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March 31, 2013 9:48 PM   Subscribe

The Great Vigil of Easter is traditionally regarded as the most important celebration of the Christian liturgical year. However, it is a bit obscure due to the fact that it takes place at five o’clock in the morning. Traditions for celebrating the occasion vary wildly; many Christians in Egypt prayed in two dead languages: Koine Greek and Coptic. The Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Church in Canada borrows from a wide range of traditions, and so the way they celebrate the day gives a good sample of what tradition-junkie Christians were doing this morning.

Liturgy of the Word

Taize Chant: “Bless the Lord My Soul." This style of music was developed in the 20th century in the Taize Monastery. Chants in this genre often consist of an eight-bar phrase repeated many, many times. It’s a meditative style, intended to focus attention on one simple phrase, idea or emotion.

Readings from the Old Testament: an hour-long attempt to tell a condensed version of the story of the Old Testament in one hour.

Plainsong and polyphonic chants. Plainsong is an extremely old musical tradition dating to the 3rd century. It is not the oldest notated music (that’s the Hurrian Song, previously) but with the invention of neumes it became the oldest notated music in the Western tradition. Polyphonic chant is a later development which builds in harmony parts.

The Service of Light

Everyone leaves the church to gather around a brazier outdoors for the lighting of a new fire. The fire is usually made larger than is entirely safe. This ceremony seems to have been independently developed in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, dating at least as far back as the 6th century.

Next, lighting of the cartoonishly oversized five-foot tall Paschal Candle. There are 4th-5th century North African precursors to this tradition, and in England the custom seems to have been nailed down in the 6th century. Apparently the The Sarum Processional of 1517 at Salisbury used a 36 foot tall candle. After the Paschal candle is lit, each person present receives a small candle, and the new fire is passed from one person to another.

The Great Proclamation of Easter

Standard canned sermon: the Hieratikon of John Chrysostom (Constantinople, ~400 AD).

At dawn it is announced that Christ is risen. People ring hand bells and cowbells and use whatever other noisemakers they brought from home. There may be a baptism, and in a sort of poor man’s Holi water is tossed around on everyone. Everyone renounces Satan. Bread and wine? Preferably cake and champagne.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow (9 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow. This is really nice. Thanks.
posted by Apropos of Something at 10:13 PM on March 31, 2013


Here's the set of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (which is used in some form by most denominations, from the Catholics to the Baptists to the UUs). You can read them all at this site, or in summary, it includes the Creation story, Noah's Ark (not that many congregations use it, in my experience), Abraham and Isaac, Moses parting the Red Sea (up to the Canticle of Miriam which, fun fact, possibly the oldest bit of the Bible), a couple of readings from Isaiah (including "Come to the water"), pieces from Baruch, Proverbs, and Ezekiel, and then into the New Testament with Romans ("Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?"), and the Gospel for this year (year C) is Luke 24, the empty tomb.

Psalms used as responses include Psalms 16, 19, 42, 43, 46, 98, 114, 136, and 143 (and also Exodus 15 and Isaiah 12).

You'll notice the unifying theme the story of God's covenant(s) with creation, with Abraham, with Israel, and through Jesus. The prophetic readings are about the promises God makes to people in the covenant(s).

The readings part of the service actually clips along remarkably quickly because it's a lot of exciting bits of the Bible rather than droning on-and-on bits. Lots of plot, not a lot of genealogy.

The liturgical day begins at sunset, so the Easter Vigil can be any time between sunset and sunrise the next morning. Some churches do them at midnight. Some do them aiming towards dawn. (There's a church in Chicago that does it on the beach at dawn so the sun comes up over the lake right as they get to the "Christ is Risen" part.) But a lot of churches do them at like 8 p.m. because in many denominations adults being baptized are baptized during the Easter Vigil and people want their families and friends to come to that and that way everyone's baptized and home before midnight.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:50 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


The readings part of the service actually clips along remarkably quickly because it's a lot of exciting bits of the Bible rather than droning on-and-on bits. Lots of plot, not a lot of genealogy.

For some reason my Episcopal Church decided this year to do only three of the Old Testament readings for Vigil (at 8:00, it was not a sunrise Vigil), which was kind of disappointing. Together the readings have a really good narrative, but it's kind of limited if you don't do enough of the readings. Ideally, I think I'd do five (Creation, Abraham and Isaac, Parting of the Red Sea, "Come to the Waters" from Isaiah, and the Valley of Dry Bones). I get not wanting to do all of the possible readings, but three wasn't nearly enough.

I also want to thank justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow for reminding me to read the John Chysosyom homily. I try to make a point of doing that every year, but had forgotten.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:57 AM on April 1, 2013


Thank you for this post.

One of the more moving things I ever saw in a Catholic church was at a Vigil Mass. The entire cathedral was plunged into darkness, and then slowly re-lit as a single candle flame was struck and the light passed person to person. The gold of the dome reflected the slowly-growing light just like dawn rising, and when the electric lights came on it was already so bright that they weren't needed. It was really lovely and simple.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:05 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Holy cats, I have never heard Taizé before. I really like this, thank you! Has there been a FPP on them before? What an interesting movement....
posted by wenestvedt at 10:36 AM on April 1, 2013


Ideally, I think I'd do five (Creation, Abraham and Isaac, Parting of the Red Sea, "Come to the Waters" from Isaiah, and the Valley of Dry Bones).

And leave out Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? I became famous (FAMOUS as you can become at a service with 30 congregants) in my church after a particularly rousing reading of that story.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:36 AM on April 1, 2013


And leave out Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? I became famous (FAMOUS as you can become at a service with 30 congregants) in my church after a particularly rousing reading of that story.

I loved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as a kid (this is probably mostly down to the names, I'll be honest), but it is not a Book of Common Prayer appointed reading option for Easter Vigil. I know because I looked I spent part of Eastern Morning complaining about the readings selection with the BCP and the Bible out while I composed my ideal readings lineup.

My wife would describe her part in this conversation as "humoring me," but that's exaggerating.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:11 PM on April 1, 2013


A very well-done post. Thank you.
posted by 4ster at 12:46 PM on April 1, 2013


A good vigil is one of the most awesome services in the Christian church.
Sadly, there are a lot of half assed vigils out there. And I am getting too old to get up so early or stay out so late.
So its 10 AM for me these days.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:36 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


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