An Introduction To The Paschal Vigil Service

Themes: Christian Year, Easter, Scholar

The Paschal Vigil is the foundational service of all Christian worship. In this service the great theme of Christian salvation is enacted in recollection of the days of salvation.

Inasmuch as the purpose of worship is to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ for the salvation of the world, the Paschal Vigil is the source of all Christian worship. It is the single most important service of the year, the fount from which all the praises of the church flow.

In a most primitive and basic sense, it can also be regarded as the oldest service of the church. Its roots go clear back to the original day of the Resurrection and the great rejoicing of the people of God on that day. The contemporary forum of the Paschal Vigil consists of four parts (the Service of Light; the Service of the Word; the Service of Baptism; the Service of the Eucharist) that originated in the early church.

In the first century the Paschal Vigil centered on the Eucharist: “For indeed, Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast” (1 Cor. 5:7–8). During the second century the baptism of new members into the church was added to the feast. The third element, the emphasis on light, probably came from the Jewish observance of lighting the lamps on the eve of the Sabbath. And the Scriptures, the fourth element of the service, was always there, but underwent a significant development in the late second and third century as it was honed into the final instruction to the catchumenates who were to be baptized at dawn. By the end of the fourth century, all the elements of this service were in place. Although the service underwent a number of changes through the centuries, the recent revisions in the service due to the liturgical renewal of the twentieth century have brought it back to the original simplicity and beauty. Although the service begins with the Service of Light, the real focal point and ultimate purpose of the service is to bring the worshiper to the Eucharist, which is the ultimate celebration of the Resurrection.

The Paschal Vigil begins with the Service of Light. The people gather in the vestibule in darkness and remain silent. The minister, attendants, and choir gather around the place where a fire will be lit. (Use whatever is appropriate—from a small fire in a grill to a large match.) The first action is the lighting of the fire from which a large candle (the paschal candle) will be lighted. This light symbolizes the coming of the light of Christ to dispel all darkness. An opening address and prayer follows. Then the paschal candle is lit. The candle bearer leads a procession of the people into the church, stopping three times to raise the paschal candle high and sing,“The Light of Christ,” to which the people respond, “Thanks be to God.” Simultaneously, the candles of each worshiper are lit so that when the candlebearer reaches the front of the sanctuary, and when final candle is lifted, the entire sanctuary, previously dark, is now lit up with the light of the flaming candles. The service continues with the singing of the Exultet. This is the Easter proclamation in which the saving events of both the Hebrew and New Testament covenants are proclaimed. This great song of faith moves from the night of the Passover in Egypt to the proclamation of Christ’s victory over the powers of evil won through his death.

It should be noted that the Service of Light contains three parts: (1) the lighting of the fire; (2) the greeting of the light; and (3) the praise of the light. While this moving service may give one the feeling of the Resurrection, it is not yet the moment to celebrate the Resurrection; it is only a powerful precursor of the event.

The second part of the Paschal Vigil is the Service of the Word. Although the reading of the Word is instructive, the mood is more like a prayer. What is important about these readings is their content. For they review the salient features of salvation history from Creation to the Fall, to the covenants made with Abraham and Israel, to the covenants God made with their descendants, to the coming of Christ and beyond to the new heavens and the new earth. While the readings provide a solid history of the salvific events of the Scripture, it is not necessary to read them all. However, take care to choose readings that adequately communicate the breadth of salvation history. After the readings, a sermon based on the theme of these Scripture passages may also be delivered.

A high point in the Service of the Word comes just before the reading of the epistle. For it is here that the announcement is made that Christ is risen. Contemporary churches are making much of this moment through an environmental action. Actions such as the ringing of bells, the bursting forth of the organ, the bringing of flowers to the pulpit and table area, and dancing and the like are all ways to make a joyful noise to the Lord. After the reading of the epistle the gospel is read, followed by the sermon (usually very short and to the point of the Resurrection).

Now the congregation is ready for the third part of the vigil: the baptism. In the early church, converts to Christ who had undergone a period of instruction were admitted to the waters of baptism on Easter Sunday morning. Soon the sacrament of baptism was celebrated, not only for these catechumenates, but also for the faithful who used this occasion to renew their baptismal vows. Consequently, the baptismal service is always a part of the vigil, whether or not there are new converts to baptize.

The climax of the service is in the celebration of the Table. Here the risen Lord comes to meet the church in fulfillment of his promise that he will be “in the midst.” It is not that Christ has not already been in the midst, for he has. But the Eucharist has always been and is now the most intense experience of the presence of Christ.

Each of the readings, psalms, and hymns are united by their reference to three images: light, water, and the heavenly banquet. These symbols, common to nearly all human religious expression, but given unique significance by the Christian Scriptures, are perhaps the richest symbols of Christian experience. These symbols point to the key themes of the service: deliverance from bondage and union with Christ.

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