SMC – Easter Vigil 2019
Here we are at the Easter Vigil, but what is a vigil? When we keep vigil, we watch for something. The wonderful antiphon for the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon, which Christians say each day at Night Prayer is “Save us, Lord, while we are awake, protect us while we sleep, that we may keep watch with Christ, and rest with him in peace.” The phrase we use of “keep watch” means to keep a vigil. It is the pattern given to us by the Lord of Heaven and earth when He says, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not known on what day your Lord is coming. … If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Then you also must be ready.” (Matthew 24:43). Remember too the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids with their lamps (Matthew 25:1-13).
Are you keeping watch with the Lord or is your eye, your heart, your mind really somewhere else, pondering something else. I was livid the other day when two people sat next to each other and wittered away throughout the entire funeral. So rude, apart from anything else, but also a sign that they were not really attending to God nor indeed in their prayers for the person whose funeral it was. They were not waiting for the Lord.
The Christian community in her first days created vigils in a technical sense, being a service that would happen after Evening Prayer and lead into the reading of a series of psalms and longer scriptural readings, the idea being that folk would be able to attend this after work at about what might was then called the ninth hour, about 3pm, the hour on which the Lord died on Friday. There would be silence between the readings and a sense of reflection.
The Easter Vigil that we celebrate this evening is the main one to survive the reforms of the Christian liturgies that have taken place over the centuries, hence we had at the beginning a calm opportunity to pray through the psalms and to hear larger chunks of the Bible in succession. Thus we keep watch with the Lord. The Lord’s presence with us is indicated by the burning of the newly blessed Paschal Candle, which stands tall, burning brightly in a dim church, as the light of Christ is to burn in our lives.
One of the earliest witnesses to the Easter Vigil we have in the Church’s tradition is a nun called Egeria who went on her travels to Jerusalem in the 380s. My experience teaches me that many who go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land take with them a tea pot as the hotels don’t really have them, but I’m not sure whether Egeria took one with her or not. A copy of her travel diary still exists, copies detailing her thoughts from sixteen hundred years ago. It’s wonderful to consider! Her comments on the Easter Vigil are brief because it was exactly what she knew from home because they had vigils all the time where she was from, possibly Spain, we don’t know.
In other words what we do this evening was the common experience of late Saturday or maybe even daily worship for most Christians in the early church. That includes the lighting of candles, such as we also have at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The one difference at the Easter Vigil is the solemn blessing of the Paschal Candle, which I mentioned earlier. The word Paschal is banded around a lot at this time of the Church’s year. There’s some dispute as to where the word comes from, maybe Passover, as in when the Lord promised His people in Egypt that if they marked our their doorposts with blood of a passover lamb, He would not let the Destroyer come and strike them down (Exodus 12). But there is also the possibility that it means passage. The text which Christians have anciently read on this night is the one we heard earlier from Exodus 14 and 15, with the people of God passing through the waters of the Red Sea from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. It is wondered if Paschal refers to this passage. To freedom, to life.
Christians don’t really do holy places, unlike Muslims who place an emphasis on Mecca as the place where Mohammed lived. The point about the holy place is that Jesus is kept there in the Blessed Sacrament and therefore we encounter Him wherever the Sacrament is reserved, denoted by a white candle burning. During these days when the disciples discovered the tomb was empty, a whole host of emotions were stirred. Peter and John’s excitement; Mary Magdalene’s tears of sadness followed by relief; the burning hearts of Cleopas and the other Emmaus-bound disciple. There will be a yearning within us too and we will long to spend time with the Risen Lord so we can learn and hear His will and His comfort. We encounter the Risen Jesus, who is risen, no longer dead and who is no longer separate from us but because of the baptismal promises we go to renew now, His life we share! Alleluia!