Most people are familiar with Easter Sunday, with its familiar readings and hymns, and its feeling of joyful celebration. Along with Christmas Eve, it’s one of two services that are attended even by people who almost never go to church the rest of the year.
Less well known, though, is a very important service that takes place the evening before Easter, which we call the “Great Vigil.”
It begins in darkness, with lighting of the New Fire, from which the Easter (Paschal) candle is lit. That one small flame grows as it is passed from one person to another, and the first part of the service happens by the light of many candles, during the gathering dusk.
Through readings from the Old Testament, the Vigil tells the whole story of salvation, beginning with the creation in Genesis; and continuing with the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, as well as memorable words from Hebrew prophets.
The early Christians welcomed new converts through Holy Baptism primarily during the Easter Vigil. This year, we will continue that tradition — it’s always a joy to welcome a new person into the family of God! And we will all renew our own baptismal vows, and be sprinkled in Jordan River water.
Part of what makes the Easter Vigil fun is the fact that the service rarely stays in one place for long. Here at St. Alban’s, we start by lighting the New Fire in the Memorial Grove, and then the Old Testament readings and baptism happen while we gather around the font in the center of the church.
After the Resurrection is joyfully announced, we will all ring bells, the brass will play, and we will sing the Gloria in Excelsis for the first time since Lent began. The focus of the service then moves to the front of the chuch, where we celebrate the first Holy Communion of the Easter season.
Way back at the start of Lent — on Ash Wednesday — many of the children of St. Alban’s attended the children’s service, in which we “buried” the Alleluia under the Altar at the front of the church. At the Easter Vigil, we hope many of the children of St. Alban’s will come and help to UN-bury the Alleluia! And the children will help the celebrant announce the joyous moment when we recognize the resurrection of Jesus.
The Great Vigil of Easter includes a lot of memorable elements: fire, flickering candles, sprinkling of baptismal water, joyful music with a brass ensemble and choir, fragrant incense … and, of course, meeting the Lord at the altar in the consecrated bread and wine of Eucharist.
The Great Vigil is truly worship for all the senses.
I hope that you and your family will consider joining us this year for the Easter Vigil. It’s my favorite service all year long. You might just find you agree with me!
The 2019 Great Vigil of Easter begins at 7pm at St. Alban’s on Saturday, April 20.