Posted by: Johnold Strey | April 4, 2009

Easter Vigil Preview

With Holy Week staring me squarely in the face, I’ve spent some time over the last several days preparing the service folders that will be used for our services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.  It’s not the most glamorous task in the world, but it needs to be done, and if those three bulletins are completed before Holy Week, then Holy Week itself will flow much more smoothly.

Most WELS congregations are accustomed to services on Thursday and Friday of Holy Week.  The Maundy Thursday service commemorates the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and the Good Friday service commemorates the crucifixion and death of Jesus.  Easter Vigils, on the other hand, are less common.  I am aware of a few WELS congregations that have recently begun the tradition of a Holy Saturday Easter Vigil, and I suspect that the trend will continue modestly.

I have said that an Easter Vigil is sort of the reverse of a Good Friday Tenebrae service (a.k.a. Service of Darkness).  Many worshippers appreciate the rich symbolic communication of the Tenebrae service, and given the magnitude and significance of Christ’s death, it only seems appropriate to observe it with such a dramatic and symbolic service.  If worshippers like the Tenebrae service, chances are they will enjoy the Easter Vigil as well.  An order of service for the Vigil may be found in the WELS worship resource, Christian Worship: Occasional Services, available from Northwestern Publishing House.

The first Easter Vigil I experienced was offered at the 1996 WELS National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts.  I enjoyed it thoroughly, and hoped that I would have the opportunity to experience it again.  Since that first Vigil, I have always been involved in any future Vigils I attended.  I served as the organist for an Easter Vigil at a WELS congregation in southeastern Wisconsin once during my seminary years, but my main experience with the Vigil has been right here at my congregation in Belmont.  We have offered a Holy Saturday Easter Vigil nearly every year since 2002.  (The only year we didn’t offer one was last year, 2008.  The Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Chorus performed their tour concert at Gloria Dei on Good Friday last year, and without the regular sequence of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services preceding it, the Vigil would not have made as much sense.  So, after a one-year hiatus, the Easter Vigil returns to Belmont this year).

The first two pages of our Vigil’s service folder contain a summary of the history and purpose of the Easter Vigil.  These paragraphs are largely taken and adapted from the Easter Vigil service folder distributed at the 1996 WELS National Worship Conference.  I’ll place the text of that service introduction/explanation here to give you a little background on this interesting service, and to hopefully encourage others to consider the Vigil’s potential as a wonderful, gospel-centered way to begin our celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

The Concept of a Vigil

A vigil is an evening service of Scripture readings and prayers in which believers vigilantly and eagerly wait and watch for the celebration of the Savior’s deliverance.  Old Testament believers waited through the night of the Passover for God to deliver them from the Egyptians.  The midnight worship reported in Acts 20:7-12 is another example of late-night waiting and watching.  One might say that our Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve services are vigils of sorts.  Coming together for a vigil helps believers practice waiting patiently for God to reveal his will in his own good time.

The History of the Easter Vigil

The Easter Vigil is the most well known and historic of the Church’s vigils.  In fact, in its general structure, it is one of the most ancient rites of the Christian Church.  Early records indicate that it may have been celebrated in Jerusalem already by the second century, and it soon spread to the rest of the church.

From its beginnings, the Easter Vigil was closely connected to Holy Baptism.  In the pagan world, a conversion to Christianity meant making a clean break from one’s former life style.  It also meant facing difficult times, perhaps even death.  The instruction of adults was, therefore, intensive and thorough, practical as well as intellectual.  The instruction intensified during the season of Lent, as catechumens pondered not only the Savior’s battle with evil, but also their own battle with Satan and his forces.  The instruction culminated with baptism at the Easter Vigil.  The timing was natural, of course:

“All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.  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” (Romans 6:3-4, NIV).

As the tide of adult conversions waned in Europe, and infant baptism became the norm, the purpose and understanding of the Vigil faded.  Eventually, virtually all baptisms took place at times other than the Vigil.  By the time of the Lutheran Reformation, the Vigil had fallen into disuse, although the Vigil continued uninterrupted in the Eastern Orthodox Church and remains a high point of Easter worship to this day.

The Easter Vigil in the Twenty-First Century Church

It is a well-documented phenomenon that, in our digital and technological age, more and more Christians are longing to return to the quiet and contemplative worship forms of the early Church.  They are sensing a need to come into the presence of God whose love is above and beyond them.  They desire worship that communicates God’s transcendent majesty rather than trivializing him with folksy familiarity.  For this and a number of other reasons, the Easter Vigil is enjoying a comeback in the twenty-first century Christian Church.  With its quiet contemplation, slow-paced movement, and symbolic communication, the Easter Vigil is attractive to many Christians who are seeking a deeper and more thorough spirituality.  Especially in churches that take the Church Year seriously, the Easter Vigil seems to mark the high point of Holy Week and the turning point of the Christian Year.

The Easter Vigil Order of Worship

The Easter Vigil (sometimes called the Paschal Vigil) consists of four parts: the Service of Light, the Service of Readings (which is the actual vigil), the Service of Baptism, and the Service of Holy Communion.  The service begins after darkness has fallen on Holy Saturday.  Ideally, the Vigil lasts through the night, with the baptisms taking place at dawn.  For practical reasons, however, an all-night vigil is seldom held today.

easter-2004-12The Service of Light focuses the entire Vigil on Christ, the Light of the world (symbolized by the paschal candle), who overcame the darkness of sin and death by his resurrection.  The first song of the Vigil, the Exsultet, links our paschal feast with the first Passover and with God’s deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea.  The song introduces the theme of God’s saving acts in history, a theme that runs through the Service of Readings.

There are twelve Old Testament readings appointed for the Easter Vigil.  Most congregations use between four and seven, although Exodus 14:10-15:1 is invariably read.  Unhurried periods of silence for reflection follow each lesson and help identify the service as a vigil.

When no baptisms take place in the Vigil, the Service of Holy Baptism identifies baptism as one of God’s great acts of deliverance that has been applied to each individual Christian, connects baptism with Christ’s resurrection, and gives believers an opportunity to publicly confess the faith into which they have been baptized.

An atmosphere of solemn anticipation and meditation (as well as relative darkness) is maintained until the proclamation, “Alleluia! Christ is risen,” which marks the dramatic transition from darkness to light.  This is reflected in the pace of the service and in the music.  The tone for the rest of the service is one of solemn joy.  The Vigil’s Service of Holy Communion is relatively simple in form and style, since the chief celebration of Easter takes place on Easter morning.  The highest festivities and ceremonies are usually reserved for the main Easter morning service.

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