Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ten Reasons to Celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter

Before you know it Lent will be upon us and the in the blink of an eye it will be Easter. Now’s the time to be thinking about Holy Week and special services, especially about the Great Vigil of Easter.* If you have not had this service, then I urge you to start planning it now, for the following reasons:

1. The Easter Vigil is one of the most important and richest services of the entire year. The major themes of the Christian faith find expression in the readings, music, and prayers of the liturgy. Ancient texts sing and speak again in this traditional worship of the church.

2. If you already have Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, the Easter Vigil rounds out what is known as the Triduum, or the Great Three Days. The cumulative power of these services as a unified series cannot be overstated. Together the three comprise a pilgrimage for the faithful from the upper room to the cross to the empty tomb.

3. There is great flexibility allowing the service to be scheduled according to the needs and desires of a particular congregation. The service may be held the evening before Easter Sunday. A common hour to begin is 7:30 p.m. or as late as it must be to ensure the service begins in the dark. Sometimes the service begins later in the evening timed to end at midnight. Or it may take place Sunday morning replacing the “sunrise service.”

4. Major passages of Scripture, somewhat longer than we usually hear on Sunday mornings, invite us to hear a broad proclamation of the Good News in its fullness. From three to twelve Old Testament scripture readings in the service lead worshippers through the major events in Salvation History leading up to the coming of Jesus Christ. The three that must be included as a minimum are the Story of Creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4a), the Exodus (Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21), and a reading from one of the prophets. Two additional passages are called for, one from the New Testament letters and the other a Gospel reading.

5. The service proceeds at a leisurely pace gives worshippers at this service time to meditate on the mysteries of the faith, even though it can take three hours. There is much to absorb and contemplate, and this service encourages a devout meditation.

6. Easter Vigil makes the connection between the Christian faith and its Jewish antecedents. While this is implicit in Lord’s Day services which feature readings from both testaments, this service lays out the themes carried forth into Christianity from Judaism, themes of deliverance, renewal, and new life.

7. The Great Vigil of Easter offers many opportunities for people of all ages to participate. A choir or choirs can present special music, the congregation will find not only hymns but service music to sing and psalms to chant, and old and young alike can take part in reading lessons and leading prayers.

8. The Sacrament of Baptism is celebrated at this service, as it was in ancient times. It is always a great occasion when new Christians are welcomed, and this particular service places baptism in the context of deliverance and freedom from sin and the rising to new life as found in both Old and New Testaments. With or without an actual baptism, the baptismal vows of the worshippers are renewed with the same impact.

9. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated as the climax of the service, clearly indentifying the meal with the resurrection meals the risen Christ shared with his followers. We come to the end of the service, to the end of the Great Three Days, and to the end of the Season of Lent, “breaking the fast” at the Table of the Lord.

10. Following the service at whatever hour, it is time to “break the fast” of Lent. If it is early in the evening, light refreshments with baked goods and hot beverages may be served. If held early Sunday morning, breakfast is appropriate. In any case, it is a time for the congregation to welcome the resurrection with a joyous meal celebration.

Do you have any other reasons you’d advocate celebrating the Great Vigil of Easter?
* Models of The Great Vigil of Easter are found in the Book of Common Worship (1993) (Presbyterian Church (USA)), the Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal), Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELCA), Book of Worship (UCC), and various other publications.

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