The church is constantly encouraged to be more multisensory in its worship, to involve various art forms, and to engage people physically and mentally. We struggle to make God’s work throughout history relevant to our world today. Perhaps, instead of dreaming up new ideas, we could renew a practice of the early church. Drawing on Jewish Passover roots, the Easter Vigil captures the stories of God’s faithfulness and covenant throughout history, which includes the church today. The Vigil brings us into the age-old movement from slavery to freedom and from death to life; it provides ample opportunities for physical movement, multiple art forms, and the inclusion of various ages in worship.
The Easter Vigil, also referred to as the Paschal Vigil or the First Service of Easter, is held either on the Saturday evening before Easter or very early Easter morning. The full service is much longer than most services, which gives a sense of waiting or longing. This feeling of waiting grows throughout the readings that trace the history of salvation through a Service of Light, a Service of the Word, a Service of Baptism, and a Service of Communion.
Service of Light
The Vigil begins by focusing the attention of worshipers on Jesus as the Light of the World that dispels all darkness. The congregation gathers silently in darkness, often outside the church in a location where a fire can be built. From this fire, the Paschal candle, a large central candle that represents the light of Christ, is lit. Singing joyfully, the congregation processes into the sanctuary with the lit Paschal candle. The service continues with a hymn or the Exultet, a fourth-century hymn that rejoices in the victory of God throughout history, from the first Passover in Egypt to the resurrection of Christ (for a translation of that hymn, see RW 22:23).
This part of the service offers many possibilities for creativity. Some churches use a small fire in a grill; others build great bonfires. Sometimes each member of the congregation holds a small candle that is lit as the Paschal candle is brought forward. If fire codes restrict the use of fire, the lights in the sanctuary can be brought up gradually. In all cases, the dark sanctuary becomes bright as a symbol of the darkness of the world giving way to the brightness of Jesus, the light of the world.
Service of the Word
Similar to an Advent lessons and carols service, this part of the Vigil is a series of Scripture readings, hymns or psalms, and prayers. A sermon based on these passages may also be included. These readings and hymns recall the full history of salvation and point to themes of deliverance from bondage and union with Christ. This section of the service culminates with the reading of Romans 6. Once again, this part of the Vigil offers wonderful opportunities for thinking creatively and involving multiple people.
Service of Baptism
This third part of the Easter Vigil service was the time set aside for baptisms in the early church. Each year the instruction and preparation of the converts, or catechumenates, would culminate with the Easter Vigil, where they would hear the stories of redemptive history and then be baptized. Their baptism continued the history of salvation by joining believers to the church in all times and places through dying and rising with Christ.
If a baptism is not scheduled, the Vigil can include a baptismal renewal service (see SNC 240). Both are reminders that we are part of the story of redemption.
Service of Communion
The Vigil culminates with the proclamation of the resurrection story. Thus, communion is celebrated with great joy, for Jesus is alive and lives among us. Given its context, this celebration also emphasizes God’s faithful actions throughout history that form us and give us an identity.
Four Leaders Talk About Their Experiences
I interviewed three pastors and a seminary professor about their experiences with Easter Vigil services: Daniel Meeter, pastor of Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, New York; David Batchelder, pastor of West Plano Presbyterian Church, Dallas, Texas; Leonard VanderZee, pastor of South Bend Christian Reformed Church, South Bend, Indiana; and Richard Eslinger, professor of homelitics and preaching at United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio.
How did you educate your congregation about the Easter Vigil service?
DICK: The first step, of course, was to educate the pastoral leadership. Then I was invited to teach a Lenten adult study of Daniel Benedict’s Come to the Waters. Also, our intern used the parish newsletter to explain the Vigil more broadly to the congregation.
DAVID: We told people to be prepared to be there for a long time—up to two and a half hours. We assured everyone that they could come and go as they pleased, and it was OK if they didn’t come at all. We wanted everyone who was there to want to be there. We also told people to dress comfortably because we were going to be moving around. And we told people that this liturgy was child-friendly.
LEN: We talked about the historical background of the Vigil being the context for baptism in the early church and explained how it flowed into the Easter morning service.
How were the services received?
DANIEL: The initial service got both positive and negative reactions. Some said that it was powerful and personal; it allowed them to experience Easter as they never had before. Others complained that it was too long or felt “Roman Catholic.”
Editor’s note: Actually the Easter Vigil predates the formation of what we know as the Roman Catholic church.
DICK: The reception was thoroughly and joyfully positive. One of the first and frequent observations from the worshipers that night was the comment “We must have another Vigil next year!”
DAVID: People are moved by the power of symbols. This service gives them a new way to think about Easter. One of our high school students called the Easter Vigil “Christian Cliff Notes” because this service gives us all of salvation history in one night. Several people commented about the length.
In what ways can children be involved?
DAVID: Children love it because it is dynamic and appeals to the imagination. This is a wonderful service for children to be involved. They can participate in planning, readings, or even building the fire. One year during the reading of the story of Noah’s ark, the children all brought forward stuffed animals to put on an ark we had built. Since we move around in this liturgy, we often pair children with older people to help push their wheelchairs.
LEN: Older kids seem to love this service with its movement, drama, and the fire.
What liturgical arts have you used?
DICK: We invited a local African-American dance troupe that led the procession with the Paschal candle and also danced during the gospel lesson. We used biblical storytelling, fabric art design, and, of course, liturgical music. Also, we provided a PowerPoint presentation of all of the Old Testament Vigil lessons.
DAVID: We emphasize the need to be willing to take a chance and be open. We use space differently than we normally do. We have used a variety of liturgical arts, such as creating an indoor water fountain with lighting and a net canopy over the baptismal font and PowerPoint images that correspond with Scripture readings. We also create open space around a circle table where we gather for communion; we use large loaves of bread so that we can have a new sense of sharing the feast. (Leftover bread is sent home with the people so that the feast is extended into the home.)
What challenges did you face?
LEN: Most people didn’t know such a service existed. We also sometimes struggled with having enough musicians available since we use them so heavily on Easter Sunday morning.
DANIEL: The biggest challenge was management of details, such as how much time it would take to light all the candles.
DICK: Why the church would meet on Saturday evening in the dark and why there was so much focus on the Paschal mystery was incomprehensible for some people.
What blessings have come from having an Easter Vigil service?
DICK: For me, the primary blessing is that my faith in Jesus Christ is never more robust than at the Easter Vigil. Also, there has been a subtle but real pressure from members of the congregation for more integrity at the Sunday services of Holy Communion and for more frequent communion.
LEN: The Vigil deepens the people’s understanding of the whole paschal cycle. The readings bring worshipers through the Old Testament background of Easter to see how it is the culmination of God’s covenant promises. It was while attending my first Vigil that I first became aware of the importance and reality of my own baptism. I hear comments every year about how meaningful and important this service has become.
DAVID: This service is key to the liturgical renewal of all of worship. People will be formed by the Vigil and more ready for reshaping the liturgical imagination. Also, encouraging reflection on the Vigil provides opportunities to revisit spiritual experiences, teaching pportunities—especially in relationship to symbols of faith—and insight for later conversations.
What advice do you have for churches considering an Easter Vigil?
DAVID: Always start after dark. From the beginning to the end, have people fully participating and give them freedom with guidance. Allow them to exercise their imaginations. Anticipate things that might be distracting, and pay attention to details. But know too that the story of salvation history is so powerful that it swallows up our imperfections. We don’t need to be obsessive, but we shouldn’t be sloppy either.
DICK: Begin planning and teaching with ample time. Schedule planning sessions often enough to keep anxiety at a minimum. Have the Vigil embody many of the liturgical arts and the use of multimedia. Use the sermon to proclaim the heart of the gospel. Be ecumenical; don’t be afraid to invite other local congregations to your Easter Vigil services.
LEN: It helps if the church already has a solid experience in celebrating the church year. If churches aren’t familiar with that, it could be difficult to step into an understanding and appreciation of a full Holy Week cycle of worship. It might also help to emphasize both the historical connections as well as the fact that the service is very dramatic and has lots of movement.
- Book of Common Prayer. Church of England.
- Book of Common Worship. Presbyterian Church (USA). Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.
- The New Handbook for the Christian Year. Ed. Hoyt Hickman, Don Saliers, Laurence Stookey, and James White. Abingdon Press, 1992.
- *Reformed Worship 6, 22.
- The Services of the Christian Year. Volume 5 of The Complete Library of Christian Worship. Ed. Robert Webber. Star Song Publishing Group, 1994.
- This Is the Night (video). Liturgy Training Publications, 1992.
- Welcome to Christ: Lutheran Rites for the Catechumenate. Augsburg Fortress, 1997.
- *The Worship Sourcebook, Second Editions. Faith Alive Christian Resources, Baker Books, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, 2013.
For additional Easter Vigil service plans (see below), check our website, www.reformedworship.org.
*Available at www.faithaliveresources.org
Easter Vigil Service
Of the services submitted from the four people interviewed, the shortest one is included here for reasons of space. Richard Eslinger submitted this service prepared for Union Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. The songs were selected from the United Methodist Hymnal (UMH).
Service of Light
Lighting of the New Fire
Lighting of the Paschal Candle
Procession (led by dancers)
Leader: Light of Christ.
Thanks be to God.
Easter Proclamation: “Exultet”
Service of the Word
Scripture: Genesis 1:1-2:2
Song: “Morning Has Broken” PH 469, TWC 362, UMH 145
The Covenant Between God and the Earth
Scripture: Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13
Song: “This Is Our Father’s World” PsH 436, PH 293, RL 14, SFL 95, TH 111, TWC 384, UMH 144
Israel’s Deliverance at the Red Sea
Scripture: Exodus 14:10-15:1
Song: “Song of Miriam and Moses” PsH 152, UMH 135
New Life for God’s People
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Song: “Dry Bones” (African American Spiritual)
Epistle Lesson: Romans 6:3-11
Hymn with Easter Alleluia: “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” PsH 388, PH 113, RL 325, TH 277, TWC 234, UMH 302
Gospel Lesson: John 20:1-18
Service of Baptism
Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant
Service of the Table
Prayer after Communion
Hymn: “Christ Is Risen” SNC 147, UMH 307
Dismissal with blessing.
For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.