For the past 5 years, I have had the privilege of being the organist for the Nashotah House Theological Seminary Easter Vigil, as I served as associate organist there while my husband was a student, and we live near enough for me to continue to participate even now. This year, when I was invited, though I really REALLY wanted to play, we decided that we would instead attend an Easter Vigil where we could sit together as a family. (Scott is beginning a new job as Rector of Trinity Church in Baraboo, WI in June, and we are eager to participate in their historic Easter Vigil once we start there. More on that in a future post!)
So we all piled into the van last night – all SIX of us, from 7 months on up – and drove about an hour to downtown Milwaukee to the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints. Getting there on time, with babies fed, children pottied, and all coloring books/reading material in place was no small task. But we did it. It’s a 2-hour service – and this was a shortened one! – so we settled in.
And oh. my. word.
I am so glad that we did!
(and the kids did great. that helped!!)
The Easter Vigil is, without a doubt, my most favorite service of the church year – the holiest night – the night when the drama that is Eucharistic worship comes to a passionate climax. We begin with the lighting of the New Fire outside — the church is mostly dark as dusk has fallen… the sound and smell of the fire are distinct in the chilly [ok. COLD. it was like 37 degrees] spring air… from that fire, after prayer, the new Paschal Candle for the year is lit and slowly processed into the church, as the deacon sings “The Light of Christ” and the congregation replies “thanks be to God”. We all have candles, and the light from the Paschal Candle is shared with the room, one candle at a time.
It is in this hushed light that the Deacon then comes to the front of the room and sings the Exsultet – pretty much the reason to go to a vigil. It kicks into high Theological gear at the bold section near the end – the part where the goosebumps start for me:
Then the Deacon, or other person appointed, standing near the Candle,
sings or says the Exsultet, as follows
Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels,
and let your trumpets shout Salvation
for the victory of our mighty King.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.
Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church,
and let your holy courts, in radiant light,
resound with the praises of your people.
All you who stand near this marvelous and holy flame,
pray with me to God the Almighty
for the grace to sing the worthy praise of this great light;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with him,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Lord be with you.
Answer And also with you.
Deacon Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
Answer It is right to give him thanks and praise.
It is truly right and good, always and everywhere, with our
whole heart and mind and voice, to praise you, the invisible,
almighty, and eternal God, and your only-begotten Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who
at the feast of the Passover paid for us the debt of Adam’s sin,
and by his blood delivered your faithful people.
This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children
of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the
Red Sea on dry land.
This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered
from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness
This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell,
and rose victorious from the grave.
How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your
mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you
gave a Son.
How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and
sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy
to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings
peace and concord.
How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined
and man is reconciled to God.
Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this
candle in your honor. May it shine continually to drive away
all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no
setting, find it ever burning–he who gives his light to all
creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
Keep in mind that this is one deacon, singing unaccompanied, the most glorious
chant melody – oh man. It’s fabulous.
Salvation history is recounted through the reading of God’s holy acts in the OT – from creation to the flood, to a new heart, a sea parted – it’s amazing. Then the celebrant – the priest leading the service – stands in the still-darkened room and sings:
Alleluia, Christ is Risen
and we reply
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.
At that point, Lent is over and we begin the official par-tay.
Like you, I have several hymns that say EASTER to me – Jesus Christ is Risen Today, The Strife is O’er,
Low in the Grave He Lay – but since becoming a worshipper at an Episcopal church, this is the hymn that screams ALLEUIA to me – without even saying the word. For the festal victory is now assured – Christ the victim is now Christ the priest – we are ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven because Christ, the living Manna from above, has won the complete victory over sin and death.
Death’s sting?? GONE.
Grave’s victory?? GONE.
So even at the grave we can make our song –
At the Lamb’s high feast we sing
praise to our victorious King,
who hath washed us in the tide
flowing from his pierced side;
praise we him, whose love divine
gives his sacred Blood for wine,
gives his Body for the feast,
Christ the victim, Christ the priest.
Where the Paschal blood is poured,
death’s dark angel sheathes his sword;
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
through the wave that drowns the foe.
Praise we Christ, whose blood was shed,
Paschal victim, Paschal bread;
with sincerity and love
eat we manna from above.
Mighty victim from on high,
hell’s fierce powers beneath thee lie;
thou hast conquered in the fight,
thou hast brought us life and light:
now no more can death appall,
now no more the grave enthrall;
thou hast opened paradise,
and in thee thy saints shall rise.
Easter triumph, Easter joy,
These alone do sin destroy;
from sin’s power do thou set free
souls newborn, O Lord, in thee.
Hymns of glory songs of praise,
Risen Lord, to thee we raise;
Holy Father, praise to thee,
with the Spirit, ever be.
Words: Latin, 1632;
trans. Robert Campbell, 1849Music: Salzburg, St. George’s Windsor
Meter: 77 77 D