(If you are fortunate enough to be in a faith community that does the Great Vigil as part of its Easter liturgies, you are blessed indeed. This liturgy takes a lot of preparation and is best done when a number of people are involved in getting ready for it. In many congregations there is a rearranging of the church interior so the focus is on the Baptismal font and the Holy Table. Some churches do the entire Vigil in a separate location and include a concluding agape with traditional wine, cheese, olives, and special breads. Some observances are ecumenical, including people of other Christian traditions who participate in the readings and special music. Here is a brief homily that could be used.)
The origins of this great feast are at least from the third century AD. We know that Christians even then, amidst persecution and secrecy, celebrated the mighty acts of salvation history and baptized new converts to the faith who had been catechumens for two years or more. The candidates for Holy Baptism were kept fasting for several days, and they were not told the exact sequence of events that would take place. Early in the morning of Easter, after cockcrow, they were brought into a garden -- usually someoneâs back garden -- and baptized in a spring of running water, robed in white, and then presented to the community. What an awesome event that must have been!
The modern Vigil focuses on four major events: the Lighting of the New Fire, the readings from the Hebrew Scripture, the Baptism (or renewal of vows), and the Holy Eucharist. At the completion of the Vigil, a participant will have participated in all the might acts of salvation history. Itâs hard not to shout, âAlleluia, Christ is Risen!â
The Vigil is the keystone of the liturgy for the rest of the year. Other Eucharists are repeatable parts of the Vigil.
One modern pilgrim recalls attending the Great Vigil at Ely Cathedral in England in the 1960âs. The company drove across the flat English countryside in the late evening, arriving at the dark Cathedral. They were ushered into the nave by flashlight and the liturgy began with nothing but the light of the new fire, then the lighting of the Paschal Candle. Finally, at the shout âAlleluia, Christ is Risen!â the lights were turned on. An organ fanfare began the Gloria in Excelsis, and the interior of the Cathedral was ablaze with light and filled with people. There was no doubt, said the pilgrim, that Jesus Christ was risen from the dead.
This liturgy is intended to give the people of God a sense of unbridled joy. It is designed to move us from the wilderness of Lent to the cross and then to the empty tomb. It is written to bring people together, remove barriers and create a new focus of unity among believers. It is the Church at its best, liturgically and communally. It truly is the passover from death to life. When we renew our Baptismal vows we are struck by the way our new life is cast: fellowship and prayer, resisting of evil, proclaiming the Good News, respecting the dignity of every person, these all are part of our new life in the risen Christ.
In these times when we are beset by war, global instability, threats of terror, changing communities, and migrating populations, when there seems to be no solid earth on which we can stand, this liturgy reminds us that our true home is with the risen Jesus, our paradise is in what is to come, and our redemption has been accomplished. Now let us go forth and live it. Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed!