Thomas McKenzie
by grace alone


Thomas McKenzie's Blog.

My Great Vigil

In my church tradition, we participate in something called "The Great Vigil of Easter." This service is meant to be begin long before sunrise on Easter morning. It is meant to incorporate baptisms, and end with the celebration of communion in full sunlight. This is, apparently, the way the ancient church used to do it.

The service starts in utter darkness, and then fire is kindled. Out of the fire comes the flame for the Paschal Candle (which is meant to burn until Pentecost). Good size portions of the Bible are read, with the singing of psalms and canticles and set prayers interspersed throughout the readings. In these stories, the narrative of salvation history is rehearsed. Creation, fall, Abraham, Moses, Exodus, David, the Prophets, and, finally, the Resurrection are are told again.

The prayers and psalms speak of increasing light, and direct reference is made to the sunrise that we are meant to be experiencing.

In the little Anglo-Catholic church I grew up in, we did this right. But, as you can imagine, it was difficult to drag my 10 year old self out of bed at 4:30 in the morning and go to church. Midnight mass at Christmas is cool, but getting up in the middle of the night is just not that exciting.

Because of this, many churches (including my church before this year) do the vigil on Saturday night at 7 or 8 pm. They also tend to cut down some of the readings so it isn't quite so long. I have always found these services to, well, stink. I have assumed it was because the readings are boring, or because it just felt strange to be all happy-clappy about Easter the night before.

This year, I considered not doing the Vigil at all. I just thought, "why bother, its stupid." But, then at the last moment, I had a change of heart. I decided if I was going to do it, I would do it right. And, thankfully, daylight savings cooperated a little. I set the beginning of the service for 5:30 am, an hour before sunrise on Easter morning.

In the church I grew up in, the Vigil WAS our Easter service. But, I knew that wasn't going to fly, and that was OK with me. We still had two huge Sunday services, with lots of light, flowers, adult and children's choirs, trumpet, etc. etc. And it was great.

But the Vigil was . . . what? What word do I use? The Vigil was Easter.

Our church building incorporates a 1920's era house. In that house, we have an awesome living room with great windows. We held the Vigil in that living room. The 21 people who showed up sat in a great oblong circle. Behind us were pillar candles. In the middle of the circle was the place for reading, the great Paschal candle, and a small altar.

People took turns going up to read. A single musician led us in singing. And I led us in the psalms, canticles, and communion. When we kindled the new fire, it was in utter darkness. When we said the great Vigil canticle, the repetition of "this is the night when . . . , this is the night when . . ., this is the night when . . ., had real meaning in that darkness; especially after a full and dark Holy Week.

The prayers would refer to the coming light, and as we said them the light was coming. When we came to the prayer that triumphantly spoke of "this night now passed," the sun had broken the horizon and the world was filled with light. It was as if the cosmos itself participated in our worship.

We ended in singing a great Alleluia, and I (for one) meant it. It was intimate, and ancient, and rooted, and long, and glorious.

I will never go back to a lame Saturday night vigil. This may be my favorite service in the entire Christian year.

I had two insights about this experience last night at the Samson Society meeting I attend. First, I have often had a problem making the emotional transition from Holy Week to Easter. After all, in Holy Week we spend hours and hours re-living the betrayal, trial, torture, and murder of Jesus Christ. Basically, its a big downer. But then, on Easter Sunday I'm expected to be all smiles. "Alleluia," and all that.

I think the problem is that, unlike in that first Holy Week 2000 years ago, nothing actually happens to bring me out of the Good Friday funk. I'm just supposed to assume, or pretend, that the power of the risen Jesus somehow got hold of me sometime before I showed up to church on Sunday morning.

But, in the vigil, something did happen. I got to physically transition from darkness to light. And I need that physical transition. Unlike Christian traditions that are mainly word based (preaching), mine is action based (liturgy). We need to engage our whole bodies in our worship, and that's what the Vigil did. I was physically engaged, not only with music and fire and readings, but with the earth and sun itself.

The other thing I pondered at Samson is this. If I need a liturgical transition from the darkness of Good Friday to the light of Easter, then it follows I need a liturgical transition from the darkness of my own fear, shame, and sin to the light of freedom in Christ.

I think that going to a Samson meeting is one such act in my life. I feel that it helps partly because it is "liturgical." The order and regularity of it helps me make transitions from darkness to light. It is not the only liturgical act that I have in my life, nor is it the most meaningful. But it did come to mind as I was sitting in what was otherwise a kind of lame Samson meeting.

So, I am very grateful I didn't call off the Great Vigil. And, I am already looking forward to next year.

OK, this was a long post. For my next one, I think I'll share with you the craziest Good Friday ever. But, that may wait a day or two.

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