Holy Week is almost here, beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with the celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. While it is common among many churches to hold worship services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, fewer of them celebrate the vigil on Holy Saturday, the day that Christ rested in the tomb. So, what is the Easter Vigil ?
The order of service has its roots in the second century, AD. It began as a vigil right before the first holy day to be celebrated by the church, Easter. Since then, the vigil has developed into the form that we celebrate today with the following four parts:
The service of light focuses the congregation on the images of light and darkness representing the darkness of death and the light of new life in Christ.
The worshipers gather outside of the sanctuary right at Sunset. They light a fire, hopefully a relatively large one, to emphasize the light of Christ in a dark world. The service continues with various prayers and chants while an assistant brings an unmarked paschal candle to the fire.
The pastor marks the paschal candle with a stylus. He draws a cross with an alpha above the cross and an omega below it, and then writes the current year in the square corners made by the lines of the cross. Next the pastor inserts five grains of incense in the center and each end of the cross, representing the wounds of Christ.
If the congregation uses incense, the pastor will take a coal from the fire and place it in the thurible with incense. After lighting the paschal candle, those who have been baptized light their own candles from the paschal candle, and the whole congregation processes into the sanctuary. The worshipers or pastor sings an easter proclamation, announcing the resurrection of Jesus.
The service of the word focuses on nine readings, seven from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament:
Other options for the readings include:
The readings tell the story of God’s plan from beginning up to the time of the New Testament. Each reading should be read slowly and followed by a time of meditation to take in the God’s plan.
The service of baptism is both for those who have not yet been baptized and for those who are. If there are people to be baptized, the service begins following the traditional liturgy for a baptism.
The newly baptized are given a candle lit from the paschal candle, and they may be clothed in a white robe, symbolizing being clothed in Christ’s righteousness.
Following that, all who are baptized make a renewal of their baptismal vows. The pastor may sprinkle the with water from the baptismal font in remembrance of their baptism and the baptismal promises. In some traditions, the rite of confirmation may follow.
This portion of the service connects the new life given in baptism to the celebration of the new life given by Christ’s resurrection. It connects to Paul’s words in Romans 6:4, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
Following the baptismal rite, some traditions include a portion that focuses on the readings for the resurrection. They speak easter proclamation, “Alleluia, Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed, Alleluia.”
This service follows the normal pattern for the Lord’s Supper. While the Eucharist is always joyful reception of the blessings, the celebration of the Easter Vigil makes this one of the highest moments of the church year. As Christ was raised from the dead, we take in his body and his blood.
The Easter Vigil can be a neglected part of our Christian tradition, but it is worth celebrating. The service is the most dramatic of the church year with fire, water, light, dark, and lots of movement. It incorporates the whole person in the celebration, too. Our eyes see the light of the fire, our ears hear the readings, our noses smell the incense as it rises, and we taste the bread and the wine on our tongues.
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