What's so special about the Easter Vigil? That basic question reminds us of the child at the Jewish Seder who asks: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The answer to the child's question points to the basis of this holy meal in the "Pascha"1or Passover, when the Israelites left their bondage in Egypt and were led to freedom through the waters.2
Our answer points us to the Christian Pascha---the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through which we are freed from slavery to sin and fear of death and led to freedom through the waters of baptism. Scripture speaks of "Christ, our paschal lamb,"3 and so this service is sometimes called the Great Paschal Vigil.
Following Jewish tradition (in which a day lasts from evening until the next evening), the early church began the celebration of any feast or holy day the evening before. A reminder of this history can be seen in Christmas Eve services that are treated as a part of Christmas rather than Advent. Thus, the Easter Vigil is also "The First Service of Easter."4
Celebrating the Easter Vigil has been part of the worship life of the church for a long time, although we don't know how long. Parts of it may be as old as the first anniversary of Christ's death and resurrection, when the early disciples would have remembered "what happened at Passover this time last year," even as they were lighting the evening candles, telling the story, and breaking bread together. We do know that by the third century the celebration of the baptismal covenant had been linked to it in a special way, when Egeria, a pilgrim from Spain, traveled to Jerusalem around 381-384 A.D., and wrote a detailed description of how the Easter Vigil was being observed there. Through the centuries, the celebration of the Easter Vigil has continued, more prominent in some traditions and centuries than in others, but never completely abandoned. It is being rediscovered by more and more churches today.
The primary symbols of the Easter Vigil are basic and ancient. When our nomadic ancestors pitched tent for the night, they gathered around a fire, told stories, made use of precious water, and ate together. Light, story, water, and feast are foundational to human culture. They are also primary symbols of the Christian faith, and provide the focus for the four parts of the Easter Vigil: The Service of Light, The Service of the Word, The Service of the Baptismal Covenant, and the Service of the Table -- the Easter Eucharist.
For the early church, the Easter Vigil lasted all night long. It began with the kindling of a new fire as night fell, followed by readings from Scripture and responses through psalms, canticles or hymns, the celebration of the baptismal covenant just before sunrise, and it ended with the Resurrection Eucharist just after dawn. In some settings, an all-night observance may still be possible; but in most cases today, the Vigil is shorter. It can be as long as three to four hours. If you try to make it shorter than an hour and a quarter, you'll lose some of its power. Aim for a service that lasts about two hours and advertise it as such. People need to know what to expect.
How do I get started?
- Attend an Easter Vigil. If possible, find one that has a reputation for being an exciting and a significant service (like any other service of the church, it can be poorly done ).
- Invite a group of folks to spend Holy Saturday evening with you, letting them know what you'll be doing. Read through the Easter Vigil liturgy in The United Methodist Book of Worship (pp. 369ff.), or some other denominational worship resource. Assign the readings to various people and select psalms or hymns. You may start by kindling the new fire in your patio grill, continue with the service of the word and the baptismal covenant in your living room, and conclude with an Easter Eucharist around your dining room table.
What are some of the basic questions to be answered?
- When should the Easter Vigil be scheduled? It needs to begin in darkness or near-darkness. In one church I served, we scheduled it from 10:00 p.m. to midnight. In others, it begins in the darkness of Easter morning. In many churches, it takes place in the evening, starting at dusk. At Claremont UMC, services usually begin at 7:30 p.m. We talked about moving it ahead to 7:00 p.m. for the sake of the children, but it would have been too light then, so we left it at 7:30-9:30. In places where darkness comes too late, the service can begin in a darkened space indoors, such as a basement. In that case, however, you will want to light large candles rather than a wood fire to avoid "smoking everyone out!"
- Who will be involved in the planning? If you aren't the senior pastor, start there.
We brought the proposal to the worship commission at its fall meeting. Get this on the schedule before Advent begins. If you intend for this celebration to include the larger part of the congregation, it needs to be integrated into the total configuration and plans for Holy Week and Easter -- with all the demands that involves: ushers, acolytes, musicians, artists, technology, visuals, and building staff.
Make a list of all the creative people and groups in your congregation and larger community. For us, that included the director of music ministries and the arts (who is also the chancel choir and bell choir director), the organist, the children's choir director, the dance choir, a bluegrass jam group, a jazz ensemble, confirmands, a children's theater group, various musicians, a fabric artist, and a set designer. Because the director of music ministries and the arts was a key person, I talked with her in the fall.
- What will the readings be? Because the lessons in the Service of the Word are somewhat flexible, they need to be established as soon as possible. A basic list can be found in The United Methodist Book of Worship, pages 373-375.
- Who will participate? Decide what you want to ask each person or group to do. Identify who is the best person to make the invitation. Make those contacts a few weeks after Christmas at the latest.
Don't be discouraged if you don't get one hundred percent cooperation; I never have!! At Claremont UMC, we've had amazing response to our invitations. But even here, some folks have other priorities, won't be around, or have other commitments. Try to avoid having someone wait until the last minute to decide.
Think of alternatives: duets, trios, quartets, solos rather than a choir, a guest organist or pianist or an instrumental group or a guitar for accompaniment. Use children, youth, and young adults where possible. Maximize the talent you have. It's better to have a smaller group of willing participants than a larger group of reluctant or negative people.
- What will the Easter Vigil be like in this setting? Construct a tentative order of worship and list of participants. Begin work on a Leaders' Guide with a complete script and checklists for each action in the service (who does what, when, where and how).
- What visuals need to be developed? What we see preaches, even as the music we hear and the stories we tell. Where is the most effective place for the new fire to be kindled? We had our set designer build a tomb, the door of which became the Lord's Table. Our fabric artist adapted a Christmas banner into an Easter one the first year, and made a butterfly the second.
What needs to be done to get ready?
Sometimes we say the devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details and moving parts in an Easter Vigil to take into account. I'd rather say that God is in the details -- attention to everything we can think of will save a lot of stress in the end.
- Get the space ready to work. Set up the chancel the way it should look at the height of the Easter Vigil. Bring in all who will be dealing with the various visuals in the service and rehearse getting them in the right place at the right time.
- Get the people ready to work. This means rehearsal -- with everyone who has any role in the service. Focus especially on transitions -- those "moving parts." Rehearse music, sound levels, where microphones are placed, visuals, readings, dance -- whatever is going to move or change.
- Make your lists and check them twice.
Consider checklists for:
The team who will deal with set-up and take-down
The acolyte team
The sound and lighting coordinators
Leave nothing to chance.
- Roll with it! When you've done the best job of preparation you can do, and you come to the time of the Vigil itself, let go and offer it all up to the Holy Spirit. Some things will go wrong (not may go wrong, will go wrong). If you've done a good job preparing and rehearsing for the service, you're leading it in prayerfully, and its "depth dynamic" and transitions are in your muscles and bones, you'll have the resources you need in the moment to move on. Don't apologize and call attention to it, just pick up the pieces and go on as best you can. You may start out thinking you have to carry the service. But when you're in it, you quickly discover that the Easter Vigil carries you!
- Plan to gather your team for an evaluation sometime during Easter week. Evaluation of what worked (not what people enjoyed as much as what people did well), what didn't work (where there seemed to be stumbling or tune-out by the congregation), and discussion of what you can do to make this better next year are essential. Do not neglect this! But not tonight! And not tomorrow! Tonight and tomorrow, the Vigil and Easter Day, are for celebrating and basking in the wonder of the riches of God's grace in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.
A Peronal Note: The Easter Vigil wasn't part of my experience until I was middle-aged. It quickly became my favorite service of the church year. It includes many of the things that are precious to my faith and the vitality of the church. I have been a participant in Easter Vigils with various denominations, with students in classes, and with people of many different cultural backgrounds. I have helped to lead the Vigil in a small chapel with fewer than a dozen participants, a small congregation in an Iowa co-op elevator town, a big-steeple downtown church, and the Southern California congregation of which I am now a part (Claremont United Methodist Church, Claremont, California). The Easter Vigil has always been a deeply significant event for many who share in its celebration, and I commend it to you as a treasure of the church's heritage of worship well worth the effort of recovering.