
Not until I came to St. Paul’s did I even hear about a service called, somewhat pretentiously it seemed, “The Great Vigil of Easter.” By then, I was a committed Episcopalian and choir member. I loved liturgy and good music, and I had traded my fascination with the conundrums of predestination for the less rigorous and uncharacteristically credulous embrace of the notion of grace.
My first Easter Vigil was experienced in the context of Holy Week. As a choir member, I was expected also to sing on Palm Sunday; on Maundy Thursday; on Good Friday, if possible; and at the two principal services on Easter morning. This was a demanding schedule, but it ensured that I attended not only the Vigil, but also the services that provide a dramatic and moving prelude to it. That prelude is a context everyone who attends the Easter Vigil should experience.
I found (and find) Palm Sunday a confusing time. The story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is juxtaposed to the passion story that is commemorated in the following days. Viewed politically, the story makes perfect sense, but, considered more broadly, one cannot avoid contemplating our response to Christ and the degree of our personal steadfastness.
I remember no childhood Maundy Thursday services. (We called the day “Holy Thursday.”) In fact, we seldom celebrated Holy Communion (usually billed as “The Lord’s Supper”), and, when we did, it was with cubes of bread and tiny cups of grape juice served to us in our pews. The Holy Communion of Maundy Thursday at St. Paul’s was not special as Holy Communion, but it certainly was special as a commemoration of the event that would forever determine the nature of Christian worship. Jesus, after the culminating triumph of his public career, initiated what was surely, at the time, a cryptic ritual. He then went out to meet his fate. The service ends on a somber note, perhaps with a sense of unease and uncertainty Jesus must have felt. The church is stripped of its liturgical furnishings, the lights are extinguished, and the reserved sacrament is left out, accompanied by a single candle. There is no recession, and worshippers leave the church in silence.
When I first came to St. Paul’s, the Good Friday service was three hours long, reflecting the time Jesus spent on the cross. The church was bare and relatively dark, and the music was somber. There were three sermons, but the atmosphere was suffused with a sense of tragedy and resignation that somehow overwhelmed the impatience one might otherwise feel with so much preaching. In the last hour, people were invited to write their woes and concerns on slips of paper and to nail those pieces of paper to a large wooden cross standing at the front of the nave. Communion was administered from the reserved sacrament, and the service ended in an even deeper melancholy than that of the night before.
On Saturday evening, the Easter Vigil began in darkness, representing that greatest of spiritual darknesses, when the Evil One was apparently triumphant. Outside the church, a new fire was kindled with the notes removed from the Cross on Friday. The rector, dressed in black, as was all the clergy, walked slowly up the aisle carrying the glowing Pascal Candle, stopping to chant, “The light of Christ,” to which everyone responded, “Thanks be to God.” There was more ceremony and chanting, and everyone received the new flame for the individual candles they had been given to carry. We then extinguished our candles and listened to the story of God’s dealings with his people, in the words of the Old Testament. This was followed by baptisms and the sermon. The church, which had not been bright, was then plunged into near darkness. Dimly, one could see that members of the Altar Guild were replacing linen and silverware and kneelers, and they were bringing out flowers and uncovering flowers that had been covered with black drapery near the high altar.
The lights went out completely, and there was a knock at the rear door. From inside, someone asked, “Whom do you seek?” Beyond the door came the reply, “Jesus of Nazareth.” The inside voice informed the inquirer, “He is not here,” followed by the exclamation, “Alleluia. Christ is risen.” To which the congregation responded in kind, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.” The lights instantly came on to the sound of organ and trumpets and singing, revealing myriad flowers and liturgical finery. A second procession, with clergy in their usual Eucharistic vestments, moved up the aisle. The first Holy Communion of Easter that followed was something of a marvelous blur. When the service was over, everyone retired to the undercroft for the Agape Feast, a wonderful time of fellowship, accompanied by wine, cheese, bread, fruit, and other delicious treats. Easter Sunday had never been like this.
The Great Easter Vigil traces its roots to the earliest days of Christianity. The service in the Book of Common Prayer recreates part of that early tradition, but it includes other elements that developed over the centuries, many of them Celtic. That early Easter service was especially important to the fledgling church. Since the church was a persecuted, underground organization, people could not simply walk in off the street and ask to become members. Instead, converts were carefully instructed over many weeks, and they experienced Christian worship for the first time during the long Easter Vigil, when they were baptized and allowed to partake of communion for the first time. What a service that must have seemed to them!
The Easter Vigil has been celebrated at St. Paul’s for many years. That service, rather than the Easter Sunday service (for which there is no special liturgy), is truly the climax of the liturgical year, the most joyous celebration of the central fact that makes us Christians. The service is long and takes place on a Saturday night, but it is moving and exciting and a great way to experience the ultimate joy of our faith. The food afterward is pretty good, too. Put the Vigil on your calendar this year, along with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Your participation will confer upon you a blessing you cannot anticipate if you have never come to these services before. I hope to see you in church.
I made minor revisions to the above
essay 3/31/2018. For several years, I was involved in planning the Vigil
and for keeping track of what had been done in the past. The year this
essay was written, I created a planning document for St. Paul’s, which
you can read here. Toward the end
of my involvement, we did move baptism after the Easter Acclamation, as
befitted the joyousness of the occasion. Baptisms were performed under
full lighting, which made it easier for everyone to see them.
— LED, 3/31/2018
— LED, 3/31/2018