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Easter Vigil


By Elaine Bardwell - Posted on 07 April 2012

 
On the first day of the week, while it was still dark....
Like the women we too gather just before or at dawn (5.45am in 2012) and we begin the fullest most complicated liturgy of the year outside in our Garden of Rest - where we bury the ashes of the departed. Here we light a fire, bless the light, mark our large Paschal candle with the cross, Greek letters and the year of our salvation. Then led by the Deacon carrying the candle lit from the Easter fire we slowly make our way into church stopping 3 times to declare this is the light of Christ and then lighting the individual candles of the worshippers. We follow this one light into the dark just as the Israelites followed the pillar of fire by night in the Exodus account of the Passover and Crossing the Red Sea. It is this story which underpins the whole of Holy Week on so many levels. The Paschal candle is safely placed in its own stand and then censed before one of the clergy sings an elaborate consecration of the Paschal Candle using what is called the Exsultet - this is an extremely ancient hymn of praise with its own plainsong setting. We have evidence that it was already a widespread and well known practice by the fourth century. There are a number of versions but one is most commonly used. It is packed with wonderful theological and spiritual themes rejoicing in God's saving love. As we stand in the gloom of the church and hear the plainsong fill the building, mingling with the incense hanging in the air we experience that first thrill of encountering the God of Love who came to us while we were still in the dark.
 
The opening section, the Ceremony of Light, is over and so we move to Section Two which reveals why this service is called a 'vigil'. Keeping a vigil means staying awake through the night hours, watching. The faithful Christians before us held vigils much more than we do usually to mark the most significant events or in times of crisis. We have in the Tradition many resources and a pattern enabling us to mark many hours to time in fact. The usual pattern is a reading, silence, a hymn or canticle and a collect. This pattern can be repeated many times and made as long as we like depending on length of readings, the silences and the canticles.
At the Easter Vigil it is customary to have 7 Bible readings in total, including the Epistle and Gospel. The first 5 readings have a theme but they always take us through a sequence which relates the story of our salvation. In 2012 at St Michael's we are following the 'Freedom' theme. We always use the key reading from Exodus of the Crossing of the Red Sea. The Epistle from Romans brings us the theme of death and resurrection which is our experience in our baptism - this is how we become united and integrated into these same stories - baptism is in one sense a replaying of those Exodus themes.
The Gospel reading is sung at St Michael's on this one day in the year to mark it out - it will be the account of the Empty Tomb from Matthew, Mark of Luke depending on the Lectionary Year we are following so in 2012 it will be Mark 16: 1-8. When the Easter Gospel has been recited, the presiding priest will then formally declare it is Easter, leading us in a versicle and response which is repeated three times and then we just have a minute of madness as we make lots of joyful noise, let off party poppers and then sing the Gloria. In many places the Gloria comes sooner. This second part of the Vigil is concluded with a homily - given the richness of the themes in all the actions, readings and songs on this occasion the preacher is usually succinct and highlights one or two key features - we will have the entire Easter season to think further on the content of the Vigil in fact.
 
The third section is the Liturgy of Initiation. This is celebrated in some form or another whether we have candidates to baptize or not for it is an integral component of the Easter Ceremonies. The new life of the risen Lord is what is imparted to us in our Baptism and thus it was the preferred option for the Early Church (with Pentecost possible in some places) to initiate belivers at the Vigil - the light/darkness; death/life themes are still prominent in all baptism ceremonies. The font is blessed using the Paschal Candle to make this link visible  and we renew our baptismal vows and recite the Apostles' Creed. Fittingly we now exchange the Greeting of Peace with each other to demonstrate our unity and reconciliation is a tangible result of Christ's redeeming passion, death and resurrection.
 
The fourth and final section of the Vigil Mass is of course the Eucharistic Prayer and the receiving of Communion. Of course we give thanks and joyfully on this day. Once more we are filled with divine life imparted to us by the consecrated bread and wine which Jesus told us are his Body and Blood. For the first time in three days we are now formally blessed and the Deacon sings the wonderful Eastertide Dismissal with its double Alleluia to end.
 
Every Sunday it is said is a 'mini Easter' perhaps it is better to say 'every Sunday is a day of resurrection'. We can see how key elements are taken from this, the most complete of all the liturgies celebrated throughout the Christian Year, and renewed Sunday by Sunday: The singing of the Gloria (except in Advent and Lent), a (shorter) sequence of readings culminating in the Gospel for tthe day, the recitation of the Creed from the baptismal section and from the Peace onwards the same elements of Peace, Presentation of Gifts, Eucharistic Prayer, Communion and Post Communion prayers ending with a formal blessing and dismissal. These components take on seasonal variations in their wording but the basic pattern is set. At St Michael's, when there is a baptism, it will be set after the sermon and before the Peace - thus the Vigil pattern is kept and the link to the Easter themes of Christ's dying and rising to bring us new life is clearly kept.
 
Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Alleluia!
 
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