April 11, 2015

An Easter Vigil Not to Boycott

I was surprised to read Crusty Old Dean’s blog post “Why I Boycott the Easter Vigil: This Service Will Not Stand, Man!” The Easter Vigil is the highlight of the church year and my favorite church service, and I was upset that COD, with whom I agree more often than not, seemed to have a very different view.

As it happens, COD is not opposed to the Easter Vigil in principle. Instead, he believes that we have tamed the service in a way that saps its power. He explains
This is why, by and large, I boycott the Easter Vigil.  The Easter Vigil proclaims the craziest thing about Christianity:  that shameful, humiliating failure that is Good Friday is not the end, that God raised Jesus from the dead in a way we can never understand or comprehend, and that, in doing so, God rejiggered how we relate to one another and to God for all eternity.  That is f*****g [sic] nuts, people. Or, to paraphrase the ancient church theologian Tertullian, “I believe it because it is absurd.” 
He further says that
The reason Crusty boycotts most Easter vigils is because they rarely communicate this. Instead, they mostly have seemed to be just kind of longer versions of every other Sunday service.
COD then describes an Orthodox Easter Vigil, which begins late at night and is quite explicit about Jesus being dead following the events of Good Friday.There is actually a tomb (more like a coffin, apparently) in the darkened church. COD notes that the priest enters the church around midnight. He then describes what happens next:
The cloth is lifted from the tomb, carried over the head of the priest, and the congregations processes outside and around the church three times, before stopping at the front door as I first experienced. The pounding on the door by the priest is a ritual re-enactment of the rock to the tomb cracking open, as he shouts, “Christ is Risen!” the doors open. You know when the resurrection happens in an Orthodox Easter Vigil. Once you process back inside, the church has been completely redecorated and is dazzling white, and the service itself includes a whole host of prayers and hymns you never hear any other time, as well as the same sermon preached every year, as the Easter Homily of St John Chrysostom is read. You could never, ever, ever mistake the Easter Vigil, as my dad did, as just a longer version of the regular Sunday service.
It was this paragraph that convinced me to write this particular essay, as I believe that I have both taken part in and had a hand in planning Easter Vigils in an Episcopal parish that fully communicated Jesus’ journey from death to life. As for the sermon, I only just wrote a blog post (“The Best Easter Sermon Ever”) promoting the John Chrysostom sermon.

Fourteen years ago, I wrote “An Easter Vigil Memoir” describing my impression of my first Easter Vigil. I eventually became involved in planning the Vigil for St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon. Over the years, we fine-tuned the service. Perhaps it was never as dramatic as the Orthodox service that COD loves, but I suspect that he would nevertheless approve. (We never walked around the church, which is on a hill and difficult to walk around.)

Alas, my current rector is not big on drama, so I’m sure COD would not like the current Easter Vigil at St. Paul’s. I haven’t attended in years myself, though I have not found a Vigil that really excites me. Perhaps I should attend an Orthodox church next year. (I had never thought of that before.)

Anyway, let me describe the features of St. Paul’s’ Vigil of former years and explain why I think the service would meet with COD’s approval. The service begins in darkness, of course. The new fire is started outside and is brought into the church more or less in the normal way. In some years, the congregation began in the church, in other years people entered with their candles from outside, following the Paschal candle. The altar party enters wearing black cassocks. All this is pretty straightforward.

The Old Testament lessons are read in a dark church, interspersed with music and collects. (I always argued for nine readings—this became something of a standing joke in Worship Commission meetings—but we never read more than four.) After the last reading, the altar party left the chancel—their leaving was hardly noticed, as the church was still very dark—and returned unseen to the narthex via the undercroft. Meanwhile, members of the Altar Guild removed black veils from flowers around both the high altar and the altar at the crossing. They also brought in additional flowers.

While the Alter Guild was busy, the altar party had changed into vestments that would be normal for a Sunday morning Eucharist. Then comes what I consider the exciting part. With the church still in darkness, there comes a knock at the door at the rear of the nave. Someone inside says, “Whom do you seek?” A voice from the narthex replies, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Inside, the voice—it is the rector’s—says, “Alleluia. Christ is risen.” As the congregation responds, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.,” all the lights come up, a fanfare is played by organ and brass, and a second procession takes place, with the altar party arrayed for the Eucharist. After the fanfare, the Gloria is sung as the candles in the chancel are lit. Then follows the sermon and Baptism.

By placing the Easter acclamation before the sermon and Baptism, those parts of the service can be both more joyous and better illuminated.

Not only is the dialogue at the back of the church dramatic, I find that I cannot even describe it without tearing up. It is a moving moment that I think even COD would appreciate, as it well symbolizes the journey of Jesus from death to life. The dialogue is not in the prayer book, of course, but there is evidence that its origins are ancient. It recalls the women’s experience at the tomb on the first Easter morning.

Note: I wrote about staging the Easter Vigil last year, but it seemed appropriate to revisit the topic in light of the COD post. Interested readers may want to look over my notes on the Vigil from the last year in which I was involved.

1 comment:

  1. Orthodox Easter is, truly, amazing---but be careful not over-dramatize the EO faithful's participation. As it lasts many hours, people actually come and go throughout: when I attended (in Michigan) a small RussianOrth church's vigil one year (a year when Eastern and Western Easter were the same: I simply went from the Episcopal GVE over to the Orth's), I was surprised to see people outside (having a smoke) while the liturgy was going on inside. Only the clergy are expected to participate throughout the whole liturgy.

    Actually, my church in Michigan I felt had a pretty awesome GVE. We would start in the parish hall, w/ "tales around the campfire" (as my rector put it): seated in a circle, hall darkened except for the candles, we would hear all those OT lessons. We would then cross into the courtyard, for a (partial immersion) baptism in a wading pool. And THEN into the gloriously illuminated/decorated sanctuary for the Easter Acclamation. I think the movement (parish hall, courtyard, sanctuary) helped underscore the pass-over pilgrimage aspect of the liturgy.

    "Indeed, He has risen, Alleluia!"

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