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Reflecting on the Easter Vigil: An Exercise in Mystagogy

Mysta-what? Or is that Mysta-who?

Mystagogy means "leading into the mystery." It is a term that has been used in many religions, including early Christianity, to describe how people move from a first experience of an event or ritual into a growing appreciation and understanding of it over time.

What we know of early Christian practices of formation indicates that after being prepared to live the way of Jesus for three years or more, catechumens (those who are "echoing the Word" with their lives) would experience baptism and then the Eucharist for the very first time at the Easter Vigil. They would have been given no instruction about what to expect and no information about the meaning of either sacrament. They would have simply been offered the sacraments as newborns in Christ.

After baptism and their first Eucharist, starting the very next day, or even that Easter evening in some places, mystagogy would begin in earnest.

We still have examples of early Christian mystagogical sermons from John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, and a few others from the fourth and fifth centuries. These have continued to function as a core for the content of mystagogy where that practice has continued or been resumed.

But the process of mystagogy itself was as much about helping the newly baptized make the connections between what they had experienced in worship (and now would continue to) and what they had come to know about following Jesus during their years of formation as it was about telling them all the "right answers." Mystagogy never was about giving people the "cheat sheet" or the "secret decoder ring." It wasn't enough to say, "Go read this article" or "Go hear that sermon" and you'll have all you need to know. It was instead, as the name implies, a process that gave just enough answers to invite people to keep going deeper into the mystery for the rest of their lives as Christ's disciples and living members of his body.

In the spirit of asking "connecting questions," Dwight Vogel developed the following resource to guide conversation in classes, small groups or home meetings during the days or weeks that follow the celebration of the Easter Vigil. Dr. Vogel has divided the questions to correspond to each of the four major sections of the liturgy: the Service of Light, the Service of the Word, the Service of Water, and the Service of the Table.

Dr. Vogel has also developed a website with extensive articles and links on mystagogy.

Service of Light

  • What did the service of light say about the meaning of Easter?
  • Why is the paschal candle lit at the beginning of the service, rather than after reading the account of the Resurrection in the reading of the gospel?
  • What does the service of light, and in particular the ancient hymn "Exsultet," say about the nature of Christian discipleship?

Service of the Word

  • At no other time in the church's life do we hear the sweep of the story of God's saving acts in so complete a way. What happens to these passages when we have read them one after the other after proclaiming the Resurrection through the lighting of the paschal (Easter) candle?
  • A new convert experiencing the Easter Vigil for the first time said: "Those readings carried me to the font." What do you think this new convert was affirming?
  • What does this extended number of Scripture readings say to us about the place of the Bible in Christian life?

Service of the Baptismal Covenant

  • How does placing the baptismal covenant at the heart of the Easter Vigil help us understand the meaning of baptism?
  • What is the relationship between the baptism of new converts and the reaffirmation of baptismal covenant by those already baptized?
  • What does the baptismal covenant commission us or "ordain" us to do?
  • According to the vows we take or reaffirm, what is the ministry of the baptized?
  • What does the baptismal covenant have to say about our daily discipleship?

Service of the Table

  • What happens to our understanding of Holy Communion when we place it in the context of the celebration of the Resurrection rather than restricting it to a remembrance of the Last Supper?
  • How does Holy Communion reaffirm and celebrate the basic meaning of the service of light? the service of the word? the celebration of the baptismal covenant?
  • Looking at the Great Thanksgiving we prayed together, what are the implications for our being and our doing?

Please also see "Preparing for the Easter Vigil" by Dr. Dwight Vogel.

Dwight W. Vogel is a retired United Methodist elder, former professor of worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, past Abbot of the Order of Saint Luke, writer of liturgies and resources for worship, including The United Methodist Hymnal and The United Methodist Book of Worship as well as the Daily Office series for the Order of Saint Luke, and active participant in Claremont United Methodist Church, Claremont, California.

Copyright 2006 Dwight W. Vogel Used by Permission. All rights reserved. Published 2010 by the Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church. This resource may be printed, copied, distributed, reprinted in church bulletins or newsletters or otherwise used for nonprofit local church worship or education with the inclusion of the copyright citation and Discipleship Ministries Worship website as its source.

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