There seems to be a need for some training of the mind in preparation for our Easter celebrations, especially when it comes to the Great Vigil. The Great Vigil is the solemn service of Saturday night before Easter morning, in which we welcome the end of Lent and the coming of Easter.
One of the elements of the liturgical reform which has taken hold in many segments of Christendom is the recovery of the Great Vigil. For a very long time there was little or no concept of what the Great Vigil was, or what it was for. Indeed The Lutheran Hymnal itself has no propers listed for the Great Vigil. There’s only a little reference to “Holy Saturday, Easter Eve,” having only a collect and two readings, the Gospel being a reference to the burial of Jesus (St. Matthew 27). So even there, although the collect for Easter Eve contains the traditional reference to “the glory of the Lord’s resurrection” on “this most holy night,” nothing else does. There was no Great Vigil among Lutherans in the early 20th century.
The recovery of this ancient and venerable tradition has been a key ingredient in the rediscovery of liturgical beauty and importance for Lutherans.
But still there is resistance, particularly among people who hadn’t grown up with the tradition, and for whom therefore it represented something new. Actually it’s something very old, which, like many venerable traditions, fell into disuse between the 17th and 19th centuries when Rationalism was on the rise. The recovery of Confessional Lutheranism has brought with it an awakening of liturgical piety, and a renewed appreciation for the Great Vigil.
The Vigil is a bit lengthier than a regular Sunday mass, but for those who are aware and appreciative of what’s going on, time does not seem to be a factor. It requires a little disciplining, a little training of the mind to grasp and appreciate the majesty of this holy night, but when that discipline is achieved, the Great Vigil begins to stand apart as an awe-inspiring ceremony.
It’s actually an accumulation of four services set end-to-end, each building on the former, until finally Easter formally arrives.
Beginning at dusk, the congregation gathers around an open fire for the Service of Light. The paschal candle is lit and a procession forms to enter the church. When the long procession finally wends its way into the church, and hand-candles are lit, the solemn Exsultet is chanted, a beautiful and melodious proclamation of Easter’s arrival. There is high ceremony here, done with purpose: we are witnessing and partaking in the celebration of the renewal of all creation in the resurrection of our Lord.
The Service of Readings follows, in which several Old Testament readings foretelling this grand event are read. The service concludes with the great canticle called the Benedicite Omnia Opera in which now the rejoicing of all creation is openly expressed. Also known as the Song of the Three Children (the three men in the fiery furnace), it speaks of the rejoicing of all creation: angels, heavens, waters, sun, moon, stars, showers, dew, winds, fire, winter, summer, dews, frost, cold, ice, snow, nights, days, light, darkness, lightning, clouds, mountains, hills, green things, wells, seas. floods, whales, all that move in the waters, fowls, beasts. cattle, and children of men. Here, as before, we observe that all creation bends toward its Creator who has renewed all things by rising from the dead.
Then follows the Service of Baptism, in which any confirmations are also held, as well as a calling to mind of Baptism for all in attendance. This follows fittingly, since it is through Baptism that we have become participants in the renewal of creation.
Finally, the Service of the Sacrament marks the point of entry into Easter. The lights come up, the celebrant is vested, the lilies seem to trumpet, and we sing the Gloria in Excelsis with gusto; the organ keeps its silence no more, and even the bells are rung. This is the Church’s finest hour: Christ is risen! And so we feast, coming to the altar to receive His Body and Blood in the Sacrament.
This crescendo of rejoicing continues at sunrise, when in the bright array of the morning sun we recall the moment in which the women at the tomb, and Jesus’ disciples, first learned of His resurrection. Easter Sunrise is more festive still than the last part of the Great Vigil. Now we are in full-throated song and music, our choir is at its very best, and our hearts sing in glad harmony with our voices.
The best way to gain the full effect of this great liturgical Feast is to witness it from Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, when the Church is at its darkest and most somber. From the deepest depths to the highest heights we go in just three days, as the liturgy of the Church mimics Christ Himself, who went through death to resurrection. So we sing a mournful tune during the Holy Three Days, but it gives way to a heady rejoicing when we celebrate that Easter has come, and with it, our victory over the grave. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!