The Great Vigil of Easter

Sisters and brothers in Christ, on this holy night when our Savior Jesus passed from death to life, we gather with the church throughout the world in vigil and prayer. This is the Passover of Jesus Christ: through light and the Word, through water and the bread and cup, we recall Jesus' death and resurrection, we share Christ's triumph over sin and death, and with inextinguishable hope we await Christ's coming again.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:1, 4-5).

The light of Christ rises in glory, overcoming the darkness of sin and death!

At these words the paschal candle is lit, and the people of Hope Church (RCA) in Holland, Michigan, gather in outdoor darkness, light candles, and process through the neighborhood singing, "Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away, never dies away." So begins the Service of Light in the Great Easter Vigil.

It is the church year's most holy and joyful night, for it proclaims and celebrates all of Christ's saving work. The Great Easter Vigil draws Christians into the reality of Christ's life, passion, death, and resurrection through its four parts:

1. Service of Light. Beginning in darkness, kindling new fire, and lighting the paschal candle, we remember that Christ came as light shining in darkness. The worshiping community becomes God's people following the light of the world, Jesus Christ, as symbolized by the paschal candle.

2. Service of Word. This series of readings from the Old and New Testaments tells through creation, exodus, prophetic voice, incarnation, and resurrection the full story of God's work.

3. Service of Baptism. In the church's earliest years, baptism commonly took place at Easter Vigil. We celebrate baptism and/or the renewal of the baptismal covenant here because this sacrament unites all believers to Christ's death and resurrection.

4. Service of the Lord's Supper. The vigil culminates in the joyous celebration of the feast of God's people when the risen Lord invites all to participate in new life by sharing the feast he has prepared.

At Hope Church the Service of Light begins outdoors, and the people process singing through the neighborhood. In the fellowship area the Service of the Word presents readings through drama, storytelling, and song. The worshipers move to the youth center and fountain courtyard for the Service of Baptism, finally coming into the sanctuary for the closing Service of the Lord's Supper. Because the vigil has so much content and so many parts, this physical progression contributes momentum and keeps the liturgy fresh.

This ancient service, dating from the fourth century, is being recovered by many Christian traditions. A successful vigil requires careful planning and preparation. If you are interested in starting one, it would be helpful first to participate in a vigil. This is a good service to plan cooperatively with several parishes (Hope Church originally cosponsored it with Western Theological Seminary). Because this is such an historic liturgy, take care to maintain the integrity of all four portions. Preparation needs to include helping worshipers understand that the service is rather lengthy.

The power of Easter Vigil comes through strong symbols of light and water, together with sacrament and Word. Some say this is the most evangelical, biblical, sacramental, and liturgical occasion of worship in the whole of Christian life. Hope Church has found Easter Vigil to be a most dramatic, impressive, and solemn way to celebrate what God has done, is doing, and will do.

For help in planning, see the Book of Common Worship (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), pages 294-314, and The Worship Source Book (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Faith Alive Christian Resources, Baker Books, 2004), page 625.

By Carol Myers. This article appeared originally in Servant Leaders, Winter 1996, Volume One, Number Four.