Holy Week and Easter Sunday are behind us, but the questions they raise remain. One, for those of us of a more high church liturgical bent, is the right way to celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter. For some few of us, the Great Vigil is the most important service of the year, also the least attended. I spent years working on it because I really love it, but building congregational support was difficult.
It begins outside, in the dark of Saturday evening, with the ritual lighting of a new fire accompanied by prayer, and from it, the lighting of the Pascal Candle. Followed by the congregation, the candle is brought into the darkened church, pausing three times for a cantor to chant “the Light of Christ” with the congregation to responding “Thanks be to God.” Then comes a very long chanted prayer called the Exsultet that explains why this night is so important. Still in the dark, the reading of many lessons from the Hebrew scriptures finally leads to the proclamation of the resurrection. With loud noises and shouts of acclamation that “the Lord is risen indeed”, the lights come on, candles are lit, the church is revealed in all its Easter glory, and the service starts all over again, this time from the beginning of the regular Eucharistic worship. With any luck, baptisms will be sandwiched in. When it’s all done, three hours may have passed and everyone goes home exhilarated but tired. For the few who attend, Easter Sunday morning services are very nice but anticlimactic.
The traditional Vigil is not a family friendly event: long, dark, ancient, plodding along toward Easter. Those who come are mostly like me, in love with the deep, sacred and mysterious beauty of it. Like me, they tend to be older, but not so old that they no longer drive at night. Let’s face it, it appeals to a niche market that was bigger in the late Middle Ages, and has been growing smaller ever since. It takes some committed endurance to get through the Great Vigil.
What if the Vigil was rewritten to give important parts to every person, most especially the youth? What if it was a service of the family, by the family, for the family? What if there were not quite so many readings, and the ones that were included could be acted out in unusual ways? What if the Eucharist was celebrated around a table that also included healthy finger foods for munching a bit later on?
In a Vigil service utterly without authorization or official sanction, my former parish has done it. Children light the new fire. Sentences in the prayers are divided by color so that everyone has a part to read according to the color assigned to them. The long chanted prayer that accompanies the Pascal Candle to its place is also divided by color so everyone has a part. The ancient stories are fewer in number and presented by groups of youth and adults in respectful, engaging ways. This year the creation story included visual aids and sound effects. Baptisms, or renewal of baptismal vows, are celebrated with some parts of the priestly prayers said by children. Even (theologically appropriate) parts of the Eucharistic prayer are said by others, according to the color given them. When Holy Communion of blessed bread and wine is complete, finger food munching begins. Kids swarm all over the church. Adults laugh and visit. Eventually everyone goes home exhilarated and looking forward to the great Easter service of Sunday morning.
Attendance is still on the low side, but there are some differences. It’s growing. Moms, dads, children, teens, young adults, and enthusiastic elders make up the congregation. The kids will grow up knowing the story because it’s their story. They have been a part of it. The young adults and parents, who have probably never been to a “proper” Vigil, will have learned the story too. The mystery of the liturgy will have become less alien but more deeply probed.
My former parish has been celebrating the Vigil this way for four or five years, producing kids who love church, and new parish leadership who, would you believe it, are really into liturgy and church doctrine. Who woulda thunk it? I suppose the liturgical police could come by to say it’s not authorized and has to be stopped, but you know what? The liturgical police can’t hang around forever. In fact they’re probably off chasing down a recalcitrant priest who wore the wrong vestments, or an errant acolyte who lit the altar candles in the wrong order.