This page will give you some information and background about the Great Vigil Easter. It takes place the night before Easter Sunday each year.
The Easter Vigil service has been regarded throughout Christian history as the most sacred service of the Church’s year. It is the climactic moment of the three-day period known as the Holy Triduum (tri•du•um), the sequence of prayers and services commemorating Jesus’ last days before his death, including the Last Supper and his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane (Maundy Thursday), his Crucifixion (Good Friday), and his Resurrection (The Easter Vigil.
Followers of Jesus began celebrating his Resurrection with the Easter Vigil service very early on. By 215 CE, we already have descriptions of services and liturgical prayers that the early Church was using. As Christianity has developed over time, different strains of the Tradition have evolved, but all major Christian traditions (Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Anglican, even some Lutherans) have continued the Easter Vigil celebration. Traditionally it is also the time during each year when adult converts are baptized and received into the membership of the Church.
The service has a number of traditional parts, with themes echoing light and dark and water and fire. At St. Stephen’s, we’ve been observing the Vigil as a Contemplative Service, without music. Even without organ music and hymns, it is a powerful and moving service. The total service usually runs around 90 minutes.
The Lighting of the Paschal Candle
The service begins after sundown with people gathering outside in the dark. A new fire is kindled (ideally, by a single spark) and then blessed. Then the new Paschal Candle is blessed and lit. This candle is the largest candle in the church and is ornately decorated. It symbolizes the Light of Christ, as well as his unending Resurrection Life. It is the candle which normally stands by the baptismal font, also a symbol of dying and rising with Christ into new and unending life.
Once the Paschal Candle is lit, its flame is shared with all the gathered faithful, who light their taper candles from its flame. Then a candlelight procession is lead into the darkened church, stopping periodically to declare “The Light of Christ,” to which all respond “Thanks be to God!”
When everyone has found their way to their seats, the Paschal Candle is set in its stand, and an ancient hymn, called The Exsultet, is chanted or read. It recounts the importance of the night: “This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”
The Liturgy of the Word
Then, in the candlelit darkness, lessons are read. There as a few as 4 and as many as 9 or even 12 in some traditions. The exact lessons vary, but traditionally the story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt and crossing the parted Red Sea is included. The readings tell the story of God’s salvation of his chosen people and quote from the ancient prophets who foretold the coming of the Savior. At St. Stephen’s, we read several of the traditional readings, and then often a brief reflection is read followed by a pause for silence.
The Rite of Christian Initiation
After the lessons, any candidates for Baptism are presented by their sponsors. In the midst of the gathered faithful, they take their baptismal vows and then the whole assembly renews their Baptismal Covenant with them.
The congregation prays for them in a litany as we process to the makeshift Baptistry, where a baptismal pool is prepared. Symbols are so very important at the Easter Vigil, so they are often big and powerful. The baptismal pool makes a resounding statement about the spiritual washing that takes place in the Sacrament of Baptism.
Traditionally, the waters are blessed by the Celebrant plunging the Paschal Candle into the water.
After the baptismal waters have been blessed, the candidates are immersed three-times in the Name of the Trinity.
And, each Candidate is anointed with Sacred Chrism (a perfumed oil blessed by the Bishop each year) as a symbol of the seal of the Holy Spirit upon the newly baptized.
Each Candidate is also robed in a white robe, symbolic of being “clothed with Christ” in Baptism.
Then each Candidate is given a baptismal candle, lit from the flame of the Paschal Candle, with the words “Receive the Light of Christ.” Each is also presented with a Bible, as a gift from their parish family.
After welcoming the newly baptized, everyone finds their way to a seat in the darkened Church.
The First Eucharist of Easter
Then there is a loud noise in the darkness, reminiscent of the sound of the stone being rolled away from the entry to Jesus’ tomb, and everyone blows noisemakers or rings bells joyously as we celebrate the moment of Resurrection. All the lights are turned on and the candles at the altar are lit. Then the Gospel reading, telling the story of the first Easter morning, is told, followed by a short homily.
For the Eucharistic Prayer, everyone is invited to gather around the altar, and at Communion the newly baptized receive Holy Communion for the very first time.
After Communion, the people are blessed and sent out to live lives empowered and transformed by the Resurrection.