The Great Vigil

The Great Vigil of Easter was once just that - a vigil - a period of keeping wake during the time usually spent asleep, especially to keep watch or pray. It was a special time for catechumens - adults preparing to join the church - to go through the final phases of their instruction. It was also a remembrance of the sleeplessness that often accompanies the loss of a loved one to death. The vigil began at sundown on the night before Easter and was divided into four distinct services with periods of prayer between each.

The first service is the service of light. After the Lenten practice of removing shiny objects from the sanctuary and finally stripping the sanctuary bare of everything, including extinguishing the Christ Candle during the Tenebrae service on Good Friday, the room remained dark until Easter Eve, when a new fire was kindled. This new fire was used to light the Christ Candle, which in many traditions was replaced with a new candle at Easter each year. All of this was done with special ceremony, including litanies, prayers, elevating the candle and responses from the congregation.

The second service is a service of the Word. The tradition is for extra readings during this service. Starting with the first words of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void and darkness moved upon the face of the deep. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” Selected readings tell of the creation, of the binding of Isaac, of the Exodus from Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, of Jonah, of the prophet Isaiah, of God’s answer to Job, of the ascension of Elijah, Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant, of the entry into the Promised Land, of the valley of the dry bones and the story of three youth from Daniel. After each of the 12 readings of Hebrew scriptures there were times of silence, prayer and kneeling. There are also readings of Psalms interspersed with these readings. There is also a reading of the Epistles and of the Gospels. The tradition included a sermon reflecting on the sweep of the history of God and the people of God. In more recent times, the 12 readings from the Old Testament was shortened to 7.

The third service is a service of baptism. It was during this service that catechumens who had not previously been baptized were baptized. All of the faithful were reminded of their baptisms with the sprinkling of the water from the font using an evergreen branch. This service concludes with the prayer of the faithful, which includes a statement of Christian faith.

The final service is the service of the Eucharist. This is the first Holy Communion for the newly baptized. The tradition was for this service to conclude before sunrise.

The tradition has changed greatly over the centuries. In some times and places the four services were spread out over a 24-hour period, with the kindling of new fire beginning in the morning of Holy Saturday.

The Great Vigil of Easter was one of the services from the Roman Catholic tradition that was maintained as a popular service of congregations of the Reformation, especially those with Lutheran and Reformed roots. It was less common in some parts of Protestantism and not observed in many congregations. With the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, a process that took place between 1969 and 1983, the tradition of the Great Vigil returned to some Protestant congregations that had not previously celebrated the vigil. Other congregations followed.

In common observance, the Great Vigil has ben shortened and streamlined. In our congregation, we observe a greatly shortened version of the celebration. It is our first Easter service and it holds special meaning because of its placement at the end of an intense time of Holy Week services and observations. We don’t even wait until sunset. Beginning the service at sunset would involve changing the starting time each year with the timing of sunset. Instead, we have settled on 6:30 pm as the time of kindling new fire, earlier than sunset, which this year will be at 7:19 pm. Our service includes the four traditional services, each greatly shortened and each taking place in a different location. Our service of light is held in the entryway of the church. The service of the Word takes place in our fellowship hall. The service of baptism in the narthex in front of closed doors to the sanctuary. Then we turn on all of the lights and enter the sanctuary which has been decorated for Easter. The bright lights and flowers provide a festive atmosphere for the service of Holy Communion that concludes our observance. In our congregation, the tradition is not long-standing. We’ve only been doing it for six years. Prior to that time our first Easter service was a sunrise service, usually held out doors.

Our Sunrise service will be almost perfect in its timing this year. We will gather at Main Street Square in downtown Rapid City and our service will begin at 6:00 am - the time of first light. The service will run from first light to sunrise at 6:32 am. The timing is mostly accidental. We begin the service at 6 a.m.. regardless of the time of the year, but this year’s observance lines up with the actual times of first light and sunrise quite nicely.

For many of us being tired is a part of the celebration of Easter. We pour a lot of energy into Holy Week and we modify our schedules to accommodate all of the activities. We run ourselves a bit short of sleep. We often associate tiredness with grief. It brings our emotions closer to the surface and recalls times of vigil when we have sat with those who are sick or dying.

So today is the day. We begin by waiting.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!