June 21, 2014

Staging the Easter Vigil

As I have written a number of times, the Great Vigil of Easter is my favorite church service and the highlight of the church year. In 2001, I wrote “An Easter Vigil Memoir,” describing how I first encountered the vigil at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. One of my poems in “Haiku Meditations on the Church Year” concerns the vigil:

Easter Vigil


We start in darkness.
New light proclaims the Good News—
Jesus is risen!

For many years, I was Audio-Visual Coördinator, choir member, and secretary of the Worship Commission at St. Paul’s. This led me to become the unofficial stage manager (and keeper of the corporate memory) for the Easter Vigil, a particularly useful function as clergy came and went. In this capacity, I developed and updated yearly an annotated copy of the liturgy to help with vigil planning.

While performing some much-needed file maintenance the other day, I ran across my collection of planning documents for the vigil. For the benefit of others looking to offer an Easter Vigil at their church or to perfect what they have been doing, I am posting the 2008 edition of my planning document, unchanged except for minor edits. (Our present rector, who came to St. Paul’s in the fall of 2008, simplified lighting of services generally and largely discarded the procedures developed at the church over the years. I resigned my Audio-Visual Coördinator position and left the Worship Commission. I have not been involved in vigil planning since then and have taken the opportunity to visit other parishes to see how they run the service.)

In reading “Planning for the Great Vigil of Easter,” keep in mind that St. Paul’s has a very capable lighting system that allows for multiple lighting settings, each with a variable fade. Doug Starr, who is mentioned in the document, is our organist and choirmaster, as well as an excellent singer.

Here are some additional notes:
  1. St. Paul’s has a huge wooden stand for thee Paschal Candle. Its normal position is near the font, on the opposite side from the pulpit. We have been moving the stand to a position near the pulpit, so that readings can be read near the candle. Churches with more modest stands for their Pascal Candle need not agonize over placement as we have at St. Paul’s.
  2. The congregation can gather outside the church and follow the Paschal Candle into the church, or people can be seated inside at the beginning of the service. Each scheme has its advantages and disadvantages. Having the congregation walk into the church together allows a better view of the kindling of the first fire. It doesn’t work for the handicapped, however, and is a bit chaotic for my taste. A carefully orchestrated procession that progressively lights candles from the rear of the church to the front is very dramatic.
  3. There are many possibilities for lighting the fire. I prefer to do it at the back of the nave, but that needs to be done carefully. Some churches actually create a bonfire outside. This can be a bit scarey if it’s windy, but it adds a certain primitive excitement to the service.
  4. St. Paul’s has generally distributed non-dripless candles to worshipers and offered only a round piece of paper for protection. Worshipers’ attention is thereby diverted to the task of avoiding being burned by hot wax. This year, I attended a vigil at a Lutheran church that used dripless candles in a plastic holder that allowed no wax to drop. No artificial lighting was needed before the Easter acclamation.
  5. My arguing for the use of all nine readings during the vigil became a standing joke in Worship Commission meetings. More readings meant a longer service, of course, and this fact was exacerbated by Doug’s insistence on using a significant piece of music—hymn, anthem, etc.—along with each reading. Using brief organ interludes could save time while maintaining a contemplative atmosphere. (Is there some composer out there who would like to write of set of brief organ meditations keyed to each of the nine readings?)
  6. The most distinctive feature of former Easter Vigils at St. Paul’s was the use of a second procession, in which clergy are vested as they would be for a normal Eucharist. This is very festive and is sorely missed of late. The altar party disappears from the chancel almost invisibly as Altar Guild members prepare the church for the Eucharist. The choir, which begins the service in the chancel, does not participate in the second procession.
  7. Also distinctive is the dialogue involving the knock at the nave door. (See note on page 294.) I cannot experience this without tearing up.
I hope my notes will be helpful. I would love to hear about the experiences of other congregations with the Easter Vigil.

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