The Easter Vigil is officially the first service of Easter. In fact, Christian feast days generally begin at sunset on the previous day (best known in the example of Christmas Eve). For this reason, the duration of the Easter Triduum (“three days”) is from the evening of Maundy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday. The same principle applies to the Jewish reckoning of liturgical time, in which the sabbath begins at dusk and continues to nightfall of the following day. This is reflected in the priestly “refrain” of the Genesis 1 creation story: “and it was evening, and it was morning, the nth day.”
The Easter Vigil has four movements: (1) the Service of Light, a celebration of the light of Christ at which a new fire is kindled from which the Paschal Candle is lit, (2) the Service of Readings, which includes as many as nine readings from the grand story of salvation of the Old and New Testaments interspersed with psalms and canticles, silence and prayers, (3) the Service of Baptism, the primary annual occasion for baptisms (particularly in the early church) and a time for the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant and (4) the Service of the Eucharist, a joyous feast in the presence of the risen Christ and an anticipation of the eschatological banquet of the realm of God.
THE BRIGHTEST JEWEL OF CHRISTIAN LITURGY
An excerpt from the Companion to the Book of Common Worship (Geneva Press, 2003, 135-136)
The Great Vigil of Easter is the brightest jewel of Christian liturgy traced to early Christian times. It proclaims the universal significance of God’s saving acts in history through four related services held on the same occasion.
1. Service of Light. The service begins in the darkness of night. In kindling new fire and lighting the paschal candle, we are reminded that Christ came as a light shining in darkness (John 1:5). Through the use of fire, candles, words, movement, and music, the worshiping community becomes the pilgrim people of God following the “pillar of fire” given to us in Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. The paschal candle is used throughout the service as a symbol for Jesus Christ. This candle is carried, leading every procession during the vigil. Christ, the Light of the World, thus provides the unifying thread to the service.
2. Service of Readings. The second part of the vigil consists of a series of readings from the Old and New Testaments. These readings provide a panoramic view of what God has done for humanity. Beginning with creation, we are reminded of our delivery from bondage in the exodus, of God’s calling us to faithfulness through the cry of the prophets, of God dwelling among us in Jesus Christ, and of Christ’s rising in victory from the tomb. The readings thus retell our “holy history” as God’s children, summarizing the faith into which we are baptized.
3. Service of Baptism. In the earliest years of the Christian church, baptisms commonly took place at the vigil. So this vigil includes baptism and/or the reaffirmation of baptismal vows. As with the natural symbol of light, water plays a critical role in the vigil. The image of water giving life — nurturing crops, sustaining life, and cleansing our bodies — cannot be missed in this part of the vigil. Nor is the ability of water to inflict death in drowning overlooked. Water brings both life and death. So also there is death and life in baptism, for in baptism we die to sin and are raised to life. Baptism unites believers to Christ’s death and resurrection.
4. Service of the Eucharist. The vigil climaxes in a joyous celebration of the feast of the people of God. The risen Lord invites all to participate in the new life he brings by sharing the feast that he has prepared. We thus look forward to the great messianic feast of the kingdom of God when the redeemed from every time and place “will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). The vigil thus celebrates what God has done, is doing, and will do.