A case for the Great Vigil. All of it.

The Great Vigil of Easter is just past, and I presided at this liturgy at Christ Church Cathedral last Saturday night, March 31. There was the lighting of new fire, the many readings from the Old Testament, renewal of baptismal vows, and the first Eucharist of Easter. The Vigil stands arguably as the most important liturgy on Prayer Book 1979, taking more pages and bandwidth than any other in the calendar. It is also among the least utilized, at least in the fullness that the rubrics describe, having never “caught on” in many places. Often in Episcopal Churches the liturgy comes off begrudgingly and minimally, preserving the triumphalism of Easter Day, that vestige from Christendom, as the great celebration of the feast. Yet the Vigil is crucial to robust baptismal practices and theology.


Many clergy and lay planners resist the Vigil because they fear that it will be boring. Let me be blunt: If the Vigil is not boring, then you are not doing it right. That last sentence is admittedly an over-statement, but I hope that I make a point. The liturgy, properly planned and carried-out, overwhelms the people with the enormity of scripture’s witness. It is too much to take in—which is how God has acted in ages past, acts now, and will act into the future.  That is, God’s mighty acts, by their nature and number, are too much to take in.


Shaped by the instantaneous and the double-click impatience, the cultural norm in North America rejects anything that might be boring, and thus the Vigil often does not get its due.  Although the service provides nine readings from the Old Testament, the rubric (BCP, 288) stipulates that there be a minimum of two passages, one of which must be the Exodus story of deliverance at the Red Sea.  Two readings hardly a vigil make, but the saying holds true for some: If the minimum isn’t good enough, then it wouldn’t be the minimum.


The full service of readings, all nine of them, with Psalms, canticles, silence, and collects following each, functions much in the same was as does chant from the ecumenical monastic community at Taizé in France. That style uses a simple, melodic line of chant, repeated again and again, which serves to quiet the mind—to bore us, if you will—thereby leaving us open to something else entirely: the presence of God. Leaders often lose their nerve in using Taizé chant and will stop far too soon in the repetition. Three times and out. Forty-three times is more like it, the overlay of descant lending texture to the chant—but leaders continue to lose their nerve. And the people lose the possibility inherent in the chant sung at length. So it goes with the Vigil; too often we lose our nerve.


“Let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, how he saved his people in ages past; and let us pray that our God will bring each of us to the fullness of redemption.” (BCP, 288) These words introduce the long service of readings at the Vigil and invite us to hear what great things God has done in ages past. Modernity’s project with scripture is not so much to hear it as it is to interpret it, sometimes to within an inch of its life. Modern approaches cannot cope with the sheer volume of scripture heaped onto the people during the Great Vigil, so those of us schooled in all the tools of critical interpretation (and I am one so schooled) might want to throw up our hands and make the Vigil much shorter and more manageable, something compressed enough at least to interpret. To do so, however, is to abandon a different kind power that scripture has. If we cannot interpret it, then perhaps it will interpret us. Like waves washing against the shoreline, the scriptures wash against the hearers. They shape us, and not the other way round. We are do not in control during the Vigil, and perhaps that is another reason for the uneasiness.


This sensibility for the Vigil is not completely different from the classical Anglican use of scripture in the Daily Office. Thomas Cranmer and subsequent divines set down long stretches of readings, in course, for the edification and the shaping of believers. The Office lecitionary covered most of scripture’s expanse during the passage of the year. Diverging from the self-described godly believers (later called puritans), the Prayer Book divines provided no explicit place for a sermon during the Office. People eventually cobbled out a place for preaching, but it was not until BCP 1979 that permission to do so became explicit. (BCP 1979 also allows a homily after any of the vigil readings. I have never heard of any community doing such a thing.) The godly believers invariably insisted on a sermon whenever scripture was read. The divines, on the other hand, trusted scripture to have its way with the hearers, and allowed its reading without commentary or interpretation.


To sit as a gathered community under the authority of an enormous scriptural witness provides a crucial element in the Vigil. As witnessed in the classical shape of the Office, this is not an entirely new thought in Anglicanism. Sitting together, listening and waiting together, are crucial to the Vigil’s shape.  Keeping vigil together bears witness that the salvation which God is unleashing is communal in nature and scope; to call it communal is in fact too small, for God is at work in redeeming an entire universe.


The lynchpin in salvation’s story is God’s glorious resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead. What God accomplishes in Jesus is God’s will for the cosmos, and for us. What God does in Jesus recapitulates what has gone before and anticipates what God is still doing, both now and into the age to come.


Baptism properly belongs in this context, set amid the rehearsal of all these, God’s mighty deeds. The neophyte, bathed, anointed, and communed, embodies in this present moment the saving acts of God. We rightly understand baptism as the most recent of these acts. Easter—Pascha—interprets baptism; and baptism interprets Easter. In the Prayer Book, the rite for baptism follows the rite for the Great Vigil. These two belong together, dual expressions of the Paschal mystery, which the Church also celebrates week by week in bread broken and wine poured out. It is well known that in the early Church, the Vigil was both the normative and the usual occasion for baptism. Baptism at any other time was not unheard of, but it was extraordinary. There is every reason to recapture the practice, and a lavish Vigil and robust baptismal practices and theology belong together.


I have asked the Diocese of Missouri to engage in a season of baptismal renewal, and to that end I have appointed a Force on Baptism to engage the matter, make recommendations, and report back to Diocesan Convention in November 2018.


I write above that if the Vigil is not boring, then you are not doing it right. Timelessness probably is the better word, for timelessness is the quality of boredom transformed. The Vigil provides a window into the timelessness which belongs to God, by whose grace it also becomes our destiny—grace made manifest through the waters of baptism.



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