This service is one of the oldest services in Christendom. The Easter Vigil was so important to the 3rd and 4th century Church because it was THE service of baptism. Baptisms were only performed by the bishop in those days and only at Easter.
A person seeking admittance to the mysteries of the Church became a catechumen on Ash Wed and spent the whole of Lent preparing to be admitted to Holy Eucharist. In those days, if you were not baptized, you were dismissed from the church before the time of Holy Communion. So full admittance to the Eucharist was an important experience for all of the Church.
In Christian communities all over, on Maundy Thursday all fires, not just the altar lights were extinguished. Hearth fires and all lights were extinguished for all of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. And until the building of the New Fire on Holy Saturday, people not only lived in darkness, they lived and slept in the cold. As soon as the new fire was lit, runners took torches to peoples’ homes, and the light and warmth of Christ’s light spread through the communities, hearth to hearth and heart to heart. Then the community gathered in their churches and the candidates for baptism returned from their retreat.
The candidates for baptism would prepare for this night with fasting and prayer and then be brought into the church in darkness following the Pascal candle. The Exultet, the long chant I sang earlier, is one of the few ancient chants that we preserve in our tradition along with the litany and the sursum corda. The Pascal candle signifies the Pillar of Fire by night that led the Children of Israel through the desert.
Then the stories of God’s saving works were read by the flame to the whole Church. From the beginning of Creation, through the desert and Red Sea, the crisis of the exile, the miracle of the dry bones, the promise of Salvation to all and the promise of the Messiah are all read to remind the people that we are a people formed by God’s wonderful deeds throughout history.
This service fell into disuse after the majority of Europe had been evangelized. It became customary to baptize infants and fewer and fewer adult baptisms were performed. However with the liturgical study and reforms that the Roman Catholic Church undertook following Vatican II in the early 1960’s, this service was restored. And now it is not uncommon to find Easter Vigils among many different denominations. Actually the Sunrise service has its roots in this service for it was at dawn that the first Alleluia was proclaimed. I was baptized and confirmed at the age of 25 in the late 1960’s at this service, so it has great meaning for me. It was the admittance to that incredible walk of faith that still thrills me to this day.
All of the events of Holy Week are events to be lived. They are not events to be thought about so much as they are events to experience with all of our beings. This service is the same. We too must acknowledge our creation at the hands of a God who says to us that we are good. We too need to know our salvation from waters that would overcome us. We too must acknowledge that we have endured the deserts of doubt or ennui or perhaps even rebellion. We have found our own lives in these stories and heard the promise of God's grace and love in them. We have known the darkness of our own making before God and yet, we still come to the light and warmth of these stories, the community and the common faith. We are given a new Spirit that rebuild our sinews, that enliven our hearts to love those again and we find peace and wholeness once again in the light of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Tonight is not a recitation of doctrine or dogmas. It is a time to know the holiness into which we have been called. We have a risen Savior who invites us to a journey of brokenness and healing, of crackling dryness and living water, of hunger and being filled beyond our asking or imagining, of discouragement and joy, of death and resurrection. No matter where you are on that journey of faith, the story of Jesus is our story and our stories converge in this night.
Alleluia Christ is Risen
The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia.