This Is the Night: Introducing and Exploring the Easter Vigil
Rev. Randy K. Asburry (M.Div., MA, STM)
Presented to the Good Shepherd Institute
Concordia Theological Seminary
Fort Wayne, IN
7 November 2016
Thank you for this privilege of speaking on one of my favorite services of the Church
Year: The Easter Vigil.
Surely, you remember the Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings—Frodo, Sam-
Wise, Merry, and Pippin. Frodo and Sam-Wise had gone off to return “the
Ring” to Mt. Doom—save the world or some such monumental thing.
Merry and Pippin, though, had been captured by the Uruhkai. Then they
escaped and were wandering through Fangorn Forest. That’s where they
met the “Ents”—the tree creatures that walk and talk. The first “Ent” they
met was Treebeard—a wise, old Ent. At first Treebeard wasn’t sure he had
ever heard of little creatures called Hobbits. Treebeard went through his
whole list of creatures—elves, dwarfs, ents, and humans; beavers, bears,
hounds, and eagles; swans and serpents. Nope, no Hobbits. But he was
pleased to meet Merry and Pippin.
So, Merry quickly introduces himself by name. And Treebeard says,
“Hoom, hmm! Come now! Not so hasty.” He wants to ponder why they
call themselves “hobbits.” Pippin quickly introduces himself by name.
And Treebeard responds, “Hm, but you are hasty folk, I see.” Then
Treebeard slowly declares, “I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at
any rate.” Why not? He explains: “For one thing it would take a very long
while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long
time; so my name is like a story.” You see, in Entish, Treebeard’s story-
language, all things take a long time to say. Then Treebeard says, “It is a
lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because
we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say,
and to listen to.”
Tonight we are being good little Ents! (Homily for Easter Vigil, 2016)
Thus I launched this year’s homily for our Easter Vigil service at Hope in St. Louis. We
introduced the Vigil back in 2006, and it has become a beloved staple of our Holy Week
and Easter celebrations. What is the Easter Vigil? Where does it come from? How might
you implement it, and why? These are the questions before us today.
After introducing Tolkien’s tale of Treebeard, I asked what that has to do “with Jesus,
Easter, resurrection, and new life.” Like Merry and Pippin in the story, we also suffer
from “a plague of hastiness.” Consider how “hasty we get in our world of 24/7 news,
and Facebook status updates throughout the day, and email correspondence where we
feel insulted if we don’t get a response in under three minutes.” “The symptoms of that
plague include not saying much that’s worthwhile and not hearing much that’s
worthwhile. Certainly, our hasty speaking, our hasty listening, and even our hasty
living, all tend to crowd out our God who loves us for the long-term of
eternity.” (Homily for Easter Vigil, 2016)
Treebeard, though, gives a needed antidote to our “plague of hastiness” and a fitting
lead-in to the heart of the Easter Vigil. As I proclaimed a short seven months ago,
According to Treebeard, anything worth saying is worth taking some time
to say it.… We actually gather here with the express purpose of taking
longer than normal to worship ... waiting and watching in vigil … hearing
lots of God’s Word … remembering our Baptism … confirming two young
men … praying … and receiving His gifts.… Oops. I’m getting too hasty
here. (Homily for Easter Vigil, 2016)
WHENCE COMES THE EASTER VIGIL?
First, let’s take the question “Whence comes the Easter Vigil?” For some today, the
Easter Vigil seems like a liturgical novelty. That was the reaction of some in my own
congregation when we introduced it. However, the Vigil actually has a long history, and
a growing story of receiving it, sort of like Treebeard’s name.
Fred Precht, in Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, traces the Vigil back to the early
fourth century. Paul Bosch, in his Church Year Guide, explains that the Vigil is an ancient1
order that is being newly reclaimed. Among Roman Catholics, that reclamation has
taken place since World War II, when Pope Pius XII officially reinstated it. Anglicans,
Lutherans, and others, have been reclaiming the Vigil even more recently. Timothy2
Maschke notes that, “…the Easter Vigil has a long and revered tradition. Perhaps dating
to early Jewish-Christian practices of an evening service in preparation for Passover, the
Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, 169: “After A.D. 313 [when Christianity was legalized] the Easter1
Vigil was the prime time for baptisms of adults who had been instructed during Lent. It also ushered in
the resurrection celebration. The Vigil thus focused on the saving power of Christ’s death and
resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5). By 400 in Africa and Northern Italy there was also a solemn celebration of light,
since all lamps were customarily extinguished on Holy Thursday evening. The modern adaptation of this
ancient service remembers the Exodus from Egypt, celebrates the death and resurrection of Christ,
includes the sacrament of Baptism, looks forward to Jesus’ return, and may conclude with the Lord’s
Bosch, Church Year Guide, 38.2
Vigil recalls the many accounts of God’s deliverance of His people.” The Lutheran3
Service Book: Altar Book offers this historical note: “In some places throughout the early
centuries of the Church’s life, the people of God would hold vigil, which means ‘keep
watch,’ through the night in expectation of Christ’s return. A vigil in expectation of
Christ’s return at Easter became a common feature of the celebration of His crucifixion
Here are some Early Church sources. Chapter 20 of the Apostolic Tradition (perhaps as
early as the third century) treats those who are to receive Baptism at the end of Lent.
First, the bishop would exorcise the candidates for Baptism. Then he would “sign them”
with the cross on their foreheads, ears, nose and heart. Then, in the Arabic, we get this
exhortation: “…and let them spend the whole night listening to readings and
preaching.” The Canons of Hippolytus (early fourth century) have this parallel: “They are5
to spend all their night in the sacred Word and prayers.” The Testamentum Domini (4th/6
5th century) gives this context: “In the forty days of Pascha, let the people abide in the
temple, keeping vigil and praying, hearing the Scriptures and hymns of praise and the
books of doctrine. But on the last Saturday let them come early in the night, and when
the catechumens are being exorcised till Saturday midnight.”7
What happened to this ancient tradition? Edward Horn, in The Christian Year, offers this
as to why the Easter Vigil has fallen out of use in Protestant circles: “The Protestant
reformers eliminated these ceremonies, again (as on Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and
Good Friday) largely because of their aversion to the blessing of things, rather than for
any serious doctrinal difficulties.”8
Horn then connects our Easter Vigil in the Western Church with the custom of the
Some idea of the ancient practice may still be found in the Eastern
churches. There the vigil is still observed with the last devotions of Lent—
the people prostrating themselves before the tomb set up in the front of
the church. Just before midnight the procession forms to go out of the
Maschke, Gathered Guests, Second Edition, 309.3
Lutheran Service Book: Altar Book, 529.4
Bradshaw, Johnson, and Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary, p. 106.5
Ibid., p. 107.6
Ibid., p. 107. Paul Bradshaw, et. al., also gives this commentary on the frequent use of vigils in the early7
church: “Evidence for vigils other than at Easter may be sparse for the first three centuries of the Christian
era, but it is not completely absent (see, e.g., Tertullian Ad uxor. 2.4; Pontius De vita et passion Cypriani 15;
and canon 35 of the Council of Elvira). Later evidence indicates that vigils on other feasts (e.g. Pentecost
and Epiphany), Sundays, at the tombs of martyrs, and on other occasions were common and widespread”
Horn, The Christian Year, 127.8
church, with the clergy and people bearing the sacred vessels, books and
banners. While the procession perambulates the church to the
accompaniment of the church bells, the tomb is removed, candles replaced
and the altar dressed for the first mass of Easter, which begins with the
triumphant entry of the procession at midnight.9
So the Easter Vigil may seem “new” to our Lutheran Service Book treasury of services,
and it may be new to many parishioners and even many clergy, but it is actually quite
old. Our twentieth and now twenty-first century reclaiming of this ancient service is
simply rediscovering a precious jewel, dusting it off, and resetting it into the necklace of
our liturgical life.
One question often arises. Why would we actually want/choose to celebrate Easter early,
that is, before Easter Sunday? Some in my congregation asked that. Several brother
pastors have also expressed concern that the Vigil could remove, or downplay, the
“surprise” of Easter Sunday. I have three responses. First, there really is no “surprise” to
our Easter celebration. We already know the story. We know what happened and how
God worked His salvation. What we are doing is celebrating what we already know. In
fact, we are putting ourselves into that story as our story. (More on that in a moment.)
Second, we can look at the timeline and timing of the Vigil, if you will. The Vigil is
intended to be a time of waiting and watching—of preparing—for the celebration to
burst forth. If we go with the Eastern Church’s approach, the waiting, watching, and
processing begins late on Saturday. Then, at midnight—now we’re at Easter Sunday—
the bona fide celebration kicks into high gear, going into the wee hours of the morning.
Or, as I prefer, consider the Easter Vigil from the ancient reckoning of time, in the time
whence it comes. In the ancient reckoning of time—Jesus’ day and into the Early
Church—the day actually began at sundown the evening before. Remember the order
from creation: “there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:5). So,10
when we celebrate the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening, by our Western time
reckoning, it is also already Easter Sunday, by Biblical and ancient time reckoning.
Third, consider what we are celebrating: the biggest, most profound event that changes
us, our lives, indeed all of history—Christ’s resurrection. It’s why the Church sets aside
not just one Sunday to celebrate Easter, but a whole week of Sundays—seven weeks,
fifty whole days. It’s the Church’s way of saying, “This resurrection thing is so big, we
cannot contain all the joy, all the celebration, in just one Sunday.” Likewise, the Vigil, on
the front end, is the Church’s way of saying, “We just can’t wait to get to that
celebration!” Think back to when you were a child at Christmas time. You know—
despite Mom’s repeated commands not to—that you were sneaking under the
Christmas tree to shake the presents to see what rattling sounds and clues they would
give. You were eager to get to the celebration.
Also, consider how Jews to this day begin their Sabbath day observance on Friday evening.10
Speaking of Christmas, let’s also make the connection with the more common, even
expected, celebration of Christmas in the Church. Many of us celebrate our Lord’s
Incarnation on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. (And we do wish that our
members would take in all of the services to get the whole message and meaning, not
merely pick and choose the service that fits into their family traditions.) The tell-tale
sign of a vigil—“keeping watch”—at Christmas can be seen in the traditional Christmas
“candle-light service,” when Christmas Eve is celebrated as a “midnight” service that
begins at 11:00 p.m. Why start celebrating Christmas before Christmas Day? Why gather
at such an odd hour, when little ones are sleepy and come to church dressed in their
“church pajamas,” as one member once put it? Quite simple: we are holding vigil,
keeping watch, for Christ’s coming at Christmas. First, on Christmas Eve, we wait and
watch by hearing the story of our Lord’s Nativity (Luke 2), and then, on Christmas Day,
we actually celebrate and plumb the depths of what that means from John 1—“the Word
became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Let’s call this a “vestigial vigil.” This
vestigial vigil at Christmas can help us introduce and celebrate the Easter Vigil itself.
WHAT IS THE EASTER VIGIL?
Next, let’s take up the question, “What Is the Easter Vigil?” Let’s look at its “beating
heart”—what is the overall thrust of the service?—and its “movement”—how does the
1. Its Beating Heart
The Easter Vigil is intended to be celebrated on the evening of Holy Saturday, the
evening before the joys of Easter burst forth in full bloom. When you do your in-depth
exegetical study on the terms “Easter” and “Vigil,” it’s not hard to conclude from those
long hours of lexicon study that the service boils down to two essential things. First, it’s
all about Easter. Second, it’s all about keeping vigil.
The term “Easter” draws us all the way back to the great Hebrew pesach, or (if you
prefer Greek) the pascha, that is, the Passover. Celebrating the Old Testament Passover
was no mere, hasty mental recollection of what happened a long time ago in a galaxy
far, far away. Rather, it was ancient Israel’s way of “reenacting” or “participating in”—
even “owning”—the reality of God’s salvation given in His mighty works of rescue and
His meal of deliverance. After the first generation of freed Israelite slaves had perished
in the wilderness, Moses prepared the second generation of Israelites—who had not
known the burden of slavery in Egypt—to continue celebrating the pesach, the Passover.
In Deuteronomy 6, Moses exhorted them: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What
is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has
commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the
Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” Note the first person plural pronouns.11
Deuteronomy 6:20-21, emphasis added.11
Not just “they,” but we were slaves in Egypt. The Lord delivered us, not just “them.”
The second generation (and all future generations), who had not experienced first-hand
the slavery nor the Lord’s exodus, were to celebrate the same rescue and the same meal
as their very own. This is the same thrust in the Easter Vigil: the story of Christ’s pesach/
pascha/Passover—God’s salvation in the Word made flesh, from beginning to end, from
creation to crucifixion/resurrection and beyond—that story is our story. We own it
because, by God’s free gift, He makes it our very own.
We do that most powerfully and fittingly in vigil: in patiently waiting, in eagerly
watching, in joyously taking our time to re-hear and re-live the whole story of Christ’s
salvation—again, from beginning to end, from creation to crucifixion/resurrection and
beyond. Speaking pragmatically, the Easter Vigil is our time to throw out those dreaded
chronometers—clocks, watches and iPhones that keep us enslaved to a schedule. Throw
them out the window…at least for one evening. Pastors and parishioners need to be
prepared for and embrace a longer service, and intentionally so. We 21st century
Americans readily and eagerly sit motionless for a two- or two-and-a-half hour movie
that portrays a fictional story. We can certainly manage to carve out a couple of hours to
re-hear and re-live our most authentic, most meaningful, and most true-to-life story of
being recipients of God’s rescue in Christ Jesus. All of this is to say that “vigil” means
both “keep watch” and “be ready to take your time in keeping watch.” There’s no need
to rush through what God Himself delights to proclaim and give over and over again
through time and into eternity.
In his Church Year Guide, Paul Bosch describes the beating heart of the Easter Vigil this
way: “The Vigil is an evening service, when the church keeps watch (in ancient times,
through the night, right up till Easter dawn!) with its Lord, recalls its holy history,
reaffirms its baptismal faith, and celebrates the first Communion of Easter. So the Vigil
may be said to contain the fulness of paschal faith: a veritable catechism of faith’s
meaning and a breath-taking reenactment of faith’s dramatic journey, anticipated,
affirmed, and fulfilled.”12
2. Its Movement
Let’s move on to the “movement,” the flow, of the Easter Vigil. Lutheran Service Book
gives a six-part outline to the Vigil: 1. the Service of Light; 2. the Service of Readings; 3.
the Service of Holy Baptism; 4. the Service of Prayer; 5. the Service of the Word; and 6.
the Service of the Sacrament. The Rite of Confirmation can take place within the Service
of Holy Baptism.
Ideally, the Service of Light begins in a place other than the nave, preferably outside,
after sundown—weather permitting, of course—and moves us from darkness into light,
bit by bit. A fire may be built outside, on the ground or in a brazier, to symbolize the
light penetrating the darkness and to facilitate the lighting of the paschal candle.
Pfatteicher and Messerli give this wonderful comment on the fire: “As at creation light
came into the darkness, so at the beginning of the celebration of the new creation a fire
is kindled in the darkness.” They also give these two notes on the paschal candle.13
First: “Thus the candle becomes a sign of the presence of Christ with his people, bearing
his sign and title. This candle, which burns near the altar throughout the Great Fifty
Days, represents the risen Lord shining in the splendor of his resurrection.” And14
Bosch, Church Year Guide, 38-39. See also Philip Pfatteicher in Commentary on the Lutheran Book of12
Worship: “The great Vigil of Easter is a repetition of actions and gestures initiated long ages before, a
conscious replaying of paradigmatic actions from that time behind time encountered in the depths of
Christian consciousness. In the celebration of this Vigil are found powerfully expressed the characteristics
of ritual action noted by anthropologists and historians of religion. Space is transcended: the act of
remembering takes place at a grave, but the grave is anywhere the event is recalled. The church building
and with it the congregation moves from darkness to light, and in the font the baptized move from death
to resurrection, boldly challenging the threatening powers of darkness and death. Time is transcended:
‘this is the night’ the Exsultet sings again and again, for the Passover and the Resurrection and the
church’s celebration of Easter all merge and become contemporary events. The Vigil is a participation in
the Event it proclaims, and the original deed lives again. What happened once in illo tempore (at that time)
is repeated again and again hic et nunc (here and now) as an experienced reality. It is a re-creation of what
happened in the archetypal event, newly activated in the here and now of each celebration. The fullness
of the Christian faith is found in the Vigil; more than that, the fullness of Judaism as well, for this is the
Christian Passover. And behind that lies the general experience of humankind in the wonder of new birth
in the springtime, a death and resurrection. The movement from Lent through Easter parallels the four
stages of the new year celebration in many primal cultures: the mortification of Lent, the purgation of Holy
Week, the invigoration of the Resurrection, and the jubilation of the Fifty Days of Easter. Finally, in its
deepest sense, this Passover celebration is not the festival of an individual, a hero, but of a people; the
heroic and victorious deeds of Christ were accomplished not for himself but for the people of God,
ultimately the whole human race.” Obviously, Pfatteicher is too eager to connect the Vigil service—the
specifically Christian Passover—with the general religious experience of all of fallen humanity, at least for
my comfort, but we can appreciate what he says on the “beating heart” of the Vigil itself.
Pfatteicher & Messerli, Manual on the Liturgy: Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 328.13
second: “As the children of Israel were led by a pillar of fire from slavery to freedom in
the promised land, so the church is led from the slavery of sin to the glorious liberty of
the children of God in the heavenly land of promise. Again, a pillar of fire, the candle,
leads the way.”15
When Hope began the Easter Vigil service, we did not make a big deal about everyone
gathering outside before the service. Some people’s age, young or old, along with
hearing and sight abilities are very real factors (not to mention the “security” of
claiming one’s normal pew!). Weather is also a factor. For the first two or three years, I
recall being the only one who actually set foot outside the church building, and that was
merely to light the taper for the paschal candle. And some years that’s a challenge due
to wind and rain! Keep a lighter in your pocket, just in case. Over the years, however,
more and more people have willingly embraced starting outside. First, we had the choir
and the candidates for Baptism and Confirmation join us outside. Then, over time, more
and more worshippers have chosen to begin the service outside.
After the opening address and prayer, the paschal candle is lit according to the detailed
rubrics in the Altar Book. One can buy a new wax candle each year (which I would
prefer) or one can use an oil candle (as we actually do). The ritual actions of tracing the
Alpha and the Omega, placing the year on the candle, and inserting the five nails are
good ceremonies that, done well and not rushed, communicate the focal point of the
whole service: Christ crucified and risen is coming to bring us out of darkness into His
most marvelous light.
Following a prayer, the Service of Light continues with the Entrance. The paschal candle
leads the procession into the church, followed by the choir, the candidates, other
worshipers, and finally the assisting ministers and the pastor. As the paschal candle
proceeds down the center aisle, worshipers light their candles from it and then pass the
light down their pew to others. The semi-dark sanctuary becomes just a bit more lit, but
we’re not yet at full light. As the procession enters, one choir member sings, “The light
of Christ,” and the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.” We repeat those lines
until all candles are lit and all are in their places.
Then the choir sings the Exultet—the song calling for all of creation, including us, to
rejoice in God’s ultimate redemption and deliverance. We have the choir sing this as
they surround the congregation across the front of the nave and down the side aisles.
Following the Exultet comes the greeting and the proper preface, much like we hear and
sing during the Communion liturgy on Sundays. This preface, though, repeats the
phrase, “This is the night,” and recounts the story of God’s salvation, explicitly tying
Christ’s atoning work to the story of the Exodus. The preface can be sung, but I speak it.
Following the Exultet, the congregation extinguishes the candles and places them on the
Next comes the Service of Readings. As you can see from your outline, a whole twelve
readings are listed. The Altar Book also gives “appropriate psalms or canticles” that can
follow each one. Don’t let that list overwhelm or deter you! We read and hear the Word
of God according to the Gospel; not according to some imagined “Altar Book law of the
Medes and Persians”! In fact, the Altar Book wisely and evangelically says: “It is not
expected that all twelve readings will be read. At a minimum, the Creation, Flood, and
Israel’s Deliverance at the Red Sea are always read.” That’s only three. Then it says,16
“When only four readings are read, the fourth is The Fiery Furnace.” That’s a17
whopping four. And note this evangelical counsel: “Additional readings may be chosen
as time permits, perhaps alternating from year to year. Whatever the final choice of
readings, they are read in the order they appear in this service.” In our decade of18
celebrating the Vigil at Hope, we have used six—only half—of the readings listed, and
we have used the same six readings each year. Those are shown in bold on your outline.
The point of the Service of Readings is not how many you use, or which ones you
choose beyond the three or four, but that the entire scope of God’s saving work in Christ
Jesus may be read, heard, marked, learned and inwardly digested. Remember, we are
holding vigil. We are waiting. We are watching for Christ’s coming in His resurrection.
There’s no hurry. We’re not in a rush. No, we are delighting to gather together, to hear
God’s Word, to be comforted and reminded of our real story in Christ. And when it
comes to the pastor’s preaching task at the Vigil, the multitude of readings provides
bountiful material for the brief—and, yes, I encourage brief, ten minutes, tops—homily.
Pastors, you can focus on one, or several, or all of the readings that you’ve read—not in
thorough, expositive preaching, but in weaving together the themes and pointing them
all to their proper fulfillment in Jesus’ victorious bursting forth from the grave. Believe
me, it will be quite meaningful for your parishioners, especially since they’ve had the
privilege, by design, to sit and ponder those readings for a decent amount of time.
Speaking of pondering the readings, once again—and this is for both pastors and
worshipers—don’t get in a rush. We want to be good little Ents: take our time; ponder
anew what God has done for us and how He makes Jesus’ story our story. Hence, after
each reading comes a prayer. But between the reading and that prayer, please take the
time for silent meditation. When we began the service in 2006, I would watch my watch
(Yes, I’m still a bit old school in this digital age.) for a mere 30 seconds. I know, that can
seem like an eternity, especially when silence is involved. But you can prepare your
people, and your people will and do get used to it. These past couple of years, though, I
have watched my watch for a whopping 60 seconds—one whole minute!—and it
actually seems to go faster each time.
The point is this: we are gathering in vigil, to wait and to watch for Christ’s Easter
coming. The Service of Readings helps us do just that. Unplugging from our 21st
Lutheran Service Book: Altar Book, p. 530.16
century digital craziness does no one any existential harm. In fact, it might just give the
peace and the joy that everyone is so hastily clamoring to find.
After the Service of Readings comes the Service of Holy Baptism. This is a bit
abbreviated from a Baptism at other times. Also note this: the Service of Baptism is
always used, whether there are candidates for Baptism or not. The exhortation includes
Romans 6 and Luther’s “Flood Prayer,” both quite appropriate for the celebrating our
Easter Pascha. If there are candidates for Baptism, they joyously get baptized. If there are
no candidates for Baptism, the congregation still gets to remember the joys of Baptism
once again. The “asperges”—the sprinkling of water on the congregation—can certainly
be done and be very meaningful. We at Hope have not done this—not yet, anyway—but
I have sat in the pew at another congregation where this was done. Again, it’s our
Christian Passover story being enacted in our midst.
The Rite of Confirmation comes at this point in the service, when you have
catechumens to be confirmed. I do highly encourage making the Easter Vigil the annual
time when the congregation confirms those have been instructed and examined in the
faith. After all, that was its liturgical context in the Early Church. At Hope, the Vigil has
become our annual time for Confirmation, and it is quite meaningful for folks to be
confirmed and then receive their first Communion at the Christian Passover.
Next comes the Service of Prayer. The litany in the Altar Book does a marvelous job of
weaving together Holy Week and Easter narratives with our prayers for God’s mercy
and deliverance. This year, 2016, was actually the first year we’ve included the litany. In
previous years, we were more conscious of time, but this past year we included it to
heighten the waiting and watching for Christ’s Passover coming.
Now we are ready to burst forth in joy and praise! With the Service of the Word, the
presiding minister acclaims (shouts!), “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” And all good Lutherans
automatically know to shout back, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” The lights come up,
thanks to a sexton manning the dimmer switch in the narthex. We sing “This is the
Feast,” for the first time after a six-week Hymn of Praise fast. The candles are lit. The
Table is prepared for the Lord’s Holy Meal. And all is set right. Darkness has finally
given way to full light. Death is fleeing; Life is ours. The Holy Gospel from Mark 16 is
read. A brief—and, again, I emphasize brief—homily is proclaimed. (While I did invoke
the memory of Treebeard, I’m not sure he would approve of my brevity a short seven
And, finally, comes the Service of the Sacrament, straight up, as we’re accustomed to
on Sunday mornings, in all its glorious Passover and Easter fulness. Somehow, the
length of the Vigil service does not matter once you begin singing joyous Easter hymns
such as “At the Lamb’s High Feast” (LSB 633), “Christ the Lord is Risen Today;
Alleluia” (LSB 463), and “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice and Sing” (LSB 475). And, by
the way, on such festive occasions at Hope, we do not cut short the hymns, either by
slashing verses or by omitting hymns once Communion is ended. No, we sing them all,
even if Communion happens to conclude only half way through the second hymn. After
all, this is OUR Passover. The Lord has just delivered US! What better place can we be?
What better thing can we do?
3. A Sidebar on “Story”
Before we get to some nuts and bolts on implementing the Easter Vigil, allow me a little
sidebar on “story.” (I know, I’m mixing my media here. Sidebars are for The Lutheran
Witness, and I’m speaking, not printing.)
In the October 1993 issue of First Things, Robert Jenson wrote, “How the World Lost Its
Story.” Jenson explores how modernism has given way to post-modernism,19
specifically how the “realistic narratives” of modernism have given way to the different
stories of post-modernism. “Realistic narratives,” to paraphrase Jenson, could “really”
happen out there in the real world. Think Jane Austen novels or the histories of Gibbon
or even your local newspaper. Post-modernism’s stories, however, are different. They
can make sense in and of themselves, in their own “story world,” but they cannot occur
outside of the story-telling, that is, in the real world. Think of recent superhero movies
—Iron Man, The Avengers, etc.—or even my favorites from the Star Trek universe.
What does this have to do with celebrating the Easter Vigil? Jenson wrote,
[T]he way in which the modern West has talked about human life
supposes that an omniscient historian could write a universal history, and
that this is so because the universe with inclusion of our lives is in fact a
story written by a sort of omnipotent novelist…. The archetypical body of
realistic narrative is precisely the Bible; and the realistic narratives of
Western modernity have every one been composed in, typically quite
conscious, imitation of biblical narrative.20
Jenson then explores how the West has lost its faith. He posits that “the entire project of
Enlightenment” tried “to maintain realist faith while declaring disallegiance from the
God who was that faith’s object.” That is, since God Himself is the “universal21
novelist” of our “realistic narrative,” we cannot very well kick Him out of His universe
and expect to stay anchored in real life in a real world. We see that all around us in the
culture, including make-believe marriages dictated by five elitist lawyers in black robes
and the more recent edicts sparking gender-fluid bathroom wars. As Jenson observed
over two decades ago:
https://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/03/how-the-world-lost-its-story. (Originally published19
October 1993; posted on website March 2010.) Accessed 24 October 2016.
Ibid., p. 5 of 15, emphasis original.20
Ibid., p. 6 of 15.21
[I]f there is no universal storyteller, then the universe can have no story
line. Neither you nor I nor all of us together can so shape the world that it
can make narrative sense; if God does not invent the world’s story, then it
has none, then the world has no narrative that is its own. If there is no
God, or indeed if there is some other God than the God of the Bible, there
is no narratable world.22
Again, what does this have to do with the Easter Vigil? To paraphrase Jenson, the
Church used to be able to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world that had
some sense of “realistic narrative.” The post-modern church, however, can no longer
presume that common ground. The Church herself must be and live out the real,
narratable world composed and given by the Triune “novelist.” We do that best by
means of the liturgy, and the Easter Vigil is a most powerful way of telling the true, real
Jenson then speaks of “the place of the Eucharist” as enclosing “a world.” “[T]he great
drama of the Eucharist was the narrative life of the world. Nor was this a fictive world,
for its drama is precisely the ‘real’ presence of all reality’s true author, elsewhere
denied.” Jenson continues:23
In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to
be ‘relevant,’ here is the first step: it must recover the classic liturgy of the
church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality, and brutal realism,
and make this the one exclusive center of its life…. If the church is not
herself a real, substantial, living world to which the gospel can be true,
faith is quite simply impossible…. Of course ritual as such is not the point;
the point is the church’s reality as herself a specific real narrated world….
[E]verything must enact the specific story Scripture actually tells about
that particular God…. [T]he story is not your story or my story or “his-
story” or “her-story” or some neat story someone read or made up. The
story of the sermon and of the hymns and of the processions and of the
sacramental acts and of the readings is to be God’s story, the story of the
Bible…. What is said and enacted in the church must be with the greatest
exactitude and faithfulness and exclusivity the story of creation and
redemption by the God of Israel and Father of the risen Christ. As we used
to say: Period.24
So far Jenson. When we gather for the Easter Vigil, we gather to re-hear, re-tell and even
re-live the story that gives real life—the story of Jesus’ Passover as He makes it the story
of our Passover, from darkness into light, from death into real life.
Ibid., p. 7 of 15.22
Ibid., p. 9 of 15.23
Ibid., pp. 9-10 of 15.24
HOW MIGHT YOU IMPLEMENT THE EASTER VIGIL?
Now that I’ve persuaded you that, yes, you really want to implement the Easter Vigil,
how might you do that? Here’s how we did it at Hope, St. Louis. We’ll also give some
thought to using portions of the Vigil service in the familiar “Easter Sunrise Service.”
1. Implementing the Easter Vigil Service at Hope, St. Louis, MO
When it comes to implementing the Easter Vigil service, it all boils down to two bits of
overarching advice: 1) Plan ahead, and 2) Talk it up.
When you begin using the Vigil service, the first and most important tip is: plan ahead.
Start early. Don’t wait until Palm Sunday or even Ash Wednesday to plan and publicize
it. At Hope, the Kantor and I began discussing and planning for the service about a year
ahead of time, just after Easter of 2005.
In planning ahead, you will benefit greatly by attending the Easter Vigil at a
congregation that already uses it, if you can. I had the privilege of using the Easter Vigil
at a previous congregation (from the old Lutheran Worship: Agenda, which is very similar
to that in LSB), but I also attended a nearby congregation in St. Louis that was already
using the LSB rite (in field test form at that time). Sitting in the pew as the service is
conducted can be most helpful for your own planning and preparation.
As you plan, you also want to talk it up. Bring others into the discussions, especially
elders and musicians (organist, choir director, choir members). Beginning in October
2005—six months before first celebrating the Vigil—we began discussing the Vigil with
our elders. We read through the section on the Vigil in Lutheran Worship: History and
Practice. In these discussions, we kept highlighting that the service would be
intentionally longer and include more and different ceremonies than normal. At each
monthly meeting going forward, I reminded the elders of the coming Vigil service in
one way or another—usually by including it in the schedule of upcoming services,
sometimes by introducing a unique feature of the rite. If you are including baptisms and
confirmations at the Vigil service, of course, you will want to begin the catechetical year
by communicating the date and time with candidates and their families.
The next phase of planning ahead came in teaching the congregation as a whole.
Beginning in February 2006 I devoted my newsletter articles to catechizing on the Vigil
—three months in a row leading up to Easter and then the month after Easter as a recap.
(Those articles are in your handout.) Not only did these articles keep the date and time
of the coming Vigil service in front of everyone, but they also addressed the key
questions: What is a “vigil”? Where does this service come from? Why would we want
to start celebrating Easter before Easter Sunday? Why are we moving baptisms and
confirmations to this Saturday service? How does the Vigil fit into the “Holy Three
Days” (the Triduum)? The “recap article” in May was a way to reinforce what happened
in the Vigil, celebrate all of it, look ahead to doing it again in the future, and thank
everyone who took part. Planning ahead, starting early, and talking it up are absolutely
The next tip I can give, flowing out of planning ahead, is this: pastors, digest the details
of the Vigil service. Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Easter Vigil service itself.
That includes the introductory notes in the Altar Book as well as the rubrics throughout
the service. You will want to wrap your head around the many details, because many of
those details can be quite different from the normal Sunday morning routine. Who’s in
the procession? How will the procession flow? Will the choir sing the Exultet from the
nave or the loft? Who will assist with the readings? Yes, different voices—the pastor and
his assisting ministers—greatly aids the hearing of all of those readings.
Let me add one more overall tip: don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
Don’t let all of the different details overwhelm you or deter you. Will you make
mistakes, such as forgetting a lighter in your pocket on a windy evening? Perhaps. Will
you get in a rush and forget some little detail or portion of the service? Perhaps. That’s
all right. Live by grace. Our liturgical celebrations this side of eternity are still only dress
rehearsals for what we will do forever. My advice is: just start and do it. You can tweak
and improve in the years to come.
And, speaking of years to come, give it time for the Vigil to sink in, that is, into the
consciousness of your congregation. Growth comes in inches or even millimeters. Your
people love what they know, and the more you celebrate the Easter Vigil, the more they
will know it and the more they will love it. I know that, because it’s what has happened
at Hope in St. Louis.
Let me circle back to the question of why we actually want to start the Easter celebration
before Easter Sunday. This will be an ongoing question—from different people in your
congregation, perhaps several times from the same person who resists being convinced.
Be prepared to answer it lovingly and patiently. I recommend a two-part answer. One:
the evening before Easter Sunday is, really, still Easter Sunday. Two: there’s so much joy
in our Easter celebration that we just can’t wait to get started!
2. Thoughts on Using Portions of the Vigil at Easter Sunrise
How might you use some—I emphasize “some”—portions of the Easter Vigil service at
an Easter Sunrise service?
Obviously, with other scheduled events of the biggest Sunday of the year—the chief
Divine Service, Easter breakfasts, Easter egg hunts, etc.—you won’t be able to take a
long time in vigil, in keeping watching and eagerly waiting. If you are intent on
introducing the Vigil on a Saturday evening, using the Sunrise service to introduce
some features of the Vigil may be beneficial—back to planning ahead. If the Vigil just
may not work in your congregation, then using some portions of the service can
certainly heighten your Easter Sunday celebrations and be a salutary way to set the
Sunrise Service apart from the chief Divine Service.
If you have the happy circumstance of actually beginning before sunrise, you could
incorporate the fire outside, the darkness inside, and the lighting of the Paschal candle.
Instead of focusing on the sun coming up—a great First Article gift, but still just a First
Article gift—you would be able to focus on the Light who is Christ—the genuine
Second Article gift—as the Paschal candle makes its way down the center aisle.
The Service of Readings can easily be incorporated into the Sunrise Service if you focus
on the three or four “at minimum” readings listed in the Altar Book. This gives the
congregation a chance to re-hear and re-live the whole story of God’s salvation in the
risen Christ. It would prepare them for “the rest of the story” yet to come in the chief
service later that morning. It also gives the pastor something different to preach on (at
least I would hope that’s a benefit…vs. recycling the same Easter sermon for a different
The Service of Baptism, and the Rite of Confirmation within it, may not be an option for
a Sunrise Service, especially if there’s already a tight schedule for Easter Sunday
morning. The Service of Prayer—the Litany of the Resurrection—however, can easily be
incorporated into the Sunrise Service. Again, this can give some healthy variety and
distinguish the Sunrise Service from the chief Divine Service later in the morning. And,
finally, the closing prayer and blessing from the Vigil would also be excellent at sunrise.
In conclusion, let me leave you with another portion of my homily from this year’s
Easter Vigil. After I touched on the themes of the rite itself and some of the themes of
the six readings that we use each year, I concluded with this:
Yes, we’ve taken a long time to rehearse these stories. If there’s anything worth
saying, it’s worth taking time to say it. You see, these are our stories. They teach
us how to say, “CHRISTIAN”….
How do you say “CHRISTIAN”? By coming to Jesus’ house, by hearing and
learning His words, by eating and drinking His Body and Blood—week in and
week out, month in and month out, year in and year out. If there’s anything
worth saying—and living—it’s worth taking time to say it and live it….
When we shout out and sing out that “Christ is risen,” we mean all of this. When
we shout out and sing out that “He is risen indeed,” we mean His story is our
story, His life is our life. When we shout out and sing out, “Alleluia!”, we shout
out and sing out a word that is worth saying over and over and for a long time to
come. Praise the Lord that He has sent His Son! Praise the Lord that He is risen
from the dead! Praise the Lord that He has raised us to live with Him! Praise the
Lord that He teaches us how to say, “CHRISTIAN”! Praise our risen Savior that
He has given us something to say, and a whole lifetime to say it!
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! (Homily for Easter Vigil, 2016)
+ + + + +
Paul Bosch, Church Year Guide, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, MN, 1987,
Paul F. Bradshaw, Maxwell E. Johnson, and L. Edward Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition: A
Commentary, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2002, pp. 106-107, 111.
The Commission on Worship of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Lutheran Service
Book: Altar Book, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, pp. 529-551.
Edward T. Horn, III, The Christian Year, Muhlenberg Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1957, pp.
Robert W. Jenson, “How the World Lost Its Story,” First Things, October 1993.
Timothy H. Maschke, Gathered Guests: A Guide to Worship in the Lutheran Church, Second
Edition, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 2009, pp. 309-316.
Philip H. Pfatteicher, Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship: Lutheran Liturgy in Its
Ecumenical Context, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN, 1990, pp. 257-288.
Philip H. Pfatteicher & Carlos R. Messerli, Manual on the Liturgy: Lutheran Book of
Worship, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, MN, 1979, pp. 326-338.
Fred L. Precht, editor, Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, Authorized by The
Commission on Worship of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Concordia
Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 1993, pp. 169-170.