The Church of St Columba and All Hallows, East York, Toronto
by the Reverend Dr William Craig,
PART V: THE GREAT VIGIL OF EASTER
In the earliest days of Christianity, Sunday was an ordinary working day, and Christians gathered to celebrate the Eucharist outside of work hours, usually before dawn. At first, every Sunday celebrated the Resurrection and there was no annual festival. But as time went on they began to give particular prominence to the Sunday nearest the Jewish Passover, the time of year when the death and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus had happened. It is sometimes said that every Sunday is a ‘little Easter’; it would be as correct, or perhaps more correct, to say that Easter is a Big Sunday
When Christians first began to keep an annual celebration as well as the weekly celebration it was as a vigil from the evening of Saturday to dawn on Sunday. After the lighting of a candle, the night was spent in reading the passages from Scripture which told of the story of God’s mighty work of Salvation, culminating in the reading of the Passion and Resurrection from St John. On this night, new converts were baptized and admitted to communion. It was not merely a celebration of the Resurrection as a liturgy of 'Redemption', the Christian Passover. Indeed they gave it the same name, Pascha, the Greek form of the Hebrew word for Passover, from which most languages get their name for this feast; only some Germanic Languages, I think, use a name like Easter.
But by the fourth century or thereabouts, this original celebration was modified. It began at Jerusalem, where the Church began commemorating the events of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life at the spots where they had taken place, and on the anniversary days. So the Pascha came to be spread out, and rather than one feast of our redemption, it was celebrated in historical commemorations of the particular events of our Redemption. The most important events were marked in the liturgies of the Triduum Sanctum, the Three Holy Days, of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday night (which by Hebrew reckoning is the beginning of Sunday). While we can hardly avoid thinking of these rites as separate historic commemorations, we should try to see them as parts of one celebration, none of which is complete by itself or stands alone.
The Great Vigil “is celebrated at a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter morning”. Each of the portions of this liturgy has an introduction spoken by the Presiding Celebrant.
“In the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, the Easter Vigil is the most important Mass of the liturgical year as well as the first celebration of the Eucharist during the fifty-day long celebration of Easter, and is marked by the first use since the beginning of Lent of the acclamatory word "Alleluia", a distinctive feature of the liturgy of the Easter season.” [Wikipedia]
The Paschal Candle, as leading the procession from the new fire into the Church, reminds us of the pillar of fire which led the Israelites by night in the Exodus [Ex 14]. Just as that pillar, lighting up the night, led Israel into the Red Sea and through safely to the other side, so this candle leads us to the waters of baptism and through to the feast of the promised land.
The pillar in turn was a type of Christ, so the Candle itself is a sign of Christ the light of the world. Traditionally, the candle is marked with a cross and other symbols, as set out on page 333 of the BAS.
The Greek letters alpha and omega are traced above and below the cross, while the numerals of the current year between the arms of the cross. While marking these symbols, the priest says:
1 Christ yesterday and today ; 2 the beginning and the end; 3 Alpha ; 4 and Omega ; 5 all time belongs to him ; 6 and all the ages ; 7 to him be glory and power ; 8 through every age for ever. Amen.
Then five grains of incense may be inserted in the form of a cross; while doing this the priest says:
1 By his holy; 2 and glorious wounds ; 3 may Christ our Lord ; 4 guard us; 5 and keep us. Amen.
Finally the celebrant lights the candle from the new fire, saying,
May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.
Small candles held by the people are now lit from the Paschal Candle.
Other candles and lamps in the Church may now be lighted
This hymn, which includes a blessing of the Candle, appears to have been composed between the fifth and the seventh century. It is a hymn of great beauty, even in the truncated form we have in the BAS. Summoning all creation to rejoice, it tells of this Night which is overcome by light. In a mystical truth the night of the Resurrection is the night in which Israel was led dry-shod through the sea, it is the night when Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave. In this vigil all of God`s saving work is present to us and we are present in it.
1. Genesis, 7.1-5,11-18; 8.6-18;9.8-13: The Great Flood
2. Genesis 22.1-18: Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, but is stopped by God.
3. Exodus 14.10-31; 15.20-21: God delivers his people through the Red Sea
4. Isaiah 55.1-11: An Invitation to Abundant Life
When the vigil is performed in its fullest form, each reading is followed by the singing of a Canticle or Psalm, and a Collect (see p. 325). At St Columba’s, for practical reasons, each reading will be followed by a period of silence and a Collect
After the last reading, the hymn Gloria in Excelsis is sung. The Collect of the Day is then said or sung
The Epistle, Romans 6.3-11, is then read.
In this passage, St Paul declares that by our Baptism we are united with Christ, for in Baptism we share in Christ's death and in the newness of life which his resurrection has made possible for us. This newness of life is a freedom from sin (as foreshadowed by the slavery in Egypt).
The complex of images in Resurrection and Baptism recalls the salvation through the Red Sea in Exodus (and indeed the Flood, as well); this is all celebrated in a great hymn of the Exodus, Psalm 114, in Exitu Israel.
The climax of the Ministry of the Word comes in the Holy Gospel.
In year A we read the Resurrection Gospel from St Matthew (28.1-10)
The Sermon follows
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.` We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”
This custom gives a focus and goal to all of our Lenten disciplines.
It begins with a Thanksgiving for Water, a reminder of the many points in the history of God’s saving work which have involved his gift of water, culminating in thanksgiving for the water of Baptism and a prayer for all the Baptized.Then the Celebrant addresses the people calling us all
To renew the promises we made in baptism, when we rejected Satan and all his works, and promised to serve God faithfully in his holy catholic Church.
The form of the Baptismal Covenant then follow and concludes with the Peace.
THE CELEBRATION OF THE HOLY EUCHARIST
And so we pass from the Triduum into the joyous Fifty Day of Easter, singing Alleluia wherever it can possibly be added to the liturgy.
I may not spend any more time on the notes this week, but will only list the readings for Sunday and provide a quick note on the background of the passage from Acts, which must be important=, for it is read in all three years.
On the first Sunday of Easter the treading from Acts is Acts 10. 34-43, which gives part of Peter’s sermon in the house of the centurion Cornelius, who although a Gentile is already a believer in God. He invited Peter as a result of a vision from God (10. 1-8). Though the law of Moses forbids Peter to associate with or visit a Gentile, he comes anyway, because of a vision and a direct command of the Spirit [10.9-23a], with “some of the believers from Joppa” (v. 23). Peter’s sermon is one of the earliest proclamations of the Risen Lord, and is of particular interest to us because it was proclaimed in a Gentile household.
Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24
NOTE: There will be no Notes for Easter II, Sunday May 1st 2011.