Easter Vigil

This article is from Issue 34 of “On The Move,” a publication of new learning possibilities for churches, at one time published by The Joint Board of Christian Education of Australia and New Zealand.
Although some ideas and liturgies may appear somewhat “dated” in style, concept, imagery or language, they may nevertheless offer a spring-board for new ideas among people who find themselves leading worship, perhaps in a new context, and with some trepidation.
Reproduced by permission. May be reprinted for use in local congregations only.

EASTER VIGIL by Mary-Ruth Marshall
A number of churches are reintroducing the ancient custom of the Easter Vigil. I participated in one such service last Easter at St. Anthonys-in-the-Fields, in Terrey Hills, a suburb of Sydney. This particular congregation puts a great deal of emphasis on the involvement of children in the important times of the churchs life. In earlier Holy Week services at this church, all ages had participated in various leadership roles: music, reading, drama, even helping the priest as he put on his liturgical dress. On Maundy Thursday, the children (and older people, too) were encouraged to handle and discuss the symbols on the table where later twelve people would re-enact washing of the feet and the Last Supper. These symbols included specially baked loaves, wine, grapes, wheat sheaves, palms, flowers, candles, and water.The Easter Vigil (held in the evening of Easter Saturday) celebrates and remembers the new passover: Christ passed over from death to resurrection. It is the most important time in the churchs year. In Christ, we pass over from sin and death to new life in him. Christs passover was also from darkness to light, and the Easter Vigil dramatises this well. In keeping the Vigil, we watch and wait, as did the Christians in earliest times.The Vigil has its roots both in the Old Testament (Exodus 12:42) and the New Testament (Luke 12:35-48). Luke reminds us that we should be waiting, with lights burning, for our Lords return. If we are awake and waiting, we will join him at his table.The Vigil, as it was celebrated at St. Anthonys, had three parts; a fourth part often included is baptism of new members, and the opportunity for all to renew their baptismal vows at the climax of the period of spiritual renewal in Lent. The Vigil began with the service of light, a reminder that the darkness is over and we live in the light of Christs resurrection. This was followed by the liturgy of the word and the eucharist.

As the service began at sundown (7.30 p.m.) there was a candle displayed; it had been lit at the Good Friday service, and had been burning beside the bread, symbol of Christs body, since that time. The lights in the church were extinguished, and the people gathered around a large bonfire outside the church. Using the ancient words, This is the passover of the Lord, the priest explained what the Vigil was about, and how it would be observed. Then he blessed the fire, explaining that it was a symbol of our new hope in the light of the world, Christ our Lord. A large white candle, about a metre tall, was lighted from the fire (to a great round of applause!). The candle was marked with a cross (using a heated wire), and the alpha and omega letters cut above and below the cross. Numerals of the current year were added. Then we processed into the church, behind the Easter candle, which was placed in a large stand at the front. From this candle, our candles were lit. Families had brought their own Easter candles, and others had been distributed before the service began. As we lit one anothers candles, we talked about the special times these candles had been lit at family celebrations: birthdays, anniversaries, festival times in the churchs year. We spoke about what it meant to say, Christ our light. The Easter proclamation was sung, ending with the words, May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning: Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all mankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Then the service moved to the liturgy of the word. Nine readings are provided for the Vigil, seven from the Old Testament (one is from the Apocrypha) and two from the New. The reading of the Exodus story is obligatory, and others include the Genesis account of creation, Abrahams willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Isaiah 54:5-14 (Gods love and pity for us), Isaiah 55:1-11 (I will make an everlasting covenant with you), a reading from Baruch (make your way to light), Ezekiel 36:16-28 (I shall give you a new heart). Psalms are included in the liturgy, to be sung or read as well as times of prayer; at the end of the Old Testament readings, many churches ring their church bells. New Testament readings began with Romans 6:3-11 (Christ died once for all to sin), followed by a gospel account of the resurrection. The purpose of the liturgy of the word is to trace the story of Gods love and covenant from the first passover to the resurrection passover we celebrate at the Vigil. At the service I attended, some of the readings were interpreted through dance, or with slides, or by singing contemporary settings from the songbook Passover Saturday by Fr. Kevin Bates.

Then we celebrated the eucharist together, ending with the words, Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, alleluia, alleluia/ Thanks be to God, alleluia, alleluia.

Baskets of Easter eggs were brought out, together with plates of food and drink brought by members of the congregation. Families and friends gathered around tables, with the Easter fire in the centre. Strangers, like myself, were welcomed and made a part of the church family. Young and old greeted one another with an embrace and Happy Easter! To convince me yet again that rituals have an important place, I noticed my delight when Kevin greeted me with the more-familiar (to me) The Lord is risen! and I was able to reply, He is risen indeed! The celebration lasted until almost midnight on that warm Easter Saturday night in Sydney.

The whole idea of the Vigil, watching and waiting for our risen Lord, hearing again the story of the faithfulness and love of God, celebrating through symbol of light, of baptism, of the Lords table, is an important one for Christians. It can enrich our Easter celebrations, if it is not a part of our tradition, as we join with others around the world on the most blessed of all nights.

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