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Easter vigil can make ‘early Easter’ unique

SUMMARY: Celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ gives congregations an opportunity to use the Easter Vigil.

The ancient ritual offers a fresh approach to churches' early-morning celebration.  The earliest possible date for Easter is March 22, but this year’s March 23 celebration will be the earliest Easter many of us ever will experience.

The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources, General Board of Discipleship, said an early Easter and the darker morning hours offer a wonderful opportunity for congregations to use the Easter Vigil service (The Book of Worship, #369). It offers an alternative celebration in northern regions where an early Easter presents challenges for congregations who traditionally celebrate with outdoor services and activities. Easter sunrise in many parts of the United States will not occur until after 7 a.m., well after the traditional sunrise-service time.

"Frankly," he said, "the Easter Vigil works better in early spring. You can begin outside in darkness with the people gathering around a bonfire."

The bonfire is a symbol of the light and the Resurrection. After an opening prayer, someone lights the white paschal candle from the fire. The candle is then lifted up to symbolize Christ, who rose in glory from the darkness of sin and death. The candle bearer leads the way into a darkened sanctuary as worshipers, perhaps carrying individual candles, follow. Once inside, the congregation extinguishes their candles, but the paschal candle, the light of the world, continues to burn. Traditionally, the candle is lit during all services from Easter through Pentecost.

The Vigil begins in darkness. It dates to the second or third century, when it was considered the most holy and joyful night of the Christian year. It celebrated all of salvation history in one liturgy that began Saturday night and ended at dawn Easter Day, Burton-Edwards said. Many churches used it for baptisms and reaffirmation of baptismal vows.

The Easter Vigil in The Book of Worship can take up to two and a half hours, but it may be divided into segments or shortened to about 90 minutes, Burton-Edwards noted.

--Jackie Campbell, McMurray, Pa., freelance writer, Interpreter magazine