Two Mountains, same peak: ideas for Easter Vigil

The Christian’s life of worship reaches its peak on Sunday morning when he gathers with his fellow believers to be strengthened by Word and Sacrament. Of the fifty-two of these peaks that occur within a calendar year, none is higher than Easter, the Festival of Our Lord’s Resurrection. This single Sunday is the reason for which we gather for worship on the other fifty-one.

But when does that other climb undertaken by Christ’s church, outreach, reach its peak? Certainly your church experiences mountaintop moments when a first-time guest walks through the doors, when a law-gospel presentation is shared in a prospect’s home, and when the seats in Bible Information Class are all full. But isn’t the real peak of all of our outreach activities the day when these precious souls are baptized and invited to join the rest of the congregation at the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion?

In the early church they reached the peak of these two vital activities, worship and outreach, simultaneously. The church’s celebration of our Lord’s resurrection actually began on Saturday evening with the Easter Vigil. This rich and meaningful service not only allowed Christians to celebrate Christ’s victory even earlier than the earliest of our sunrise services but also emphasized the believer’s participation in that victory through the Word and Sacraments.

The Easter Vigil was also the service at which people new to the Christian faith were baptized and the adults who had completed their course of instruction received Holy Communion for the first time. During the six weeks of Lent the climb for these catechumens became steeper as instruction intensified. At the Easter Vigil, they arrived at the top.

The Easter Vigil has enjoyed some renewed use during recent years. It’s not difficult to see why. The Easter Vigil gives the congregation an opportunity to gather at the mountain peak of two of its most important activities, worship and outreach, simultaneously.
Another service? During the busiest time of the year? On the bright side, it’s another service but not another sermon (the Easter Vigil doesn’t include one). In addition, read on for some resources that will help you as you think about enriching your congregation’s worship and outreach by introducing the Easter Vigil.

The Easter Vigil and Worship

Christian Worship: Occasional Services includes an order for the Easter Vigil along with much of the historical background and meaning of the service. Start there. The service has built-in flexibility that will allow you adapt the service to suit your congregation’s needs.
There are many accessible musical resources available that are tailored for the Easter Vigil. Some of them are included in Christian Worship: Occasional Services. Here are a few others:

  • Exsultet Click here to order. Just as Christ’s first word to the women was a common greeting meaning “Rejoice!” (Matthew 28:9) so the Exsultet (Latin for “Rejoice!”) serves as the first song of the church’s Easter celebration. It is sung after the congregation has entered the sanctuary with their candles while the sanctuary is still dark.
  • Genesis Reading for the Great Vigil Click here to order. The first lesson in the service of lessons is the creation account. This piece consists of a memorable musical refrain to be sung every time Moses’ refrain (“And God saw that it was good…”) occurs in Genesis. It also includes a brief setting of Psalm 136, the suggested response following the Genesis reading.
  • Surrexit Christus Click here to order. Composed in the Taizé style, this song makes use of the text Benedicite Omnia Opera, also known as “The Song of the Three Children.” It follows the final reading in the service of lessons, the account of the three men in the fiery furnace written in Daniel 3.
  • And Sleeps My Lord in Silence Yet? Click here to order This beautiful text by Timothy Dudley-Smith makes for a fitting, yet simple, anthem for your choir to sing. Since the Vigil is already quite lengthy, consider singing it while the altar is being adorned between the Service of Holy Baptism and the Service of Holy Communion. Following this important transition in the service, the lights are fully turned up for the first time, the bells ring, and the cry “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” is heard for the first time.
  • At the Lamb’s High Fest We Sing Click here. Several stanzas that did not make it into Christian Worship are very fitting for the Easter Vigil. They make a meaningful connection between Christ’s resurrection and the Passover and also have a rich sacramental emphasis. Consider singing stanzas 1-4 from the linked site in place of the Agnus Dei during the Service of Holy Communion. The text is public domain.

The Easter Vigil and Outreach

Planning Adult Instruction

Carefully plan how you will complete your adult instruction in time for the Easter Vigil. When Easter is early, like it will be next year (March 31), this becomes especially difficult. Many adult instruction curriculums naturally divide into two or more parts. Consider covering the first part with weekly classes and the remaining lessons with one or more Saturday mornings.
For example, this year we are covering eight lessons of our course on Thursday evenings starting at the end of January and ending in mid-March. We will cover the remaining seven lessons on two consecutive Saturday mornings at the end of March. As an added benefit, when you cover the lessons on the sacraments (seven and eight for us), and members of the class naturally grow in their eagerness to receive them, the Easter Vigil is just around the corner rather than way down the road.

The Sacrament and Guests

Do you struggle with whether or not to include Holy Communion in the festival service(s) on Easter Sunday when so many guests are present? Some churches offer Holy Communion in their sunrise service, figuring that fewer visitors will be in attendance. The Easter Vigil presents another great alternative. This offers your congregation a rich sacramental celebration of our Lord’s resurrection while allowing the proclamation of the Word to visitors and guests alike to take center stage on Sunday morning.

Promotion

As you design promotional materials, whether it’s postcards, door hangers, or signs, consider which service(s) you want to advertise. We advertise to the community our Good Friday services and Easter Sunday services, but not the Easter Vigil.
However, within your congregation you can promote the outreach aspect of the Easter Vigil even as you promote the outreach opportunity of Easter Sunday. In terms of your outreach ministry, the congregation is reaching the peak of one climb with the Easter Vigil and beginning another one by welcoming first-time guests on Easter Sunday. Encourage and celebrate both.

The Promise

Will it add work to your already busy schedule? Of course. But what a blessing that, because Christ lives, “you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58)!

Rev. Jonathan P. Bauer

Jonathan Bauer serves at Good News Lutheran Church, Mount Horeb, Wisconsin.

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