This year we will do something new here at Good Shepherd: we will celebrate the Easter Vigil on Saturday, April 15th at 7:15 p.m. While the Easter Vigil may be new to us here at Good Shepherd, it is actually quite old in the history of the Church. In fact, the Easter Vigil has been the Church’s primary way to celebrate the making of disciples by baptizing and teaching them (Matthew 28:19-20).
The Easter Vigil
The Easter Vigil is celebrated as part of the “Triduum.” On the Church’s liturgical calendar, Holy (Maundy) Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are called the Triduum Sacrum, which means “the holy three days.” During these three holy days we commemorate and participate in the central events of the Christian faith: the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our forgiveness, life, and salvation. On Holy (Maundy) Thursday we hear how Jesus, in great sacrificial love, washed the feet of His disciples and then instituted His holy meal called the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion). On Good Friday we hear of and ponder the sacrificial death of our Lord Jesus Christ to reconcile us to God. But Holy Saturday seems a bit foreign in our modern times.
On Holy Saturday, we begin the day focusing on Jesus resting in the tomb. But we end the day celebrating His victory over death. When Jesus was wrapped in cloths and placed in the unused tomb, He was fulfilling what happened on the original seventh day. On that original seventh day God “rested…from all His work which He had done” in creating the heavens and the earth (Genesis 2:3). When Jesus rested in the tomb on the seventh day of Holy Week, He rested from saving, redeeming, and recreating us and all of His creation. So Holy Saturday is best observed by cutting back on activity and simply resting. What a great way to ponder and appreciate our Lord’s sacrifice to restore us to life with God!
What seems odd to us is that we start to celebrate Easter already on Saturday evening. After all, doesn’t that take away from or detract from Easter Sunday? Not at all. In fact, it heightens and increases the celebration! First, let’s remember that in the ancient world, including when the Church began celebrating Easter, the evening was considered the beginning of the next day. Sunday actually began at sundown on the Saturday evening prior (usually around 6:00 p.m.) So as the Church reckons time, the evening of Holy Saturday is the true beginning of the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The evening of Holy Saturday is the beginning of the eighth day.
Since this celebration begins in the darkness of evening and night, the Church began the Easter festivities by keeping vigil. People would gather for prayer and eagerly wait for the grand proclamation that Christ has risen from the grave. As people gathered for prayer, Scripture was also read–and not just any Scripture, but the wonderful passages telling of God saving His people throughout history and preparing them for the coming of His Son: the ultimate, final, and complete act of rescuing us from our disease of sin and death.
Along with praying and hearing Scripture, early Christians would also welcome new converts into the Church so that they too can enjoy and celebrate the newness of life in Christ. As the more mature Christians waited and watched, prayed and pondered, the new converts were baptized and confirmed in the Faith.
Making Disciples by Baptizing and Teaching
Traditionally, the Easter Vigil service has served as the chief time for baptizing and confirming new converts into the Christian Faith. Catechumens (that is, those learning the Faith) would go through as many as two or three years of learning in the Divine Service as well as by instruction from the pastor or his assistant. As the new believers were ready, they would be enrolled in the intense and final catechesis (instruction) during the season of Lent. Since Lent culminates with Easter, the new converts would be baptized on Holy Saturday, at the Easter Vigil service, so that they could take part fully in the life of the Church on Easter Sunday morning.
The book Lutheran Worship: History and Practice gives this historical note:
After A.D. 313 [when Christianity was legalized] the Easter Vigil was the prime time for baptisms of adult who had been instructed during Lent. It also ushered in the resurrection celebration. The Vigil thus focused on the saving power of Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5). By A.D. 400 in Africa and northern Italy there was also a solemn celebration of light, since all lamps [i.e. candles] were customarily extinguished on Holy Thursday evening. The modern adaptation of this ancient service remember the Exodus from Egypt, celebrates the death and resurrection of Christ, includes the sacrament of Baptism, looks forward to Jesus’ return, and may conclude with the Lord’s Supper. (p. 169)
So when we gather on April 15 for the Easter Vigil, we will also have a service of Holy Baptism. If there is no one to be baptized, then it serves as an opportunity for all to remember their baptism. Likewise, if there are candidates for Confirmation or reception into the congregation, that also takes place during the Service of Holy Baptism. As you can see from the quote above, this is a fitting time – probably better than other times during the Church Year like Palm Sunday – for Baptism and for Confirmation or the reception of new communicants. On Palm Sunday, for example, our focus turns to the great humility of Christ in entering Jerusalem to die for us. But in the early hours of Easter Day (remember, beginning with the evening of Holy Saturday), our focus turns to new life in Christ’s resurrection. Here’s the most natural “fit” for Baptisms and Confirmations! [Note: This year, youth confirmation will remain on Palm Sunday.]
You may be asking yourself, ‘What about the Easter sunrise service? Where does that fit in?’ Well, the Easter sunrise service is really just a holdover from when the Church used to meet in the dark, keeping vigil in preparation for the sun to rise on the day of resurrection! As we in the west began to mark the beginning of days at sunrise instead of sunset, the idea of a Vigil on the evening of Holy Saturday became odd and the common practice of an early morning prayer service on Sunday became a special service on Easter Sunday. Does this mean this practice is wrong? By no means! But as it replaced the older practice of the Easter Vigil, something very special was lost in our congregations.
All of these practices in the Easter Vigil celebrate two great things: 1) Christ’s once for all victory over death, and 2) Christ’s ongoing victory in bringing other people into the Christian Faith through baptizing and teaching.
Next month you can look forward to more details about the Easter Vigil service itself. We’ll also spend some time in Scripture Study in late March and early April walking through the service and getting familiar with it before we celebrate it for the first time on April 15th at 7:15 p.m. Until then, may our gracious, life-giving Lord bless you through all that you receive from His good and gracious hand.
Pastor Michael Schuermann