Getting in tune with the main event: Easter Vigil and Holy Week

At sunset on Saturday, the people gather outside around the “new fire,” with that tall, ornate candle that stands behind the baptismal font – known as the “Easter” or “Paschal Candle.” Pascha, the older name for Easter, means literally “Passover,” as in Jesus “passed over” from death to life – as do we, by grace, with him. The word “Pascha” maybe conveys the experience of Jesus’ resurrection beginning in darkness with the light of hope, before everyone breaks out in the “Alleluia!”

“Fire” by Chelsea Curtis

From the New Fire, the Paschal Candle is lit and blessed, the light is spread to others – this is the original “candlelight” service. Someone may sing from Psalm 27: “the Lord is my light and salvation, whom shall I fear?” Another may sing from the song from the early church, known as the Exsultet:

“Rejoice, now, all heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!  Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ is risen!  Celebrate the divine mysteries with exultation; and for so great a victory, sound the trumpet of salvation.  Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,  radiant in the brightness of your king!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes forever!

 The gathering becomes a procession, to where the stories will be heard (for us, the fellowship hall) – the great stories about new life, the kind children are likely to hear first: the creation of the world, Pharaoh chasing Israel through the sea, Noah’s ark are some of the possibilities. We’ll hear four, not so much read as conveyed through story in fun ways by our Sunday School – and sung, with the help of choir and folkjammers. Then, it’s time for the main event. We process into the sanctuary, singing the first “Alleluias,” to hear the Easter Gospel, and to celebrate Baptism.

Photo by Chelsea Curtis

       In the early church (at least in the West), the day before Easter was the most important day for Baptisms – or even to remember, as Paul says: “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” At St Luke, there will be people joining the church on this day. All the stories, about God’s creation and care for us, the defeat of darkness, turns out to lead into what God does for us, in our lives!

      So, does all this sound familiar? Maybe not – since it’s only been about 30-40 years that Lutherans have begun to reclaim this tradition, and these things take a while to catch on! (see “history of Easter” pg 3) Why the Vigil? One of the key factors was the realization that we no longer live in a culture where pretty much everyone goes to church. As it turns out, our “main event,” Easter – isn’t just for “insiders” but all about how God embraces people from all walks of life – not just crowded in the pew on Sunday morning, but reborn in the waters of Baptism and the family of faith.

Evangelism isn’t just about conveying the bullet points of Christian teaching, but joining together as we are immersed in the stories, symbols and experiences of Christ’s Spirit. One of our oldest traditions is this “crash course” in Christian teaching AND experience that we know as Holy Week.. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter in particular were traditionally thought of as one worship service that went for three days, the “Triduum.” The symbols include darkness, light, fire, a meal, a bath, tree and garden, and more – in the presence of a loving family. The stories we’ll hear include creation, exodus, passover, the prophecies of the Messiah, the last supper, Jesus’ command to love one another, the passion and execution of Jesus, and his resurrection.

So join us! Get acquainted or reacquainted with God’s love for us in Christ.

A history of Holy Week
Source: Gail Ramshaw and Mons Teig, Using Evangelical Worship Volume Three: Keeping Time: the Church’s Years. Augsburg, 2009. pg 94ff

Early church – by middle of the second century, Christians celebrate “Pascha,” meaning “Passover,” connecting the lamb eaten by the Israelites about the flee Egypt with Jesus as the lamb of God slain to save us. By late second and third centuries, the focus of Pascha shifts to the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, connecting this event to Jesus’ resurrection and our Baptism. So the Jewish seder had evolved into the Christian vigil of Easter. By the fourth century, this Vigil was drawn out into the “Three Days”: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil – seen as one worship event, focused around welcoming new people into the church through Baptism. (Palm Sunday seems to have appeared in the late 4th century).

Middle ages – the speedy baptism of infants throughout the year (maybe threatened by infant mortality) disconnects Baptism from Christ’s resurrection. Rich liturgical practice gets moved to the monasteries and convents. More focus put on the sufferings of Christ, attention to personal sin (and private penitence) rather than assembly worship. New rituals spring up, especially in the late middle ages: “Stations of the Cross” (Franciscan), “Tenebrae” (Monastic), “Three hours” (Peruvian Jesuit) – many of these rituals focusing on Jesus’ crucifixion as an event separated from Easter. (Apparently, to this day Good Friday is a much more popular church going day in Germany than Easter Sunday). So also, the celebration of Easter was disconnected from Jesus’ Passion – the happiness of Easter about having moved beyond the intense grief and guilt (whereas the cross is meant as part of the good news!).

20th century – various churches (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal / Anglican) begin to recover the tradition of the Three Days – with the way Jesus’ death, resurrection, and our transformation are held together in one joyful event. Where the medieval traditions of Holy Week focused on the life of Jesus, this older tradition “stresses instead that the church is the community born again by the resurrection of Christ, who annually renews its commitment to the baptized life.”

Getting in tune with one another

At a recent retreat, church council members and liaisonsvwere asked to think about experiences of transformation: when everything changed for me and I became a new person in some way. “What happened to enable or provoke this experience? Did it have anything to do with church? Faith? Compassion?”

These questions came out of a book we have been reading together, “Transforming Congregational Culture” by Anthony Robinson. Robinson talks about how churches once functioned as places to learn morality, to organize opportunities for charity, and especially as centers for family and community – all important roles, says Robinson, but today you can find these opportunities apart from the church. It’s time for us to reclaim
the church’s central mission: to help each other find new life – “transformation”- together in God’s grace.

That day at the retreat council members began sharing stories of transformation, whether in their own lives related to work and relationships, or even what people have seen happen at St Luke through God’s power. Time ran out pretty quickly. We just scratched the surface. And how many more powerful stories are there to hear at St Luke? That question was raised in other ways as the conversation turned to planning. “Do we really know what people at St Luke are experiencing? What they might be struggling with, or what God has to do with it?” We talked about ideas for a new Women’s Bible Study and a way for young parents to get connected. One of our youngest council members even expressed interest in doing a St Luke History project – interviewing some of our long time members, recording stories of hard and inspiring times, as a way to understand the community better and feel more at home.

When I hear your “testimony” about how you experienced God present or absent, I see my own experience in a new light – that itself can be transforming. How can we learn to do this better?

Let “transformation” be the theme for Lent and Holy Week this year. Indeed, from the beginning the purpose of Lent was to encourage new “catechumens” to seek new life, so they could understand what they were saying at their baptism (at the Easter Vigil): “I renounce the devil … I believe in God.” In this spirit, during Lenten soup suppers we’ll ask five people to share their testimonies of transformation.

In general, as a Pastor I have come to believe that the experiences and the questions that are most powerful – that people most need to hear – are often also the hardest things to say. God give us the voice to say these stories and insights, and the ears to listen!