The first time I attended an Easter vigil, it was because I had made one of the girls who was being baptized or received into full communion at the service, I don’t remember now which, Catholic. I had made a bunch of people Catholic that year, or, at least, Anglican. I’m still not sure how. The nondenominational church I attended in New York City at the time, which was during college, had put me in charge of a small group. We read “The Purpose Driven Life.” We read “Blue Like Jazz.” We read “Mere Christianity.” And then everyone became Catholic. One girl, who had been Catholic, became Mormon. I had nothing to do with that.
So a couple of us from the group went to Easter vigil to support this girl becoming Catholic. About a million people became Catholic at the service, I remember, because it lasted late into the night, and afterward, there was a reception in the basement where little old ladies kept insisting we try the desserts they’d made, and the priest kept circling with a bottle of wine, chiding, “Your glass is empty!”
Easter vigil is the first service of the church year to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It’s the service in which Catholic and some other churches historically baptize or receive adults into full communion, in which everybody first can say “Alleluia” again, one of the many things abstained from during Lent. In many of those traditions, it is reportedly the most important service or Mass of the year, or at least the most beautiful.
So if you only are going to make it to one Mass a year, Easter vigil is a good one to make it. And since I am Protestant (specifically, Luthyterian) and usually go to my Protestant church Sunday mornings, that is about how many Masses I attend. And I like Masses. The smell of the incense, the sound of the ancient Latin words reverberating within the walls, magnificently displaying our Savior and our brothers and sisters who have come before us, the act of asking each other and the saints to pray for us, all remind me of the nearness, the splendor and the mystery of our God, who exists outside of time and space and denominations.
Last year, I got Joel and my then-roommate Kristin to Easter vigil for the first time at St. Mary of the Angels in Chicago, where I forgot you are not supposed to wear sleeveless dresses. This year, Kristin asked if we could go again, and I remembered sleeves. But we arrived late, and I flung open the heavy wooden doors to the smell of incense and campfire — and to the great shock of the priest and ministers chanting prayers over the paschal fire in the foyer of the church. We couldn’t walk down the aisle ahead of their procession, I figured, so we watched from the wings as they blessed the fire and prepared the paschal candle, scribing the Alpha and Omega into the warm wax. I watched as they dropped a live coal into the incense burner, a thurible, I think, spooning incense over it. I waited for a seraph to touch the coal to my lips, like Isaiah: “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sins atoned for” (Isaiah 6:6-7). Or maybe for my face to melt off, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-style. We slunk in the back, after the procession had started, and somebody handed us a candle.
The Service of Light is the first part of the Mass, the part where we all light our candles from the paschal candle carried by a deacon through the church. We then blew through the Service of the Word, since we only did three or four of the seven readings. The Mass closes with the Holy Eucharist, which Joel and Kristin and I, as Protestants, can’t take part in anyway. My favorite part of Easter vigil, though, is the part that comes right before that, the Christian Initiation and the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, because this involves renouncing the devil and getting splashed with water from the baptismal font.
I also love Easter vigil because there are two stories in the Bible about waiting on Jesus that take place in the week before Christ’s crucifixion.
One is the parable of the 10 virgin Jesus tells in Matthew 25:1-13. In it, 10 virgins are waiting for a bridegroom to arrive, for a wedding banquet to begin. Five bring extra oil for their lamps, five do not, and they leave to buy more to keep their lamps burning. While they are gone, the bridegroom comes, the doors to the banquet open and shut, and Jesus warns, “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or hour.”
The other takes place just before Jesus is arrested on Maundy Thursday, just after He has eaten His Last Supper with his disciples, in Matthew 26:36-46. Knowing what’s coming, He takes them all to Gethsemane to pray. “Sit here while I go over there and pray,” He tells them. And, “Stay here and keep watch with me.” Instead, they fall asleep. They fall asleep three times. Jesus keeps waking them up and telling them things like, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”
So it feels good for the two-and-a-half hours of Easter vigil to actually keep watch for Jesus. Granted, Jesus wasn’t talking about Easter vigil. He was talking about always. But two-and-a-half hours feels doable, tangible, real. It feels like a glimpse of this thing we are doing all the time. It is a reminder we are doing it, the same way the smell of the incense is a reminder God is near. He is near enough to breathe, and yet He is coming back.
“Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or hour.”