Looking for the Easter Vigil

The United Methodist Book of Worship contains an order for the Easter Vigil, a beautiful and moving liturgy that dates back to Christian antiquity. The service, which takes 2 – 3 hours to complete, begins outside with the kindling of a fire, from which the Pascal Candle is lit. The congregation processes inside by candlelight for the opening liturgy and the reading of the Old Testament story of creation and redemption. The readings are interspersed with prayers and psalms (or hymns). Permit me to recommend highly the responsorial chanting of the psalms. Be a monk for a few hours. The chants echoing in the darkness are a taste of heaven. It feels as if one is actually a participant in the great divine drama. The liturgy of the word concludes with readings from the New Testament and a sermon. The service then moves to the sacrament Holy Baptism and a renewal of baptismal vows by the entire congregation. The service concludes with a celebration of Holy Communion and the normal closing elements of worship.

At the point in the service when Christ’s resurrection is announced, the worship space is illuminated. The visual effect of lighting the darkened sanctuary is  always very moving. The chancel that had been stripped bare on Friday is now adorned in beauty. And as the congregation sings a hymn of triumph, everyone rings small bells to celebrate Christ’s victory.

One church I attended conducted each different part of the service in a separate part of the campus: the opening bonfire outside, the readings presented dramatically with visuals in the fellowship hall, the baptism and renewal liturgy in the narthex of the sanctuary and the remainder of the service in the sanctuary itself.

And even though the United Methodist Book of Worship contains a form of this great and ancient form of worship, I have rarely been able to find a United Methodist church that actually offers it. It has been in Lutheran and Anglican churches that I have found this beautiful liturgy being conducted.