Liturgy by TLW



The Vigil of Pentecost

by the Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Lutherans in North America had a Vigil of Pentecost provided in their church calendar since the publication of the Lutheran Book of Worship in 1978.  Unfortunately, no service order was provided at that time or since.

From history, we know that Easter and Pentecost were the first two and only feasts of the original Church Year from apostolic times. We also know that the ancient church celebrated a vigil with Easter as early as the second century and with Pentecost universally from the fifth century, likely earlier in various places.  We further know that baptisms were also a part of these services, given its promise of resurrection with Christ and gift of the Holy Spirit. Easter, having the earlier vigil, was clearly preferred, with those not baptized then being transferred to Pentecost.  If a baptism occurred at some time other than Easter or Pentecost, it not only was highly unusual, but actually limited access to holy orders in the church.

The purpose of the ancient Vigil of Pentecost therefore would have been an awaiting of/preparation for/rehearsing of the great themes of the Day of Pentecost, meaning primarily the Holy Spirit and the Christian life lived under the power and guidance of that same Spirit. You could add to that the idea of the birth of the Church as well. 

Today, the Orthodox Church celebrates at least two services related to the Vigil of Pentecost, one being a Kneeling Vespers that marks the first occasion of kneeling after the 50 day celebration of Pascha.  The vespers idea is shared in Anglican rites that suggest that the full office be used, followed by a series of six prophecies and tracts (responses), a blessing of the font, a litany and mass in a familiar Easter Vigil pattern.  The Book of Common Prayer 1979, on the other hand limits the opening to the Service of Light from Evening Prayer, then continues with essentially a mass form with baptism and renewal of vows after the homily (p.227).   The Church of Rome also celebrates a Pentecost Vigil mass, providing propers and prayers in The Sacramentary (1974).  A simple eucharist has been presumed for Lutherans by the set of propers for the Vigil of Pentecost that are provided in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship and Lutheran Book of Worship.

I wouldn't be surprised, however, if the ancient church's Pentecost Vigil was somewhat similar to the Easter Vigil in format, including an extension or repeating of baptismal/affirmational ideas, as the Anglican rites of today suggest. If the Easter Vigil relates to themes of passing over (from Fall, to Flood, to Exodus = water crossing leading to deliverance), then perhaps the emphasis for the Pentecost Vigil might have been the gift of the Spirit as a natural progression following the water/passing over emphasis of Easter baptism.

If you have confirmation on Pentecost, it might be interesting to have some kind of preparatory rite for the confirmands at this vigil -- perhaps including their participation in various leadership parts of the service. Given that no particular Lutheran format for this service exists, this service or a part of this service could be a confirmation project with the confirmands being enlisted in its construction as well as its leadership.  This could be an occasion with a little more time than the Sunday liturgy in which confirmands can individually share their own statements of faith:  "What faith means to me" or "What I've learned about God."

Candles makes sense at this service, given the vigil habit of the early church and given the emphasis on tongues of fire at Pentecost. The Paschal Candle should continue to be a central symbol as it has been throughout the Great Fifty Days of Easter. Perhaps the opening Service of Light section of Evening Prayer with the lighting of vigil lights is called for here, as suggested by the Anglican rites. Normally the Paschal Candle is NOT recommended for Evening Prayer, but on this occasion I would recommend it.  Bells can also be rung during the singing of the Glory to God or Hymn of Praise, as at the Easter Vigil.

Later in the service, there could be a lighting of seven candles at the reading of seven lessons, each relating to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that invited in our Baptismal and Affirmation/Confirmation Rites (wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord, joy in God's presence). Like the Easter Vigil, I would suggest separating the lessons with songs/hymns/canticles, again like the Anglican rites above.

Given the connection of the Holy Spirit with anointing, perhaps this could be an occasion for using the Healing Service from the Occasional Services.  Two things motivate me to suggest this.  1. The ancient Church used to prepare confirmands with several exorcisms that included anointings.  2. The bible makes a significant connection between sin and disease for which anointing and prayer helps (James 5:14-15).  I think both these ideas could be effectively employed at this Vigil service inviting both the confirmands and the congregation to be anointed in preparation for the Day of Pentecost and the Church's celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Functionally, I would include a series of renunciations in the preparatory rite for the confirmands.  Then proceed from that to the congregational anointing with the healing service or portions of it.

Perhaps as a general part of a preparation for Pentecost the entire congregation could speak a litany of the Holy Spirit or a litany of commitment to service or mission (see the litany in my service for the "Anniversary of a Church" in Occasional Services: Churches -- a new Exhortation relating to Acts 1, "You shall be my witnesses" and Acts 2, the disciples going with the Spirit's power, would be all that would be necessary for the litany to work as is).

One final point.  I notice that some churches are using the Vigil of Pentecost as an opportunity for ecumenical/unity services.  Given the Pentecost story and its corrective to the division of language at Babel, this idea merits consideration.  Surely all ecumenical strivings and movements toward unity are the work of the Holy Spirit.

All the foregoing suggest the following possible service order:


1. Possible procession into the church with Paschal Candle lit.  (It would not be necessary for it to be totally dark, since the Easter victory has already broken the darkness, although other modern rites do suggest darkness as at the Easter Vigil.)

2. Opening versicles and canticle of Evening Prayer (Service of Light) with lighting of hand candles during the canticle.  The "Glory to God" or a Holy Spirit invocation hymn ("O Holy Spirit, Enter In") may be used instead of "Joyous Light of Glory" (Phos Hilaron).

3. Seven lessons with lighting of seven candles, based on the theme of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
    Or follow the pattern of six prophecies and responses of the Anglican rite.
    Or follow the pattern of four OT readings of the Roman rite.

4. Preparatory Rite for confirmands that would include:  a. Renunciations  b. Personal statements of faith: "What my faith means to me" or "What I have learned about God."

5. Healing service, including anointing of confirmands and the whole congregation, relating the biblical notion of sin and sickness.

6. Congregational Litany of Dedication to Service/Mission
    or perhaps a Litany of the Holy Spirit (language needs updating at this link)

7. First Eucharist of Pentecost -- Order:

          Hymn of Praise used like a gospel procession

          Reading of the Pentecost Story (Acts 2:1-21) or John 7:37-39a, spoken several times in several languages

          Hymn for the return of the procession (or last stanza of previous hymn)

          Homily or meditation on Acts 2 (optional)

          Hymn during preparation of the table (offering)

          Offertory Prayer (see Roman rite)

          Great Thanksgiving

          Optional Proper Preface and Sanctus (see Roman rite)

          Eucharistic Prayer

          Our Father


          Post Communion Prayer (see Roman rite)

          Blessing (see Roman rite)


          Closing Hymn (Optional)