The Great Vigil, the first service of Easter Day is my favorite worship experience of the year. It is a time of keeping watch and purposefully staying awake celebrated between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning Vigil. The experience moves from darkness to light, flames flickering to water splashing, quiet readings to joyous Good News, simple songs to hymns of praise best expressed in the vigil welcome:
Sisters and brothers in Christ, on this most holy night when our Savior Jesus Christ passed from death to life, we gather with the church throughout the world in vigil and prayer. This is the Passover of Jesus Christ. Through light and the word, through water and oil, through bread and wine, we proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection, share Christ’s triumph over sin and death, and await Christ’s coming again in glory.
But as the church has traditionally kept a vigil on Easter Eve, for most of you reading this, it is eclipsed by Christmas Eve. This is unfortunate for Easter is far greater a feast of the church. But why keep a vigil anyway, isn’t it enough to celebrate on Easter morning? Vigils are kept during remarkable nights (and days) by people around the world as we wait for what is to come. Often vigils mark unwanted and inevitable pain, grief and loss as we sit bedside in a hospital or hospice for loved ones to die. But they also mark wanted events and reunions as we sit in airports and delivery rooms for loved ones to arrive.
These emotional events require that we keep watch, and honestly during these times it is difficult to sleep. The Easter Vigil is not the suspenseful, frightened wait of the first disciples, but an opportunity for people of faith, you and I who live in the light of the resurrection to sit and remember. We hear God’s word and remember our baptism at the vigil and can meet the night’s darkness with anticipation of the Light of Christ. All other vigils for the sick, dying, and longed for are given meaning by this the Great Vigil. We wait, remember and experience the Vigil of Life that gives hope to every other vigil in our lives.
Augustine said of the Great Vigil:
If one should inquire about the reason why we keep such a vigil, the answer is easy to find and give. For he who has granted us the glory of his name has illuminated this night: He to whom we say ‘You shall enlighten darkness’ enlightens our hearts, so that just as our eyes rejoice at this splendor of lighted candles so our mind may be enlightened and shed light on the meaning of this resplendent night… The apostle has urged the faithful to frequent fastings and vigils recalling his own practice in the words: in fastings often, in many sleepless nights (2 Corinthians 11:27). But tonight’s vigil is so special that it deserves to appropriate to itself the common title of vigil.
This is the night we mark the dramatic transition from darkness to light. This most holy night is the solemn remembrance of the central mystery of salvation + Christ’s saving death and mighty rising. This is the night the church on earth is at its brightest, candles flicker, bells fill the air with joy and the first Eucharist of Easter is shared. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!