Keeping Vigil

Easter Sunrise services have been in vogue for many years, but an Easter Vigil is largely unknown among Reformed and Presbyterian churches. A "vigil" suggests waiting—an alert, expectant watching when one is normally asleep (Matt. 24:36-25:13). During a vigil one is full of anticipation and hope.

On the following pages Arlo Duba describes his experience at an Easter Vigil (or Paschal Vigil, the name he defends—see In a Word) service in the Taize community in France and provides the biblical and theological underpinnings for such a worship service.

It was 3:30 a.m. The church was rilled with an intense silence. A group of brothers were reading-reciting-chanting Lamentations. We waited—waited and prayed in complete blackness. Later I realized that it was the words of Psalm 119, interspersed with the Lamentations, that were constantly surprising me. The brothers were singing, "My soul languishes for your salvation. My eyes fail with watching for your promise" (vv. 81-82, 123); "At midnight I rise to praise you" (v. 62); "I rise before dawn and cry for help. I hope in your words. My eyes are awake before the watches of the night" (vv. 147-48); as well as the familiar words about the Word of the Lord being a lamp unto our feet and a light to our path (v. 105).

Then a stir. The music changed. In the darkness someone read words from John 1 about the beginning, about the darkness not overcoming the light. A fire was lighted outside, a lighted Paschal candle carried in, and the light spread to the candles each one of us had been unconsciously holding. The effect of all those pinpoints of light was almost painful to my eyes. And the words—that we must rejoice with the angels, for death could not hold the Savior of the world—were staggering in their intensity.

Then someone announced: "Salvation was always God's loving plan." Together we traced the story of salvation from Genesis, from Exodus, from the Prophets. The Scripture wasn't just read; it was trumpeted. And when we responded, it was like saying "I'm for that and that's for me" (an amplified translation of "Amen"!). We were caught up in the story that carried us on to Calvary, to the messenger at the empty tomb, to the upper room, to the establishment of the church, and then to a most "protestantized" version of the litany of the saints. The witness of the saints was "for us," for apart from us they would not be made perfect. So, as the dawn began to break, we were caught up into the great cloud of witnesses.

We heard a sermon by Roger Schutz, the prior of this Reformed community. As we were challenged to reappropriate the grace expressed in our baptism, a new brother was received into the community (a Presbyterian from Northern Ireland, as I remember). And we prayed for the whole church, past, present, and future. Then, as the sun was about to break over the eastern horizon, we were invited to the resurrection banquet of the Lord's Supper. We had been on the Emmaus road. The Law and the Prophets had been opened to us, and we had seen Christ the Word, the Rock. Now, through the Supper we were able to see him in the breaking of the bread. We were challenged to obey the resurrection imperative: go tell, go live!

A Bridge Between Covenants

If you have ever participated in an Easter/Paschal Vigil service, you will recognize many of the elements that were part of this very meaningful service in the Taize community. They are elements that are essential to the meaning and spirit of the vigil service.

To understand the Easter/ Paschal Vigil, it's helpful to examine some of the biblical and theological background of the service. The Paschal celebration, first of all, connects us with the old covenant. The Jewish people viewed "this night" as the night of deliverance from bondage and slavery and as the night in which the establishment of covenant deliverance was commemorated and reenacted (see Exodus 12). For both the Sabbath remembrance and the commemoration of Pas-cha the people were told: "You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand" (Deut. 5:15).

This theme of deliverance is clearly carried over into the New Testament. While scholars may disagree about the actual chronology of the first Holy Week, they do not question that Jesus directly related his passion and the institution of the Lord's Supper to the Passover. The early Christians followed his example by making the exodus of the children of Israel and the exodus that Jesus accomplished in Jerusalem (Luke 9: 31) the central focus of their Easter/Paschal celebrations.

The same symbolism—of fire and water, of light, of bread and wine, of shed blood and a shared meal, of passage and pas-sover—is evident in both the old and new covenants. Both seek renewal of commitment. Both stress the annual repetition of this renewal, this cyclical reentering. And both see the year constantly reiterated in the week. For as the Sabbath was the weekly remembering of deliverance from Egypt, so the Lord's Day, with its shared Word and Supper, is the weekly celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

The apostle Paul appears to have had his mind filled with Passover images as he described the new life in Christ to the 1 Corinthians. He wrote his first letter to these Christians in the spring, before Pentecost (see 16:8) and undoubtedly just after a Jewish celebration of Pascha, giving rise to exclamations such as "Christ our Pascha has been sacrificed for us." Paul sets this sacrifice in the context of cleaning out all the old leaven)—again an allusion to the old covenant (and still done at contemporary Jewish Seder celebrations). Paul also stresses the wilderness wandering, connecting the divinely given manna and the divinely supplied water with Christ, and mentioning both baptism and the participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10: 1-4, 16-17).

So it is the Pascha which ties the two Testaments together. It is the Pascha which brings to focus the burden of the gospel-that is, Christ's redemption through his death, resurrection in fulfillment of the Law and Prophets

The Service of the Word

A major part of the Paschal Vigil consists of Scripture reading. Depending on the length of the service, the vigil may include from five to fourteen readings and expositions, mostly from the Old Testament. The readings attempt to recapitulate the history of salvation. Beginning with the six days of creation, the story moves through the liberation of the exodus, the proclamation of the prophets, and the victory of Christ over sin and death. The announcement of the resurrection-that is, the reading of the resurrection gospel-is the fulcrum of the service. Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the feast

But this announcement is not read to passive listeners. God's people are like the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13 ff.); as we listen, we are ready to meet the Lord. We actively listen for the Lord to speak to us. And we pray that our eyes be opened as he breaks bread with us

We not only understand what the service means, but also participate in it. Sometimes that participation involves the normal reading, singing, and involvement in the liturgy. At other times it may involve a procession from one part of the church to another, again reminding us of the Emmaus walk.

We participate, too, by making the story our own. In listening to and understanding the salvation story, we participate in it. We acknowledge our willingness to start again, to be remade, renewed, forgiven. We are willing to identify with the Christian story, to be turned around, and to move in the direction of the gospel.

The vigil also calls us to Christian obedience, the ultimate participation. Because it expresses a focused and intense statement of the gospel, and because it sets us in the midst of Jesus' suffering and triumphant love, it lays on us Jesus' own demand. The vigil, rightly experienced, is itself a parable of the reversal of our dominant values and the expectations of our secularized culture. Here the individual is invited to leave self behind, invited to a passover, to a passing from life to death (Rom. 6:3) and from death to life eternal (Rom. 6:4 ff.). Here is the call to serve Christ in others. Here the body receives the imperative to be a leaven, to be salt, and to be a light in order that the world might see and glorify the Father in heaven.

The Service of Baptism

Traditionally the Paschal Vigil also incorporates a service of Christian initiation and renewal. Ideally the service includes baptism of children or adults; at the least the congregation studies again what baptism demands (Rom. 6:11) and renews their baptism vows.

The baptismal service again captures the unity of the two covenants as well as our union with Christ. Through the vigil liturgy we confess that the cen-trality of baptism is found in a liberating exodus where sin is drowned (in the person of Pharaoh and his hosts) and a new, cleansed people comes forth. Here we experience a dying and rising with Christ, an incorporation into a new community, which leaves bondage and sin behind, and a pressing on in obedience and faithfulness.

Celebrating baptism in the context of the vigil should help us recapture the richness of Luther's "flood prayer," which was in turn based on an early church prayer. Perhaps it would be better to call it the Red Sea or Jordan prayer, to capture the full significance of escape, of deliverance, of being set free.

The vigil, especially when it includes baptism, holds before us the story of redemption in a vivid and beckoning way. We are drawn into the story of Christ and his redemption; we become actors in the story as we commit ourselves anew to the gospel, to the renewal of the church, to personal conversion, and to new and vigorous service to other people and to the world. In the vigil we are called to realize our baptism in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit, and to receive the impetus for living out our baptism in life.

Directives for an Easter/Paschal Vigil

Although RW space constraints do not allow us to provide a full liturgy of the service, the following notes and directives, prepared by Harry Boonstra, associate editor ofRW, will help you to plan an Easter I Paschal Vigil.

■ Liturgies

Complete liturgies are available in the following sources:

From Ashes to Fire. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979, pp. 165-201 (includes a helpful commentary).

The Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal). New York: The Sea-bury Press, 1979, pp. 285-95

Book of Worship (United Church of Christ). New York: United Church Press, 1986, pp. 225-243.

■ Further Background

Manual of the Liturgy; Lutheran Book of Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1979, pp. 326-38.

Celebrating the Easter Vigil, ed. by Rupert Berger and Hans HoUerwerger. New York: Pueblo Publications, 1983.

■ Time

Churches have celebrated the Easter Vigil at various times, from sundown on Saturday through sunrise on Sunday. If at all possible, the service should be held very early in the morning so that the congregation celebrates the Lord's Supper at sunrise.

The length of the service will vary, depending, for example, on the number of Scripture readings; however, to do justice to the various parts of the service, it will normally last at least two hours.

■ Participants

This service calls for many participants. Both the processional and the singing of hymns should involve the whole congregation. Many readers can participate in the Scripture lessons, and various musicians can lead in song.

■ Place

The service traditionally begins outside the church building where a fire is lit; the Paschal candle is lit from this fire. The fire may be either a large bonfire or a small fire in a brazier; some churches even use the fireplace in a fellowship room. If none of these options are possible, the congregation can gather inside, near the church door, and light the Paschal candle there.

■ The Service

The Easter/Paschal Vigil traditionally consists of four parts: the Services of Light, the Word, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper. Some churches have celebrated the first three services on Easter eve and the Lord's Supper on Easter morning, but such division destroys the unity of the service.

■ The Service of Light

The Service of Light will focus on Christ, the Light of the World. One can conduct this part of the service elaborately, lighting the Paschal candle and other candles from the fire outside and lighting hand-held candles carried by the congregation (although in some communities the fire marshal has forbidden such celebration!), with a full procession of (singing) worship leaders and congregation into the church. At the very least a large candle should be lit as part of the service.

The congregation should sing an appropriate hymn, such as "Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies" or "Exsultet" ("Rejoice now, heavenly hosts").

■ The Service of the Word

The Service of the Word consists primarily of Scripture readings, usually selected from the Common Lectionary, and a few brief meditations. Planners will have to decide how many of the lessons to include and how to intersperse them with meditation, singing, and prayer. Exodus 14 certainly must be included, along with a sufficient number of selections that lead the congregation to feel the weight of salvation history. The psalms can be read or sung, or one can substitute appropriate hymns. (Exodus 15 and Isaiah 12, both of which contain songs, are often chosen instead of psalms.)

Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:2 / Psalm 33. Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13 / Psalm 46. Genesis 22:1-18 / Psalm 16. Exodus 14:10-15:1 / Exodus 15:1-6,11-13,17-18. Isaiah 54:5-14 / Psalm 30. Isaiah 55:1-11 / Isaiah 12:2-6. Ezekiel 36:24-28 / Psalm 42. Ezekiel 37:1-14 / Psalm 143. Zephaniah 3:14-20 / Psalm 98. Romans 6:3-11 / Psalm 114. Mark 16:1-8.

■ Service of Baptism

In the ancient church the vigil was the prime time for baptisms (see RW 3, pp. 13-15). Converts had received their instruction and had prepared themselves through spiritual exercise and renewal. Now, as part of the Great Vigil, they were to be baptized.

Because of the meaning reflected in this tradition (see p. 14), many congregations today include a baptismal service in the vigil. The vigil is also a most suitable occasion for the renewal of baptismal vows.

■ Service of the Lord's Supper

This celebration of the Lord's Supper will especially commemorate the crucified Christ, who is risen and present among us. Just as the risen Christ joined his disciples at mealtimes on several occasions, so he joins us at this Eucharist (thanksgiving) meal. At this Lord's Supper the tone of joy will certainly predominate.


Paschal Vigil is a better designation for the service usually referred to as Easter Vigil.

I am convinced that English is the unfortunate inheritor of an inadequate word. Greek and Latin transmitted the Hebrew word pascha or passover, and so have other European languages. (French: paques; Spanish: pascua; Dutch: pasen; Scottish: pask). In every case we can still hear the Old Testament meaning of liberation, wedded to the passion of Christ and the New Testament celebration of the resurrection.

In many European traditions the communion bread was also called "pascha," as was the lamb of Paschal sacrifice. Those language treasures of deliverance and sacrifice enable us to sense the richness of Paul's phrase in 1 Corinthian 5:7: "Christ our pascha [Passover lamb] is sacrificed for us." Christ, the lamb, the bread, the passover.

In contrast we can see how utterly impoverished is the translation of pascha as "easter." "Christ our easter is sacrificed for us" is a nonsensical statement. So is using the word easter as a designation for the central celebration of the Paschal reality of the Christian tradition. If we primarily commemorate the Paschal mystery, we must recover the biblical usage with long and rich tradition and speak again of "Pascha."
—Arlo Duba

Arlo D. Duba (1929-2023) was professor of worship and dean of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. Duba's contributions to thoughtful, rich, and Biblically rooted worship practices continue to bless the church. 



Reformed Worship 6 © December 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.