The Great Vigil of Easter
The earliest Christians had no “Church calendar”, no feast days. They gathered for prayers, at first in the temple and in synagogues, then in their homes. On the first day of the week, they came together in one another’s homes for “the breaking of the bread”: the Eucharist.
The first annual celebration to develop in the Church was the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Adopting a name from our Jewish heritage, the early Christians called this celebration “Pascha”, or the Christian Passover. At first, this term referred only to the commemoration of Jesus’ death: “Christ, our Passover has been sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). By the fourth century, however, it had come to include the entire celebration that began with Good Friday and culminated in the Great Vigil of Easter. Not long afterward, a special celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Maundy Thursday, came to be included. Together, these Great Three Days, or “Triduum”, served as the focal point of the entire Church year.
As the centuries passed, this celebration of the Paschal mystery declined. Eventually, it was lost to much of the Western Church, though it continued in various forms in the East. As a result of the liturgical movement of the early and mid-20th century, the celebration of these special days was restored to “liturgical churches” beginning in the 1950s. The Episcopal Church has included these ancient rites in the 1979 Prayer Book, and since then we Episcopalians have been relearning their place in our life as Christians.
The first part of our celebration takes place on Maundy Thursday. Since at least the fourth century, Christians have held a special celebration of the Lord’s Supper on this day. The readings for the celebration call to mind the first Passover (Ex. 12:1-14a; Ps. 78: 14-20, 23-25). In keeping with ancient Christian tradition, they include Paul’s account of Jesus’ gift of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:23-32), and either John’s account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples (13:1-15) or Luke’s Last Supper narrative (22:14-30). John’s account describes Jesus’ giving of the new commandment (“mandatum” from which we get the name “Maundy”).
As early as the seventh century, Christian abbots began reenacting Jesus’ act by washing the feet of monks. Kings washed the feet of peasants. Even during the time of the Reformation, when this rite no longer took place in church, it is recorded that Queen Elizabeth “kept her maundy” by washing the feet of twenty poor women in the Great Hall at Westminster. Our current Prayer Book notes that this ceremony appropriately follows the Gospel and Homily; it is optional. In places where Communion will be administered from the reserved Sacrament on Good Friday, the Sacrament, for this purpose, is consecrated at this service. It is properly reserved in a place apart from the nave.
In some churches, a silent vigil with the Lord is observed after the service. Ancient tradition calls for a “great fast”, beginning with the Maundy Thursday Eucharist and ending with the Great Vigil of Easter. The time in-between is our solemn observance of Jesus’ passion and death. There is no dismissal at this Eucharist. In some churches, a stripping of the altar follows the service.
The second “act” of these Great Three Days takes place on Good Friday, and consists of four parts. The ministers enter in silence and begin the readings which recall the death of Jesus. In keeping with ancient tradition, these include a reading of St. John’s account of the Passion.
The second part of the service consists of a series of collects and prayers. The collects appear to date from the fifth century, and include prayers for the Church, the leaders of nations, the suffering, those who have not received the Gospel, and all people.
The third part of the service provides for a veneration of the cross. This veneration took place in the Church in Jerusalem by the fourth century. It has continued in various forms in churches around the world.
Where desired, there then follows the final part of the service: the administration of Holy Communion from the reserved Sacrament. The service ends as it began: in silence. As on Maundy Thursday, there is no dismissal: our Passover is not complete until we have celebrated Christ’s resurrection at the Great Vigil of Easter.
THE GREAT VIGIL OF EASTER
The Great Three Days culminate in the Great Vigil of Easter. This solemn celebration dates back at least to the second century, and possibly to New Testament times. Originally, this vigil lasted the entire night. Those who desired to be brought into the Church had been preparing for baptism for as long as three years. Now they joined the members of the Church in fasting on Friday and Saturday. The Church spent all of Saturday night in vigil, listening to readings and instructions. Within a few centuries, this part of the vigil began with a blessing of the new fire and the chanting of the Exsultet, a song of praise of the risen Christ as the Light of the world. At dawn, the new converts were baptized, and all Christians joined in renewing their commitment to Christ. The celebration concluded with all joining in the Easter Eucharist.
While we no longer participate in an all-night vigil, the Church maintains these ancient rites as the centerpiece of our entire liturgical year.
Like the ancient rites, our celebration begins with the lighting of the Paschal candle which symbolizes Christ who has conquered the darkness of sin and death. As the procession moves into the nave, all light their candles from the Paschal candle: a sign of our sharing in the light of Christ. The deacon or another person appointed then sings or says the Exsultet: an ancient song in praise of God’s saving deeds in the Exodus and in Christ resurrection.
In the second part of the vigil, we are invited to listen once again to readings that describe the ways that God has saved the world, beginning with creation itself. Nine Old Testament readings are appointed for use, though the number may be reduced. The story of the Exodus (Ex. 14:10-15:1) must always be used. At the end of the Old Testament readings, the joy which has permeated the entire celebration breaks out in its fullness. The celebrant proclaims “Alleluia. Christ is risen”. The people respond, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia”.
The altar candles are lighted, and all the church bells are rung (the ancient liturgy from Salisbury Cathedral describes its practice in which “All the bells shall be rung together in a clash”). A canticle is then sung (“Gloria in excelsis”, “Te Deum laudamus”, or “Pascha nostrum”). The readings continue with St. Paul’s description of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rm. 6:3-11). After the Alleluia, a gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection is proclaimed.
The third part of the liturgy is the celebration of baptism. New members of the Church are brought to the waters of rebirth, and all Christians are invited to renew their baptismal vows. As a further reminder of our own baptism, the people may then be sprinkled with the baptismal water.
The vigil concludes with the first Eucharist of Easter. Having celebrated the Great Three Days, and having entered once again into the death and resurrection of the Lord, the Church is then sent forth to proclaim the good news to the world.
— Michael A. Kreutzer