In liturgical churches the Easter Vigil, sometimes called the Great Vigil, is regarded as the first celebration of Easter. It is held, however, in the darkness between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter morning.
One year throughout the Lenten season, I attended services at a downtown Anglican cathedral in the city where I was living. I had participated in Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, so when I arrived to keep Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday evening I was already prepared to find the altar stripped and unlighted, the previously consecrated Sacrament removed and hidden. The cathedral itself appeared stark and unadorned. The sanctuary was silent, the lights dimmed, the soaring Gothic ceiling remote and dark with shadow.
The music spoke of Christ’s Passion with solemn beauty and deep sadness. The splendid cathedral choir sang portions of the Requiem by Brahms.
The Gospel reading was, as I remember, from Mark:
And he [Joseph] brought fine linen, and took him [Jesus] down and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulcher which had been hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulcher. And Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joses, beheld where he was laid. (Mark 15:46-47)In the progression of the service that night there came a period of complete silence. The lights dimmed further into what seemed to be utter darkness. Like small fragments of fallen stars, only tiny floor lights remained to mark the main aisle to the sanctuary door. Worshipers sat in the dark silence. Waiting.
As I waited time seemed to slow and stretch. Reality consisted only of the darkness and the silence and the waiting.
But after a while as I sat in the darkness and silence, I realized I was inwardly fidgeting. What are we doing, I asked myself impatiently. But I knew: embracing the darkness remains a necessary prerequisite to entering the light. And in that understanding, I began to discipline my restless self to become quiet and open to the silent darkness.
Then, for the first time, in that darkness and silence, my limbic brain began to understand something I had long known cognitively: Jesus is the light of the world, just as He told us. Without Him there is no Word, no light, only the silence of God and the darkness of death.
I have no idea how long I had sat there when suddenly into the darkness and silence came the crashing sound of cymbals and the responsive deep drum roll of the great tympani.
I think I must have jumped six inches off the pew. The hair on the back of my neck literally stood up. The air, the dark, and the people around me were filled with an electrified expectancy.
Then from the back of the sanctuary came the soft wavering light of the newly lighted Paschal Candle, a small moving glow in the darkness. The Celebrant led the processional up the main aisle of the cathedral to the chancel, the Paschal Candle still the only light. And in the Candle-lit darkness as the Celebrant held the Candle high, he paused three times to say “The light of Christ.” And, speaking our hearts out of the dark, each time there came a great drum roll of sound into the silence as we responded, “Thanks be to God.”
Thanks be to God.
On Easter I take joy in the traditional greeting of Christians: “Alleluia. Christ is risen,” and in the traditional response, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.”
But since the year I kept that Easter Vigil I say this with renewed gratefulness and deep awe.
It was a great battle that first Saturday. There was nothing automatic or easy, no playing, no pretend in the duel Jesus fought with death and the powers of that terrible darkness. "He descended into hell," the old creed tells us.
Sitting in the dark and the silence of the cathedral that night I sensed for a moment something of the terrifying consequence for us all if He had not prevailed. Death would have triumphed. Life would have been forever held captive to death if that Paschal light had not broken out triumphantly into the darkness of the world.
Thinking with you this Easter, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia,” and, with you, responding joyously, “The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia.”
Thanks be to God.
Seeking with you to live out the Resurrection in ways that light up the world.
See you next week.