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Easter Vigil: What is the Easter Vigil?

The Easter Vigil is intended to be celebrated on the evening of Holy Saturday, the evening before the joys of Easter burst forth in full bloom.

As far as the “Easter” part goes, this draws us back to the great Hebrew pesach (in Greek, pascha); that is, the Passover. Celebrating the Old Testament Passover was no hasty mental recollection of what happened a long time ago. Rather, it was ancient Israel’s way of “reenacting” or “participating in”–even “owning”–the reality of God’s salvation given in His mighty works of rescue and His meal of deliverance. After the first generation of freed Israelite slaves had perished in the wilderness, Moses prepared the second generation of Israelites–who had not known the burden of slavery in Egypt–to continue celebrating the Passover. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses exhorted them: “When your sons asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

Note the first person plural pronouns. Not just “they,” but we were slaves in Egypt. The Lord delivered us, not just “them.” The second generation (and all future generations), who had not experienced first-hand the slavery nor the Lord’s exodus, were to celebrate the same rescue and the same meal as their very own. This is the same thrust in the Easter Vigil: the story of Christ’s pesach/pascha/Passover–God’s salvation in the Word made flesh, from beginning to end, from creation to crucifixion/resurrection and beyond–that story is our story. We own it because, by God’s free gift, He makes it our very own.

We do that most powerfully in “Vigil”: in patiently waiting, in eagerly watching, in joyously taking our time to re-hear and re-live the whole story of Christ’s salvation–again, from beginning to end, from creation to crucifixion/resurrection and beyond. Practically speaking, the Easter Vigil is our time to throw out those dreaded time-keepers–clocks, watches, and phones that keep us enslaved to a schedule. Put them aside, at least for one evening. Pastors and parishioners need to be prepared for and embrace a longer service, and intentionally so. We will gladly sit for a two- or two-and-a-half hour movie or sporting event, so we can certainly manage to carve out a couple hours to re-hear and re-live our most authentic, most meaningful, and most true-to-life story. There’s no need to rush through what God Himself delights to proclaim and give over and over again through time and into eternity.

The Movement of the Vigil
So what does this Vigil look like then? What will we make sure to take time actually doing, hearing, and seeing? What follows is a brief overview of the Vigil. We’ll look at it in more detail, in order to prepare and practice, during Sunday Scripture Study beginning in March. Lutheran Service Book gives a six-part outline to the Vigil: 1. the Service of Light; 2. the Service of Readings; 3. the Service of Holy Baptism; 4. the Service of Prayer; 5. the Service of the Word; and 6. the Service of the Sacrament. When congregations choose to do so, the Rite of Confirmation can take place within the Service of Holy Baptism.

Ideally, the Service of Light begins outside–weather permitting, of course–and moves us from darkness into light bit by bit. A fire may be built outside, to symbolize the light penetrating the darkness and to facilitate the lighting of the paschal candle (that’s the candle that sits at the Altar during Easter and by the Baptismal Font the rest of the year). The candle symbolizes the presence of Christ with his people, the risen Lord shining in the splendor of his resurrection. As the children of Israel were led by a pillar of fire from slavery to freedom in the promised land, so the church is led from the slavery of sin to the glorious liberty of the children of God in the heavenly land of promise. Again, a pillar of fire, the candle, leads the way. After an opening address and prayer, the paschal candle is lit according to certain detailed instructions in the Altar Book. There are ritual actions of tracing the Alpha and Omega, placing the year on the candle, and inserting five nails, which communicate the focal point of the whole service: Christ crucified and risen is coming to bring us out of darkness into His most marvelous light. Then, those gathered enter into the Church and all in the pews light their own individual candles from the paschal candle. Now there’s a little more light! Then the song of the Easter Proclamation–the Exsultet– is sung by either the Pastor, one of the Assistants, or by a choir.

Next is the Service of Readings. There is an option for a total of twelve readings to be heard. However, in the Vigil, the emphasis is on the beautiful Gospel word optional. At a minimum, the accounts of Creation, the Flood, and Israel’s Deliverance at the Red Sea are read. If you add a fourth reading, that’s the account of The Fiery Furnace. After this, as time permits, other readings may be added. Certainly for this first year–and probably for the first few–we’ll leave it at the four readings. We’ll go over the list of all the possibilities in Scripture Study so you can see what’s included. The point in this part of the Vigil is to know that the entire scope of God’s saving work in Christ may be heard, read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested. We’re not rushing; we’re waiting, savoring the wonderful story of God’s rescue of His people, and it’s our story.

Next comes the Service of Holy Baptism. This is a slightly shorter version of the usual baptismal rite. What makes this special is this: it’s always used, even if there’s no one to be baptized. No matter what, the entire congregation gets to remember the joys of Baptism once again. There’s an option to sprinkle water on the congregation as part of this remembrance, too. We won’t do this at first, but I’ve been at a congregation where this is done and it’s a wonderful embracing of our sense of touch to recall what God has done for us through water. If congregations choose to do so, the Rite of Confirmation also takes place during this portion, immediately after any baptisms that take place and the remembrance of baptism.

Next is the Service of Prayer. This uses a modified version of the Litany (which we use during our Lenten midweek services, and which I hope you’re using at home during Lent): the Litany of the Resurrection. This responsive prayer weaves together the Holy Week and Easter stories into our prayers to God to “have mercy on us.”

Next is the Service of the Word. At this point we’re definitely ready to burst forth in joy and praise. Here, the pastor shouts out “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” and all respond for the first time of the Easter season. The lights come up fully, and we sing “This is the Feast” for the first time since setting aside our liturgical Hymn of Praise after Transfiguration. The candles are all lit. The Table is prepared for our Lord’s Supper. Darkness has finally given way fully to light. Death is defeated; life is ours! The Holy Gospel from John 20 is read. A very brief sermon is preached.

And then finally, we feast on the body and blood of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus in the Service of the Sacrament. This portion of the service is just as we’re used to every Divine Service. As we receive the Body and Blood, we hear wonderful Easter hymns being sung (and look forward to singing them again the next morning and for weeks to come)! That’s it; that’s the Vigil!

Pastor Michael Schuermann