Liturgy by TLW



Notes for the Easter Vigil
by The Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


I have known many people to look at the Easter Vigil and shy away from it with an "Ugh! Too dry, boring and long!" And yet I want to tell you that in congregations that I have served, it is one of the chief services of the year, with equal to or greater than the usual Sunday morning attendance.

How have I done it? Well, I've got to admit that I've always been suspicious that the champagne and hors d'oeuvres reception afterwards was a big factor! (I snitched that idea from the Episcopalians!) Imagine, an hors d'oeuvres carry in to challenge the cooks of your congregation. It gets a lot of people involved with the planning of this major event of the Church Year. So there's a good idea for starters.

But clearly, an intentionally planned, interesting and meaningful liturgy can happen without sinking into the dry and boring. I have worked hard to accomplish this over the years, so consider the numbered ideas below, as they are represented in the Vigil liturgy and its variations that are posted at this Liturgy website.

1. The hour of the Vigil should be considered carefully. I remember being a purest once and setting the hour late so that the first eucharist of Easter would begin as close to midnight as possible. Given a full Holy Week and a necessarily early start on Easter Day, I found that a short night on Saturday was not only a bad thing for me, but not exactly helpful for the people either. So much for the purist approach! (Funny how getting older comes into play here.) Yet the theme of Christ the light coming to break the darkness death is most important for this service. Therefore choose a time when you are sure it is dark at the beginning of the service. That might be as early as 7:30 in your region, or perhaps 8 or 9 pm might ensure it. I have tended to go with 9 pm.

Optionally, the Vigil CAN be the Sunrise Service on Easter. But don't cut out the good drama contained within it, and make sure it is dark when you begin. Then go to the Easter Breakfast, although I really wonder if you want to drop the champagne!

2. The beginning of the liturgy. A book from 1983 entitled, Celebrating the Easter Vigil (Pueblo) was most enlightening for me. Articles therein are from a symposium held in Austria in 1977 that critiqued the then-new Vigil revisions put forth for the Roman Catholic community. Among the first critiques: the entirely impractical emphasis on the "New Fire" at the beginning of the liturgy for churches (including our present Lutheran version), especially at a time of year when spring rains, cold and even snow are still a problem to consider. Further, by eliminating the traditional enscribing (or tracing) and blessing of the Paschal candle, this beginning detracts from the central symbol of our Easter, Baptismal, and Funeral celebrations, as well as not giving the people an opportunity to connect and understand the image symbols rendered on that candle. I have therefore dropped the new fire from my vigils and restored the enscribing and blessing of the Paschal Candle using a form suggested in Holy Week & Easter, Fortress 1969.

Gather in a place other than the sanctuary, which should have all lights out. It doesn't have to be large place nor outside. A large narthex works. A fellowship hall also. Make sure it is open enough for all the people to surround the ministers and the Paschal Candle so that they can watch the tracing, placing of the nails, lighting and blessing actions.

3. The procession of the lighted Paschal Candle into the darkened church is the most dramatic of any liturgy of the whole Church Year, and very much represents the breaking of the darkness of sin and death by the light of Christ. What a fitting sequel to Good Friday. And, of course, everyone loves carrying their own lighted candles into the church. Make sure you do this. Before the liturgy, place the candle stand in the center of the chancel to receive the candle. Or alternately, place the candle stand to the immediate right (gospel side) of the altar, where it should stand throughout the seven weeks of Easter.

The processional versicle and response that is sung at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University is much more festive than the one provided by Augsburg Fortress. I recommend it: VigProc.gif. The Deacon (Assisting Minister) is traditionally designated to carry the candle, lift it at three stations and sing the versicle sequentially at higher pitches. But if your Deacon does not chant, a cantor or the Presiding Minister following directly behind the candle can sing the versicle.

4. The Easter Proclamation (Exultet) that follows is one of most beautiful texts in all of the Church's liturgical treasure. It needs to be sung, given the message and the anticipated feast that is to come (Augsburg #12-2035). Although this is traditionally assigned to the Deacon (Assisting Minister), it should be given to anyone who can do this well, including the Presiding Minister. Have that person walk in the procession (vested) behind the candle and stand beside it during the Exultet. Make sure you always print out this beautiful text for all to follow as it is being sung.

During the Exultet, the acolyte may light additional candles or "vigil lights" around the church. These might include aisle candles or window candles or any candles that might be placed in the chancel or nave.

5. The lesson section can either make or break the Easter Vigil. Approach is everything. This is NOT a lengthy section of readings to be endured with drooping eyes and tired bottoms, although that is what you will get with typically dull, if not altogether bad, readings from the lectern. This IS the time to do what one does when keeping vigil: TELL STORIES!

Practically speaking, that has meant the following for me: A) A section heading entitled, "Stories of a Salvation People," with an introductory note: "While we wait in vigil for the resurrected Lord, we tell the stories of our 'family' history, recalling how God loved and saved his people throughout history." B) Each lesson is entitled "The Story of...." C) The lectern is virtually avoided and stories are told as close to the people as possible. D) Story tellers, NOT readers, are sought, with a variety of voices/story tellers being used to give each story a different sound. E) Translations are used that lend themselves to story telling (Good News [TEV], Living Bible [LB], etc.). F) Creativity should be employed in the story telling: posters, slides, visual aids, skit, mime, puppets, etc. using whatever creative resources you might have within your congregation to help make these stories live for God's people. G) Twelve lessons are assigned for the Vigil, with a minimum of four required. Until I figured out the story approach, I tended to do five readings. After following the suggestions above, I knew that we could do six stories and not be bored, and possibly more.

See Six Lessons for the Easter Vigil that I have prepared with suggested ideas for their presentation.

6. Baptism, Reception of New Members and Baptismal Renewal are important next components as final preparation for the first eucharist of Easter. Because this is a big and important service with a reception following, I have not found it hard to schedule baptisms and new member receptions at this service. But advance planning is necessary.

I believe the Renewal of Baptismal Vows of the whole assembly is NOT an option, but is a fitting personal preparation for Easter. I suggest the following for the renewal. See the Vigil services themselves for my offering for this section.

7. During the Litany that follows, the people are sprinkled with the Baptismal Water as a remembrance of their own baptism. It is appropriate to make the sign of the cross when sprinkled, just as this sign was made upon us at our baptism. We proudly bear the sign that makes us Christian -- the cross of Christ. I have found this sprinkling to be an integral and special part of the Easter Vigil. I see people sign themselves on this occasion who never sign themselves any other time. An evergreen branch and the basin from the font (if removable -- a separate bowl if not) works well when carried into the congregation.

The Litany that closes the vigiling part of the service should be one of praise. Dr. Phil Pfatteicher has provided a marvellous one on pp. 336-37 of the Manual on the Liturgy, which I have included in my Vigil services posted here.  Another option suggested in Evangelical Lutheran Worship is the Litany of the Saints #237.

8. What happens next is a matter of some debate and differing practice across the Church. I have known some pastors who have tried to end the Vigil here and send the people home, postponing the eucharist to Easter morning. They have all told me that it just falls flat. Well, of course it does! The liturgy as originally conceived builds naturally to the announcement of the Easter Gospel and the first eucharist of Easter.

For those who continue on, there is a marked change to be dealt with here, indicating a real difference from the vigiling that has gone before and the actual celebration of Easter that occurs now.

The older forms of the liturgy called for the Vigil to begin in a sanctuary that looks substantially as it did on Good Friday, stripped bare, with ministers in purple or no stoles. During the Litany following the Baptismal Renewal, the ministers depart, and with a quick but quiet rush, the chancel is dressed for Easter before the people's eyes -- a counterpart to the stripping before them on Maundy Thursday.) Then the lights are brought up full and the ministers re-enter in white Eucharistic vestments and the celebration begins.

In some newer vigil liturgies, the chancel is already dressed for Easter, with ministers in white Eucharistic vestments throughout, but the lights are kept low until this point in the liturgy.

Frankly, this is such a dramatic service to start with, I really like the older form of redressing at this point. This doesn't have to be a full dressing as for the services on Sunday morning with lilies galore. But you can do this quickly and still capitalize on the dramatic change with the following suggestions: A) Assemble all the items to be brought to the chancel on a nearby table that is out of sight. B) Make sure you have at least 4-6 people to do this work. C) Place the paraments on the lectern, pulpit and altar but flipped up so that they only have to be flipped down to hang at this point of the service. D) Use a common cup or intinction to keep communion vessels to a minimum. E) Fold banners nicely and place them on the floor beneath their assigned location for quick and easy raising and placing at this point. F) Six lilies are really enough for now to suggest Easter. The rest can be placed after the Vigil or early Easter morning.

A variation of this redressing theme is also an ancient tradition: Have the chancel already decorated, but hide it with a suspended curtain that can be dropped and removed at this point of the service. This too is very dramatic. I have seen this done with a black drape befitting the darkness theme, but perhaps any dark color that contrasts the Easter white it hides should work.

9. In some older vigils, the Eucharist begins with the Gloria, which means in short order we are right back into a lesson section again. The critique from Austria suggests that there have been enough readings and preparations to go straight to the Easter gospel -- to which I add a hearty Amen!

So, instead of the Presiding Minister intoning the "Glory to God" from behind the altar, sing instead the three Alleluias to "The Strife Is O'er" followed by all singing the hymn. Great fun is the old tradition of having people bring bells to this service and getting them out with this hymn to ring with fervor. Have one on the altar for the Presiding Minister to use too.

10. I like to treat this hymn like a Gospel Procession, ending it before the last stanza. Either a full procession into the midst of the people or simply going to the front center place where the stories were read will work. Print the gospel acclamations in the bulletin to said instead of singing them, with the italicized instruction "shout" or "speak boldly." After the gospel is proclaimed, the last stanza of the hymn is sung with its Alleluias while the ministers return to their places.

11. The eucharist then continues pretty normally in a shortened version I suggest here: optional Sermon (do we really need this after all that Word from God in the stories? My answer has been no), the Prayers of the Church, Peace, Offering, Great Thanksgiving, Distribution, Post-Communion (no canticle), Blessing, Dismissal.

12. My Vigils have tended to last about 1 hr. 45-50 min. The Champagne Reception is a great conclusion with a bit of a party atmosphere. Decorate the Parish Hall for Easter. And don't forget the jelly beans and chocolate bunnies. The fast is OVER!