April 2022

April 2022

The Easter Vigil

This year at Holy Cross, we are trying something different. Well, it’s different from what we’ve done since I’ve been here, though it was done some twenty years ago. I’m talking about the Easter Vigil.

What is the Easter Vigil?

In ancient Christianity, the “vigil” was a common practice. It involved the congregation gathering at sundown and worshiping by lamplight until dawn. There would be constant singing of psalms, reading of Scriptures, and offering of prayers. In the New Testament, a vigil was held that involved the Lord’s Supper and extensive preaching by St. Paul (Acts 20:7–11). St. Paul was likely referring to the practice of the vigil when he mentioned “sleepless nights” (2 Corinthians 11:27), a word that would later be used as the standard term for the Christian all-night service. A vigil could be held at any time throughout the year, but the definitive vigil came to be the service held on the night of Holy Saturday leading into Easter Sunday.

The early Easter Vigil involved four chief components: the celebration of light, the reading of extensive Scripture lessons, the baptism of new Christians, and the festal keeping of the Lord’s Supper. The celebration of light was simply an expansion of a daily practice among early churches of singing a special hymn at the lighting of the household lamp upon sundown. The hymn (the most ancient still in use) is the “Phos Hilaron,” or “Joyous Light,” which you can find in our own Lutheran Service Book on page 244. At the Easter Vigil, a new fire would be lit by flint, and the faithful in attendance would light their lamps from it, then use it to light all the lamps in their homes after the service. Imagine if all of your household light had come from the last Easter service you had celebrated at church!

The second component was the reading of extensive Scripture lessons from the Old Testament, traditionally twelve. These lessons dramatically set the stage for the celebration of the great act of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus.

The third component was the baptism of catechumens, i.e., those who had been instructed in the Christian faith over the previous year and were ready to be received into the household of God.

As more and more of the surrounding society became Christianized, and infant baptism came to be the rule, fewer and fewer baptisms were held at the Easter Vigil. Now it is mostly a commemoration of Baptism itself.

The fourth component was the Lord’s Supper, held with special joy and festivity and concluding just before dawn.

The Easter Vigil has been maintained in the Eastern Orthodox Church as a nighttime service, though it is not typically held all night long. In the Christian West, however, through the Middle Ages the Easter Vigil crept earlier and earlier on Saturday until it became a morning service on the day before Easter. In the early Lutheran Church, the unique music for the Easter Vigil (but not the superstitious practices that had been in use during the music in the Roman Catholic Church) was used on the evening of Holy Saturday or early in the morning of Easter Sunday (the first Lutheran “Sunrise Service”). The Easter Vigil fell out of use in the Lutheran Church during the period of the Thirty Years’ War, and has only begun to be restored in the twentieth century.

I myself am uncomfortable with some of the elements that have been reintroduced in the modern Easter Vigil of the Lutheran Church, since they were consciously rejected and discontinued by the first generation of Lutherans. But the idea of the Easter Vigil itself has always much appealed to me, and with some small adjustments, I am excited to try using it at Holy Cross again this year. Our plan is to begin the service at 7, like our Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. The service will be long, mostly because of the readings and the elaborate liturgy (I plan to preach only a brief sermon, similar to what I have done at our Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols). Sundown that Saturday should be about 7:45, so a good amount of the service will take place when it is dark outside, particularly our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. What a beautiful way to begin our celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

Please join us this Holy Saturday on April 16 at 7 PM as we rejoice in the resurrection of our Lord according to the ancient pattern of the Easter Vigil!

God's Blessings!

Pastor Neuendorf