As we move through our Holy Week observances, we prepare for the most important days in the Christian year: Maundy Thursday when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, Good Friday when Jesus was condemned to death by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and died by public crucifixion, Holy Saturday which seemed an empty time of desolate depression to his loved ones, and Easter Sunday when Jesus rose triumphant from death and showed himself, alive again, to his followers.
Ever since I can remember, my favourite service of the entire church year has been the Paschal Vigil on Holy Saturday evening (Easter Eve). This is probably one of my earliest memories of church as a child at York Minster, with my father taking the service in the Lady Chapel. In ancient times the vigil would have lasted right through the night till dawn on Easter Day. My experience of this service has always started late on Holy Saturday evening in complete darkness, with a series of Old Testament readings which recall God’s purposes for the world. Then the minister brings in the New Fire of Easter and sings “The Light of Christ”, holding aloft the Paschal Candle to symbolise Christ bringing light into the world and overcoming the darkness of the grave. While the minister sings the Exsultet (see below), the congregation passes round the light by individual candles, and the whole building becomes aglow with candlelight breaking through the darkness. Even as I recall this moment, I see in my mind’s eye the thrill of growing light and the expectation of Jesus’ resurrection through God’s power.
In the early days of the church, baptism normally took place on Easter Eve, so the version of service I use includes a renewal of baptismal promises, spoken by all present in wholehearted affirmation of faith. Some churches lead straight into Holy Communion at this point, but I have always preferred to wait until the morning sunshine of Easter Day.
The Exsultet (excerpts from the ancient 7th Century Hymn of Praise)
Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
O Universe, dance around God’s throne!
Jesus Christ our King is risen!
Sound the victorious trumpet of salvation!
Rejoice, O earth, in glory, revealing the splendour of your creation,
Radiant in the brightness of your triumphant King!
Christ has conquered! Now his life and glory fill you!
Darkness vanishes for ever!
Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!
The risen Saviour, our Lord of life, shines upon you!
Let all God’s people sing and shout for joy.
This is the night when Jesus Christ, harrowing hell,
broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.
This is the night when all who believe in him are freed from sin,
restored to grace and holiness, and share the victory of Christ.
Therefore, heavenly Father, in this our Easter joy,
Grant that this Easter Candle may make our darkness light.
I won’t be able to lead a Paschal Vigil on Saturday evening in church this year, but I will certainly celebrate it in our own house, and vigorously affirm “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
Click here to see the Paschal Vigil order of service https://banburystmary.churchdesk.com/blog/52714
Sarah Bourne – 8th April 2020 email@example.com