By Amanda Markel
You may have noticed that some churches have a service on Holy Saturday evening. For some people, this may or may not come as a surprise. It is not uncommon for churches to have a Saturday evening service weekly, which usually serves as an opportunity for members who cannot make it to the regular Sunday morning service to still receive Christ’s gifts, and be in fellowship with the congregation. But whether or not your church regularly worships on Saturday evening, the Holy Saturday service, the Great Vigil of Easter, is different.
First, what it’s not. It’s not supposed to be a regular Saturday worship service. It shouldn’t have the same sermon as the Easter service the following morning. It definitely shouldn’t be the full Easter service, 12 hours early. It doesn’t give church members a chance to fulfill their Easter obligation a day early, so they have all of Sunday free. Quite the opposite, actually. A properly observed Holy Saturday service, instead, is a unique service hold only once a year, the Great Vigil of Easter, a service that leads the way to the celebration of Easter morning.
I’ll admit that prior to college, I had never heard of this service. I don’t know if it was just not a common practice in the Missouri Synod prior to the late 1990s, or if was uncommon in my geographical area. I had a professor, in my junior year at Concordia River Forest, explain the history of the Great Vigil of Easter prior to Holy Week, as well as the elements one could expect to see at such a service, and he then encouraged us to find and attend a Vigil if we were able.
I was surprised to learn that my home congregation at the time had begun celebrating the Great Vigil of Easter, so I made plans to go. In true Vigil style, it didn’t begin until 11 p.m. Saturday night, with the goal that the Lord’s Supper would be celebrated just after midnight (it was). That was my first experience with that service, but it certainly wasn’t my last. Ever since that first late Saturday night, I have tried to attend the Vigil whenever possible. It hasn’t worked out every year since then, but it has become a regular, and highly anticipated, occurrence in our family.
So, what does the Great Vigil of Easter look like? What is a vigil, anyway? (That one is easy…it’s a devotional watching, often the night before a church festival.) Why should you go to a service on Saturday night (sometimes quite late, although often in the early evening instead), when you’re going to be up early on Easter Sunday morning anyway? What is the benefit of this service?
Now, I am may be biased, but the Great Vigil of Easter is my favorite service of the church year, and the one I have learned the most from over the years. The service is divided into four main parts: The Service of Light; Readings; The Baptismal Remembrance; and The Service of The Lord’s Supper. (Some churches also count the Service of Prayer, and the Service of The Word as unique parts). Each part of the the Easter Vigil has a unique purpose, and the totality of the service bridges the gap from Good Friday to Easter morning.
The Service of Light, which usually begins with a bonfire outside of the church building (after sundown, but not always as late as that first service I went to), brings back the light that left the church on Maundy Thursday. The Paschal Candle (usually a new one for the year), is lit from the fire, and blessed in a rite that is beautifully symbolic on its own, and then the light is spread throughout the gathered congregation, who have individual candles much like you would expect to see at a Christmas candlelight service.
After processing into the church, the congregation then hears a series of Readings. There are many to choose from, up to twelve, and some churches use only a few, while others read through the entire list. The purpose of these readings is to walk the hearers through the Old Testament, from the very beginning when God created the world, and includes prophecies from Exodus, Ezekiel, Daniel, Job, and other books, that point to Christ’s sacrifice for us.
The Baptismal Remembrance is possibly the most unique part of the service. Often, the pastor will sprinkle water from the font throughout the congregation using an evergreen branch. This is especially great for children, because it’s such a tactile experience, and probably very different from anything they’re experienced at church before. The beautiful Flood Prayer is prayed. If there are Baptisms and/or Confirmations scheduled for the Vigil service, they would also take place at this point, as was the old tradition of the church, and it’s a beautiful way to welcome new members into the midst of the congregation. Even if neither of those events are scheduled, the congregation still renounces the devil and professes the faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Following the Baptismal Remembrance, there is usually a litany prayed, and often a time of sacred music.
Finally, the Service of the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, the highlight of any service, in which the congregation receives Christ’s body and blood, and which also ushers in full Easter joy. This part of the Great Vigil of Easter is much like a mini sunrise service, with the white (or even gold!) paraments returned to the altar with all of the vessels and decorations that had been removed on Maundy Thursday. It is also common to hear trumpets, alleluias, and the most joyful Easter hymns. The Sacrament of the Altar is celebrated at the Easter Vigil with the full joy that can only come following the 40 penitent days of Lent!
I’m not going to lie…The Great Vigil of Easter can be a long service. And the later it’s held, the more difficult it can be for young children to sit through. It is, however, one of the best ways to transition from Lent to Easter, to hear the whole salvation story, and to fully celebrate the Sacraments. I have never once regretted bringing my family to the Vigil, and my oldest children now look forward to this beautiful service just as much as I do!