Pastors' Blog Easter Vigil Explained

Vigil.jpgYour Guide to the Great Vigil of Easter at Christ Church

 If you’ve ever been to an Easter Sunrise service (a ubiquitous event here in the South!) you have participated in a descendant of the Great Vigil of Easter as it was practiced in the early Church.  We have records of Christians gathering for Easter Vigil services as early as the 3rd century of the Christian era (c. 250 A.D.).  These believers came together to read the Bible, baptize new converts to the faith, and celebrate Jesus Christ’s victory over the powers of sin, death, and hell.  Many churches with roots in the Reformation of the 16th century (such as Anglicans, Lutherans, and some Reformed denominations) have embraced the Great Vigil because it is so deeply rooted in the Christian antiquity that shaped the Reformers.

 

 Over the years the service has taken on a four-part shape:

  1. The Service of Light
  2. The Liturgy of the Word
  3. Christian Initiation and the Renewal of Baptismal Vows
  4. Holy Eucharist (also known as The Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion)

 The Service of Light

The Vigil begins after sundown outside of the church.  A new fire is kindled symbolizing the risen Lord Jesus’ victory over the darkness of sin and death.  The Paschal (i.e. Easter) Candle is lighted from this fire and carried into the church building.  This candle symbolizes the presence of the victorious Christ among his disciples.  The congregation then lights their candles from the Paschal Candle. 

 As the Paschal Candle is processed into the church the lead pastor (we use the biblical word “presbyter” which means “elder” and is often anglicized as “priest”) chants – that’s right, chants – the phrase: “The Light of Christ!”  The congregation chants in response: “Thanks be to God!”  As we do this it’s amazing to think that we are participating in an act our Christian family has done every Easter for the last one thousand, seven hundred years!

 Once the candle has been placed in its stand the deacon or cantor chants the “Exsultet” which is an ancient hymn declaring the whole story of God’s work of salvation culminating in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If the words of this ancient song “don’t light your fire,” then (as we used to say) your wood is wet!  Here is the text of the Exsultet:

 Deacon:

Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels, and let your trumpets shout Salvation for the victory of our mighty King.

Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.

Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church, and let your holy courts, in radiant light, resound with the praises of your people.

 All you who stand near this marvelous and holy flame, pray with me to God the Almighty for the grace to sing the worthy praise of this great light; through Jesus Christ his Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Deacon             The Lord be with you.
Answer              And also with you.
Deacon              Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
Answer              It is right to give him thanks and praise.

 Deacon:

It is truly right and good, always and everywhere, with our whole heart and mind and voice, to praise you, the invisible, almighty, and eternal God, and your only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who at the feast of the Passover paid for us the debt of Adam’s sin, and by his blood delivered your faithful people.

 This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.

This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.

 This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.

How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.

How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.

How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.

 Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor.  May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning -- he who gives his light to all creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.

 The Liturgy of the Word

First of all, “liturgy” is another Bible word that literally means “the work of the people.” “Liturgy” refers to the acts of praise and worship offered up by God’s people.  So whatever we do in worship is “liturgy.”

 Following the Exsultet there are a series of seven to nine readings from the Old Testament that tell the story of God’s plan of salvation from the Garden of Eden to the prophecies of the coming Messiah.  There are hymns, psalms, and short prayers that are interspersed between these readings.  As the readings continue, the sense of joy and excitement build and our faith is renewed via the reminder of God’s great works in salvation history.

 The Renewal of Baptismal Vows

At this point in the service new believers in Jesus Christ are baptized.  In the course of the baptisms all Christian believers recommit their lives to Jesus Christ through a formal renewal of their baptismal covenant.  This consists of confessing the faith via the Apostles’ Creed and then reaffirming the following:

Leader      Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

People     I will, with God's help.

Leader      Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.

People     I will, with God's help.

Leader       Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

People     I will, with God's help.

 Leader      Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

People     I will, with God's help.

Leader      Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

People     I will, with God's help.

Holy Eucharist

The word Eucharist is a transliteration from the Greek word meaning “thanksgiving” and is an ancient term applied to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  The fourth and final stage of the service culminates with the celebration of this holy meal of bread and wine.  That word “celebration” is important because on this occasion this meal has an equal emphasis on celebrating Christ’s victory over death as it does with remembering his suffering on our behalf.  Tonight we remember that while in Holy Communion we do indeed proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes, we also are feasting in victory with our conquering King!  This is a critical point because so many of us have been taught to only think of the Lord’s Supper in terms of the Last Supper.  We need to be reminded that this is also a meal of joyful recognition that our Lord is alive as was the case with the Emmaus disciples in Luke 24:13-35.

The first thing that happens in this part of the service is that declaration that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  The lead pastor (referred to as the Celebrant in the service guide) shouts, “Alleluia!  Christ is risen!” and the congregation shouts back, “The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!”  There are often spontaneous shouts of praise at this point along with folks ringing bells or sounding the noisemakers they have brought from home. 

 This is followed by joyful singing, prayers, more Bible readings, a sermon, and then the actual meal of bread and wine.

 Throughout all of the service we are open to the presence of the risen Christ among his people through the power of the Holy Spirit and this is evident in the joy and excitement expressed by those gathered.

 A Few More Details

 Children

Children are welcomed and encouraged to participate in this service.  Christ Church will provide nursery care for infants and children up to 3 years old.  This worship service lasts about 2 ½ hours, so parents often bring little ones to Easter Vigil in their pajamas.  It is also a good idea to bring coloring books and crayons or some other quiet activity for younger children.  If they fall asleep during the service, that’s fine! 

 Easter Sunday Service?

Yes!  Christ Church will also be having our Easter Sunday service at 10 a.m. the morning after Easter Vigil.

 Vestments

In keeping with the deep connection with ancient Christian practice our pastors will wear robes and other “vestments” during the service.  Each article of clothing makes a connection with a biblical truth (such as the pastor’s role as a shepherd and servant leader).  Thus vestments are not a means of elevating the importance of the clergy, but of pointing to biblical truths about Christian discipleship, the righteousness of Christ, servanthood, etc.

 Incense

We also occasionally use incense in our worship.  This is a practice with roots all the way back to Temple worship in ancient Israel.  We also see incense used in the New Testament in the book of Revelation when John is given a vision of the worship of God in heaven.  We use incense as a symbol of prayer and as a way of emphasizing the sacred quality of the worship we are offering God.

 You Are Welcome at Christ Church!

Finally, we want you to know that you are welcome with us.  If this type of worship is not what you are familiar with, don’t worry!  The heart of this service is a celebration of the victory of Christ’s resurrection.  If you come with a heart full of expectant faith and praise, you will be right at home with us.

Ben+

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