As long as I have been at my current call and for several years before, our congregation has offered an Easter Vigil service the night before Easter. Beginning at 11:00 pm, the service began with a bonfire, candlelight procession and chant, and the hearing of several lengthy scriptural passages. We would wait in the darkness until midnight (when it technically became Easter Sunday), and then the lights came on and the resurrection was announced. The first Communion of the Easter season was held and by around 12:30 am, a small cadre of us basked in the glow of Jesus’ resurrection, sipping leftover champagne (in moderation, of course!) until it was time to head home around 1:00 am.
Through the years, I have had only one negative thought about this wonderful service: it begins at 11:00 pm, which is past my bedtime and it prohibits attendance. We average about 15-20 in attendance every year and what a committed bunch they have been! But for this wonderful and historic service, I felt it was time to reconsider the Vigil to broaden possible attendance among our members.
First, though, I want to describe what the Vigil really is, as many of us may have never attended a Vigil service. The Easter Vigil is a unique service; there is not another service like it during the liturgical year. It happens on the last day of Holy Week, always after sundown. It follows, of course, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It is held in the time between the proclamation of Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection. It is also held on the Sabbath, the day of rest, when our Lord rested in the tomb. Therefore, it is a kind of rest period where the church intentionally hits the pause button during the death and resurrection story to rehearse (literally “re-hear”) the history of salvation.
The Bible readings tell the stories of the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, a reading from Job, and more. In each case, they prepare us for God’s final plan of salvation: the resurrection of his Son. The whole point of the Vigil is to remind us just how God has saved us again and again and to prepare our hearts and minds for the Easter news. Historically, baptisms were often reserved for the Vigil. In some cases, all of the baptisms for an entire year were held during the Vigil. Therefore, baptisms are frequently a part of contemporary Vigil services, and we will have one this year. The Vigil concludes when it becomes Easter day, with Holy Communion. Either by starting the service at 11:00 pm or perhaps after an all-night vigil, Communion is the conclusion and high point of the service.
Still, what to do about the late start, and what consequences would there be with an earlier start? Moving service times a few hours is usually no problem. But the Vigil is different because it is connected to Easter Day. Unlike Christmas Eve, which I would argue is less important in its connection to the actual day, all of Holy Week retells the last week of Jesus’ life. And he wasn’t proclaimed raised until Sunday morning. So it seems to me that a joyful Communion should not be shared prior to the resurrection announcement, and we shouldn’t announce that until Easter Day. Therefore, we should either begin the service at 11:00 pm, if we are to have Communion, or start earlier, but without Communion.
I suppose it would be possible to both begin early and have Communion. That is a common practice. But I resist it because it seems to me to proclaim Christ as risen before Sunday rushes the process and misses an opportunity to wait for Easter Day to finally come. And, according to the Minister’s Desk Edition of the Lutheran Book of Worship (my liturgical “bible”), waiting for Communion until Easter Day is appropriate. It counsels thus: “The service should be scheduled so that it extends into Easter Day, but variations are possible to meet local needs: The entire vigil may begin just before dawn on Easter Day; the first three parts may be celebrated early Easter Eve, leaving the Holy Communion for Easter morning; the first section may be celebrated prior to the Holy Communion on Easter morning…” This confirmed my hesitations to have Communion before Easter Day begins, much less before sunrise.
In summary, I read this as follows: we can continue to hold the service at 11:00 pm, or move the service to 7:30 pm, but refrain from Communion until our Sunday morning Easter service, or perhaps a special sunrise service. Now, some have argued that by the Jewish reckoning of time, each new day begins at sunset. That is true enough. However, at no other time of year do we operate on that timetable, and it would require that we hold the Maundy Thursday service either at 5:00 (before dark) on Thursday evening or later (after dark) on Wednesday night. The same is true for pushing back the Good Friday service, if we are to be consistent.
The overriding issue is my desire to have more of you present for this unique service. I am content to share in the Lord’s Supper on Sunday morning, refraining on Saturday night. I think it can be a powerful witness that we withhold it on that evening, remembering the full number of hours Jesus was in the tomb through thoughtful rest of our own.