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.


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.

Full biography »

Marty Haugen Shelf-life

The following note has appeared in the worship folder for Haugen’s Morning Praise when used at recent Schools of Worship Enrichment (SoWE).

A setting of Morning Praise, composed largely by Marty Haugen, was first introduced to WELS parishes at the first national worship conference in 1996. Parishes that have used it for a decade or more may discover that the standard liturgical songs do not have the “shelf life” of some other liturgical settings. This is not surprising with music that is easy to learn. The potential for longer use of this service is enhanced when different psalms and canticles are used within the familiar structure and sung liturgical dialogue. Psalm 89 and the hymn after the sermon [CWS 734] are not part of the original Haugen service.

CWS 734 works well at a SoWE for two reasons. We explore the purpose of music in worship, and this text is a nice complement. The musical style also works well in a Haugen service with piano, guitar, hand percussion, and a descanting sax or clarinet.

An even better substitute for Haugen’s Te Deum is “Holy God, We Praise Your Name” - a metrical version of the Te Deum. An arrangement by Sem student Kent Reeder was featured at the 2011 national worship conference. Kent has given permission to share the files for this version: piano, guitar, and more. They are available at the Commission on Worship Connect site here.

A recording from the conference shows one rendition, with percussion. While there is no percussion part available, the recording can guide percussionists. A simple arrangement - just piano, or piano/guitar/handdrum (or tambourine) - also works well.

The version of Psalm 89, also by Haugen, that we’ve used in place of his Psalm 63 is I Will Sing Forever. This easy arrangement works with SATB choir or just a soloist.

Here’s the text for your worship folder, if you like.

You have promised, “My kindness is forever, as the heavens forever stand firm. With my chosen, my covenant is sure; with David and his heritage forever.” Refrain.
Let the heavens sing out in praise to you, Lord; let your faithful rejoice in your love. In the skies, who is equal to the Lord? And who among the heavens is like Yahweh? Refrain
Oh how happy the ones who sing your praises, those who walk in the light of your love. They exult in your name throughout the day; they find their joy within your saving justice. Refrain
You, their Savior, the strength in which they glory, by your favor, their heads are held high. For the Lord is our shelter and our shield; the Holy One of Israel, our Ruler. Refrain

A tiff file of the refrain melody can be found here

Many other psalms can be substituted as well.

Finally, here’s a fond SoWE memory. At one site an adult confirmand played sax while his wife served as cantor. At the end they both approached me separately to thank me for the weekend. He said, “I didn’t know we could do this in WELS.” He was used to worship that rarely used instruments other than the organ. He was mightily encouraged to use his gifts!

Rev. Bryan Gerlach

Bryan Gerlach serves as the Director of the WELS Commission on Worship. His parish ministry experience includes congregations in Texas and California. Gerlach has a Master of Church Music degree and continues to serve as a regular pianist and organist at two WELS churches in the Milwaukee area.

Full biography »

A Common Enemy to Worship and Outreach

In his famous short story The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe explores the effect of guilt on human behavior. Told as a first person narrative, the main character insists on his innocence throughout. However, in the climax of the story, his guilt overwhelms him, leading him to tear up the floorboards and reveal the subject of his grisly crime.

Pastors don’t have to be taught about how guilt manifests itself. A parishioner who won’t look you in the eye, a spouse who maintains their innocence against evidence to the contrary, or a family in good standing who suddenly disappears from worship are all too common examples.

While we may be skilled at recognizing it in others, we are not always so good at recognizing in ourselves. The sheer volume of people and the press of ministerial duties is overwhelming. Emails go unanswered. Phone calls go unreturned. Deadlines are missed. Souls are neglected. We are home infrequently; we miss our children grow up. A hundred other guilt-inducing events overwhelm our souls. We may do our best to rationalize and insist on our innocence - we’re doing all we can. But the low, dull, heartbeat of guilt says otherwise.

A pastor’s personal guilt is perhaps the most common enemy to his best efforts in worship and outreach. If my soul is unhealthy, won’t I also be compromising the worship and proclamation of my flock? Procrastination, shoddily prepared worship or a lazily produced manuscript might be different ways guilt manifests itself. Then worship and outreach suffers not just for me, but for everyone.

David knew a thing or two about unresolved guilt. Writing in Psalm 51, David not only details the guilt of his sin, but more so the freedom of God’s forgiveness. In the first two verses alone he describes forgiveness as “mercy,” “unfailing love,” “great compassion,” “blotting out of transgressions,” “washing away iniquity” and “cleansing from sin.” And in the last few verses, we learn that forgiveness has a direct impact on worship and outreach: Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise (Psalm 51:13,15).

During his presidency, Ronald Reagan popularized the phrase, “trickle-down economics.” Pastors understand that when they shepherd their own souls first - when their guilt is forgiven, when their hearts are healthy and their souls are cleansed and fed (see the essay by Jon Zabell) - it has a trickle down effect on the worship and outreach of the entire congregation. Then they can turn sinners back to the Lord and open their lips in praise of God.

The Lenten season is upon us. Its evening services, somber mood and minor-chorded hymns all lead us to deal face to face with our own sin and guilt. Unlike Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, we know where our guilt finds its resolution. Guilt did not overcome Jesus; Jesus overcame our guilt. If Poe made insightful points about the effect of guilt on the soul, don’t we have something much more insightful to say this Easter about the effect of the Gospel on the soul?

Rev. Adam Mueller

Adam Mueller serves as pastor of Peace Lutheran in Kokomo, Indiana. In addition to his pastoral duties, he serves the synod as a member of the WELS Commission for Congregational Counseling.

Full biography »
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